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Cut

The cut for Achieving Steak Perfection

LOS ANGELES, California Wars have been waged over lesser issues:  which cut of beef achieves steak perfection?  This section explains the difference between a steak and a roast, the various cuts of beef steaks, and which cuts make the best steaks.

Note:  This lengthy article will be broken into a series of smaller articles and will follow the format of the Cook's Thesaurus for Beef Loin Cuts and Beef Rib Cuts.

Meat is a muscle

The barbecue community's authority, Danny Gaulden, explains how to barbecue a rib eye roast in the BBQ FAQ.

Since little can be added when the Master speaks, this note concerns grilling steak.  

This will include an explanation of the various types of steak, the cooking temperatures (external and internal), various issues concerning marinades, rubs and mops, and related matters.  

All meat is a muscle.  Some meat when cooked has a strong, meaty flavor and is tender.  The relative condition of the muscle determines the meat's flavor and tenderness.  Well-used muscles, like the shoulder muscles, will have a very strong flavor but will be very tough, so these meats are not good for grilling.  Little-used muscles, like the tenderloin, have a milder meat flavor, but they are tender.  Most steak veterans prefer a steak that is not as mild flavored as the tenderloin and not as tough as a sirloin.

To begin, one should note that there are 22 separate cuts of beef steak, which are described below and on this website.  

Definition of steak

Many people do not have a clear understanding of the word "steak", so they misuse it.  

A "steak" means simply any meat which is cut across the muscle into a thick slice, with or without bone, and which is intended to be cooked quickly by broiling or otherwise.  Most often, the word refers to a high-quality cut of meat, such a prime- or choice-grade tenderloin or rib-eye cut.

The word steak is often used to refer to beef, although lamb and other meat may also be used for steak.  In Texas, throughout most of the United States and the Americas, and in Europe, however, the word steak means beef, and only beef.

Definition of roast

The word "roast" is usually used to denote any cut of meat which is intended to be cooked as a whole, to serve more than one person, and often at roasting temperatures (about 350F).

Roasts by definition are intended to be "roasted", which is the method of dry oven-cooking.  In contrast, tougher cuts of meat require a moist cooking method, such as braising. 

Rib definitions

In the United States, the cut of beef known as the rib roast comes from the rib section, between the short loin and chuck. roast comes in three styles:  the standing rib roast, the rolled rib roast, and the rib eye roast.  Another popular style is called "prime rib".  Cooks should know the meaning of each of these terms.  

The standing rib roast includes the entire roast and at least three ribs.  There are 7 ribs in total.  Butchers will often cut the bones from the roast and then tie them together for cooking, so that carving the roast is easier.  The standing rib roast should be roasted with the ribs on the bottom (this position is called "standing"), so that the top layer of fat melts and bastes the meat.

The rolled rib roast is a boneless rib roast which is tied into a tight, cylindrical shape.  This style is not desirable by veteran cooks, however, because, when cooked without the bones, the rib roast has less flavor, yet the price per pound is usually more than offset by the absence of the ribs.

The rib eye roast is the most desirable and tender portion of the rib section, so it is usually also the most expensive.  Because this cut is so tender, it is best when either smoked (see Danny Gaulden's recipe) or grilled (see below), and not oven roasted (see rolled rib roast explanation, above).

The prime rib is a label which is used more often in restaurants in the United States than in butcher shops.  Literally, to be a "prime rib", the cut must be a rib roast (usually a standing rib roast, since this roast style has the best flavor when oven-roasted) which has been USDA graded as prime, the highest of the eight quality grades of beef.  As explained in the article on grading, the USDA grades beef based on the cut surface of the rib eye roast in relation to the maturity of the carcass.  As a result, a prime-grade rib eye is expected to be far more consistent in taste and tenderness than a prime-grade cut from any other section.

Bone-in rib steak (entrecote)

Not to be confused with the rib-eye steak, the rib steak is a bone-in steak, which is cut from the rib roast.  The rib steak has much more bone and fat than the bone-in rib-eye steak.  The rib steak is also known as the entrecote.  This is also sometimes erroneously called the club steak (which is a steak cut from the loin).  See the Cook's Thesaurus on Beef Rib Cuts.

