The Ardent Epicure

An Ode to the Pleasures of Food

5:56 AM

Beef Cuts - What's the difference?

Posted by Truffle Shuffle

Types of Steak

For the third installment in my series on steaks, I would like to share a little information about the different types of steaks.  While there are quite a few different retail beef cuts used in various parts of the world, for the purposes of this post, I will be discussing some of the more popular cuts used for grilling steaks in America.
If you missed my posts on grading beef and aged beef, check them out here:

Food Tip - Beef Grading
Aged Steaks - Tender and Juicy

Okay, so most of us have taken a trip down to the store for a summer barbecue, or for a romantic evening meal at home, to pick up a couple of nice cuts of steak.  Most of us have also ordered various steaks in restaurants, from diners to fine steakhouses.  But have you ever wondered which of those cuts to choose?  Even after the worry about marbling and aging, will it even matter if you pick the wrong cut?  Which cuts make the best steaks?  Well, I'm glad you asked!
There are a couple of things that distinguish the different cuts of meat from each other.  First of all, these are cut from different areas of the cattle, and since the muscle in each area is not necessarily the same in texture , the resulting steaks can vary dramatically.  Also, the different cuts might be very different sizes, and may cost various amounts, depending on the quality of the cut. 

Here is a listing of some of the most popular cuts used for steak, and a little information about the qualities of each:

This is probably one of the least expensive and most lean pieces of beef that is used for steak.  This cut tends to be a bit more tough than others, and really doesn't have the necessary texture to make a good steak on its own.  Cut from the sirloin section, this is a fairly large piece that does well when sliced up or cubed, and used in the preparation of something else, such as a burrito or a fajita or a sandwich.  While tri-tip may not make the best steak, it is very popular in barbecue and other applications where it can be cooked a long time until tender.

Top Sirloin
A popular cut of beef, this is a less expensive option that still makes a nice steak.  Leaner than many other cuts, this piece cut from the loin section is moderately tender, and makes a nice grilling steak.  However, you will not find it to be as tender or as rich and juicy as some of the more expensive cuts. There are also other pieces of sirloin cut from the bottom sirloin, which are larger, and have an inferior flavor and texture.  Therefore, steaks simply marked as "sirloin" may not be top sirloin.  All-in-all, this is a fair cut, and makes a good steak on a budget.

Flank Steak 
Cut from (you guessed it, the flank section), this is one of the least expensive pieces of meat you will find that are appropriate for grilling.  This is a very lean, somewhat tough cut that is often used for London broil.  This type of steak is best grilled marinated or cooked using wet cooking methods such as braising, and is often tenderized due to its relatively tough texture.  This type of steak is often used for products such as fajitas, and it doesn't make the best grilled steak; there are better options.  However, it is very inexpensive.

Skirt Steak
Cut from the plate and flank, this cut is very similar to the flank steak, but with a little more flavor.  It is still fairly tough compared to many other steaks, and is often marinated and used in other applications, such as tacos or fajitas.

T-Bone Steak
This piece is cut from the loin section, and is a very popular cut.  This piece contains a piece of strip steak, and a piece of tenderloin, with a t-shaped bone in the middle.  It is a large steak, and fairly tender and juicy, with a lot of flavor.  The smaller tenderloin piece of very tender, and higher-quality t-bone steaks will have a larger piece of tenderloin (also see: Porterhouse).  This is a very nice cut of meat, but with a lot of bone.

Actually a type of t-bone steak, a porterhouse is usually a very large steak that has a larger section of tenderloin than a typical t-bone.  This is a very tasty, expensive steak, and is one of the most prized of all cuts.  It has a nice balance of tenderness, flavor, and size.

Often known as filet mignon (or Delmonico), this is the most tender and the most expensive cut of beef.  It is round and boneless, cut from a small section of the loin area, and is usually rather small compared to many other cuts.  While not the most flavorful of cuts, this piece is prized for its supreme tenderness, making it one of the most sought-after steaks available.  This steak takes very well to grilling, and is best seared at very high heat and served rare, especially when a very high-quality piece is used.

Flat Iron Steak
This is a fairly popular cut that is very lean, and usually served in small portions.  It is not too expensive, but is quite flavorful, if not the most tender of cuts.  Cut from the chuck section and also known as top shoulder, this cut can be found in many steakhouses, and may be considered a moderate piece of beef.

Perhaps the most flavorful of cuts, this is one of the most prized steaks available.  Cut from the rib section, this piece may be found with or without a bone, though many consider the bone-in steak to retain more flavor when grilling (though the steak will weigh more).  This cut is also served well when grilled at high heat and served rare or medium-rare, and high-quality cuts will result in an extremely flavorful steak.
Hint: check out our post on grilling two wonderful ribeye steaks here (pictured below).

There are many other cuts of beef, from chuck (often used for ground beef), to rib roast, to beef shank.  However, for the purposes of grilling a steak, I think the most common options will be those listed above.

If you have the ability and the budget, try to use high-quality, well-marbled steaks.  It will make all the difference.  Also, be sure to cook your steaks properly, to seal in the juices and retain their natural flavor. 
My picks for the best cuts of steak for grilling are:

For tenderness: Filet Mignon (tenderloin)
For flavor: Ribeye
For size and balance of tenderness/flavor: Porterhouse

All-in-all, my favorite cut has to be the ribeye.  This is the king of steaks!  However, there is nothing quite like the melt-in-your-mouth tenderness of a great filet either!  And the porterhouse gives you some of the best of both worlds, and bigger portions to boot!

Feel free to comment or ask questions if you have any.  Happy eating!

*Please note that as with many of our non-recipe posts in which we are not cooking something specifically to post it, the images here have been obtained from various places online, to provide a visual connection to the explanations provided here. I do not claim ownership of any of these images.

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