Boneless rib-eye steak

The boneless rib-eye steak comes from the rib-eye muscle that runs from the rib, top loin and top sirloin, just inside the ribs.  Therefore, the rib-eye steak is one of the most tender, flavorful and desirable steaks.  The rib-eye steak is the boneless cut of beef from the rib section, between the short loin and chuck.  See the Cook's Thesaurus on Beef Rib Cuts.

Other names for the boneless rib-eye steak include the Spencer steak, market steak, fillet steak, beauty steak, and Delmonico steak (but see the accompanying story about the true Delmonico steak).  Id.

Veteran cooks prefer to purchase either the full (10 to 12 lb) or half (6 lb) rib eye roast, so that they can slice the steaks to their preferred width.

The best rib eye steak for grilling over wood coals to rare or medium-rare is a USDA Prime- or Choice-Grade, cut to between 1.5" and 1.8" thick.  A 1" cut is too thin and a 2.5" or thicker cut, especially if Prime Grade, will usually not hold its shape unless it is cooked to medium.  A 6 lb. roast will yield five steaks of about 1 lb 3 oz each.

Preparation

There are two basic methods for preparing rib eye steaks for the grill.

The basic method is minimalist:  perhaps a touch of black pepper and garlic powder.  A more elaborate method is described below.

Source:  Check Smoky's book.

Marinade

Most people prefer the pure taste of great steak without the distraction of herbs, spices, marinades or sauces.  Occasionally, however, a great steak can be marinated and enjoyed by even the most radical purist.

Here is a recipe for a world class marinade for rib eye steak - USDA Prime-Grade or Choice-Grade - cut 1.5" thick (about 20 ounces).

Two Pepper Marinade (makes 1 1/2 cups)

2/3 cup Worcestershire Sauce
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup fine balsamic vinegar (substitute white wine vinegar)
1 small shallot, finely chopped
1 tsp. fresh chives
1 tsp. ground black pepper
1 tsp. ground white pepper
1/4 tsp. salt

Combine all the ingredients and divide into two equal portions.

Cover and refrigerate one portion.  Use the other portion of the marinade by combining it in a plastic bag (or non-aluminum baking dish) with four rib eye steaks.  Rub the marinade into the meat and refrigerate for 2 hours, occasionally rotating and rubbing the marinade into the steaks.

At the end of the 2-hour period, remove the steaks and discard the marinade.  Grill the steaks over a high-heat wood or charcoal fire, turning occasionally and brushing frequently with the second portion of the marinade.

Short Loin

The short loin lies in the middle of the back between the sirloin (to the rear) and the rib (to the front).  The short loin consists of two main muscles that, because of their location, are little used, as a result of which the meat is very tender.

The short loin contains two main muscles:  the tenderloin and the top loin.  If the tenderloin muscle is separated from the bone and from the rest of the short loin, then the tenderloin can be sold either as tenderloin roasts (which are often labeled chateaubriands) or cut into tenderloin steaks.  Similarly, the top loin muscle, when separated from the bone and from the tenderloin, can be sold either as top loin roasts or cut into top loin steaks.  Finally, if the short loin is not separated from the bone and is cut into steaks, then the steak will include portions of both the tenderloin and the top loin.

The following will discuss each of these three groups of steak:  the tenderloin steak, the top loin steak, and the bone-in short loin steak. 

Tenderloin steak

The tenderloin steak comes from the wholesale cut of beef known as the short loin.  

When cut into steaks, the tenderloin steaks include the cuts which are called filet mignon and the tournedo.

Filet mignon steak

The filet mignon steak is a tenderloin steak which is cut from the small end of the tenderloin.  Of course, it is boneless and is the most expensive cut of meat.  It is usually cut 1" to 2" thick and is usually 1 1/2" to 2" in diameter.  Although it is extremely tender, it lacks the rich flavor of other steaks which are cooked with the bone attached.

Tournedo steak

The tournedo steak is a tenderloin steak which is cut from the large end of the tenderloin.  It is usually cut 3/4" to 1" thick and is usually 2" to 2 1/2" in diameter.  Tournedos are extremely lean, so they are often wrapped in pork fat or bacon before grilling or broiling.  In classic French cuisine, tournedos are usually served on fried bread rounds and topped with a sauce such as a bearnaise.

Top loin steak

As described above, the short loin contains two main muscles:  the tenderloin and the top loin.  The top loin can be cut into steaks, which include the club steak, the New York strip steak, and the Delmonico steak.

Question:  According to the Food Reference Website, all these are the same cut:  New York Steak, New York Strip, Delmonico Steak, Kansas City Steak, Kansas City Strip, shell steak, sirloin club steak, strip steak. It's all the same steak, names depend on where you live.  In other words, the top loin and sirloin are the same???  Answer:  wrong.  Absolutely not correct.  Top loin is not the sirloin -- see many sites, including this.

Club steak

The club steak is the top loin muscle with the bone attached, like a T-bone without the tenderloin meat.  This is a tender and flavorful cut from the small end of the short loin, next to the rib, but it includes only top loin muscle and no portion of the tenderloin muscle.  See the Cook's Thesaurus on Beef Loin Cuts.

The club steak is sometimes also called a Delmonico steak (but see the accompanying story about the true Delmonico steak).  Id.

Boneless top loin steak

The boneless top loin steak is known by many names in different parts of the United States, including:

The New York strip steak is the boneless top loin muscle.  (It is the equivalent of the Porterhouse steak (see below) without the bone or tenderloin.  The New York strip steak is a popular, tender, flavorful steak. 

Delmonico Steak

See the accompanying story about the true Delmonico steak.

Bone in short loin steak

As described above, the short line is comprised of two muscles:  the tenderloin and the top loin.  If the bone between these two muscles is left in and the steak cut includes both the tenderloin and top loin, then the steak is either a T-Bone or a Porterhouse steak.  Both steaks have the same general shape, and it is often said that, if the tenderloin is larger than a silver dollar, the steak is a Porterhouse;  otherwise, it is a T-Bone.  The Beef Food Service website has more information.

T-Bone steak

The T-Bone steak is cut from the center of the short loin and includes the T-shaped bone.  It contains meat from both the top loin and the smaller tenderloin and, to be a T-Bone, the tenderloin muscle must be at least 1/2" across.

Porterhouse steak

Like the T-Bone steak is cut from the center of the short loin and includes the T-shaped bone.  It contains meat from both the top loin and the smaller tenderloin and, to be a Porterhouse, the tenderloin muscle must be at least 1 1/4" across.

The name "porterhouse" is derived from English taverns which served porter beer.  Around 1814, a New York porterhouse proprietor, Martin Morrison, gave the name to the steak.  John Mariani, Ready for Prime Time.

The rib

The rib section begins just behind the shoulder (or chuck) and runs to the bottom of the rib cage. Positioned between some of the toughest (chuck) and most tender (short loin) parts of the animal, the well-marbled rib meat has a unique balance of flavor and tenderness that real beef lovers revere. This location also means that the two ends of the rib offer rather different steaks. The steaks from the end closest to the short loin (known as the small end) are the tenderest and have a neat, well-defined eye muscle; steaks from the shoulder end (the large end) may be slightly tougher, with a less well-defined eye.

The short loin

The short loin runs from the last rib to the top of the hip bone, and the only bone in the short loin is the backbone itself. Sitting high up on the animal, the short loin is one of the least exercised muscles of all and, therefore, it's the most tender. Unlike the rib, which has one primary muscle, the short loin has two: the tenderloin and the top loin, separated by the backbone. The top loin is actually a continuation of the rib-eye muscle and has many of the same characteristics. The tenderloin muscle, tucked beneath the backbone, is noticeably more tender and fine-grained. A bit of both muscles is included in some steak cuts. Porterhouse steaks have the most tenderloin (at least 1-1/4 inches in diameter); T-bones have the least (as small as 1/2 inch in diameter). Top-loin steaks are created when the butcher first removes the entire tenderloin to sell separately, leaving behind only the top-loin muscle. 

 


The flank

Unlike the naturally tender "middle meats" (rib and short loin), flank steak is a well-exercised, naturally lean muscle from the underside of the animal. Easily recognizable by its flat, oblong shape and its distinctive grain that runs lengthwise along the muscle, flank may lack tenderness, but it more than makes up for it in flavor. To prepare good flank steak, never cook it beyond medium and always slice it thinly across the grain to make it more chewable. Skirt steak, sometimes confused with flank steak, is a long, thin muscle that's fattier and more tender than flank; it comes from the plate.


Related information:

 

 

Beef

Want to know where beef cuts come from?  Or information about hormones, Mad Cow Disease (BSE), Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD), and other stories?  Check out these the Beef Industry Resource.

Here are pictures drawing and posters of the various retail cuts and where they come from.


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