The great American summer-time tradition… grills firing up all around the country. We Americans love to grill and I am no exception. I grill out at least two or three times a week (even in the cooler months), I love the method of cooking and, as I get ready to do some steaks tonight, I thought this would be the perfect time for a little “Meat Guidance” for all you wanna-be grill masters.
A great grilling experience begins with the right raw meat. It doesn’t matter how good your culinary skills are, if you don’t get the right cut and grade then your dinner will be less than stellar. But how do you tell a great steak from a good steak or even a bad steak? Most of us don’t have a regular butcher in our lives (where is Sam from the Brady Bunch when you need him!?), we simply grab what looks good in the meat department at the local Piggly Wiggly. And the selection seems to go on for miles (or aisles as the case may be). But, if you don’t have the luxury of striking up a relationship with a butcher extraordinaire, there are a couple of basic things to look for when buying meat that will simplify the process.
First, there is the grade. The grade is the quality of the meat based on marbling and age. The second factor is the cut. Different cuts have different qualities. Finding the right cut for what you want to grill is the most important part of an excellent steak.
Grading is typically performed by a third party organization or by a government agency, like the USDA. The age of the animal and the marbling of the meat determine the grade of the meat. Beef is graded whole, so you will find some variance in grades of an individual cut. In the United States, grades are prime, choice and select. Prime is at the top (the best) and select is the bottom.
Prime grade beef makes up only about 2% of all the beef produced in the US and typically it ends up exported or sold to high end restaurants. What you will normally find on the shelves at your store is choice and select. Since prime is difficult to get retail wise, your best option is to buy a choice cut… and trust me, you will notice a difference over a select cut, it is money well spent. Since choice is superior to select, one trick is to buy a less desirable cut to compensate for the higher price.
Marbling is a very important factor in steak selection. To visually determine the marbling of a steak take a good look at the texture of the meat. If the meat is free of all fat (the light white-ish colored part of the beef) then the cut has little or no marbling. Even though this is leaner and often more tender, it is not as flavorful. Small streaks of fat through the meat will produce a more flavorful steak. When selecting a steak, always take a look at the marbling. Remember, the more marbling, the less tender… but the more flavor. This creates a little bit of a balancing act to find the steak that is both tender and tasty.
Also, the marbling should be thin streaks of fat. Thick lines mean the steak contains a lot of connective tissue which will make it tough. A good steak will have great color. The meat will be bright red and the fat, a creamy white, evenly distributed throughout the meat.
Cuts of steak can be broken down into three sections. Starting on the upper back and moving down to the mid-back you have the rib, the short loin and the sirloin. The rib contains cuts like the Rib Roast, the Ribeye and the back ribs. This is the least tender section of the three. The short loin produces the T-Bone steak, Top Loin, Tenderloin and Porterhouse. The Sirloin gives the Sirloin Steak and the Top Sirloin. Other steaks like chuck, round and flank steak come from those respective areas and tend to be tough cuts of meat. Strips steaks, like the New York is cut from the T-bone portion.
The most tender beef is the (aptly named) tenderloin. From this area you get cuts like chateaubriand, filet mignon and tournedos. These cuts are tender but they are also less flavorful. The ribeye, or rib steak, is less tender but far more flavorful. The same holds true for the sirloin.
My personal choice? I am almost always going with a Ribeye. It has the most fat compared to the other cuts, which is why it’s a tender, juicy, and flavorful piece of beef. It can be grilled, broiled, or pan-fried all with great results. The “RE” is actually cut from the same piece of meat used for prime rib.
My second choice is a New York Strip. It is perfect for the grill, well marbled, tender, and full of flavor. In some parts of the country this cut is known as a “Kansas City”, but no matter what it’s called, it’s a great steak. It is usually sold with a half-inch of fat running along one side. It is recommended to trim this off after cooking to take advantage of the flavor and richness it adds.
With either cut, I always like to get my steaks at least 3/4 to an inch thick. Really thin cuts of meat tend to have less marbling and it is very easy to over cook them.
And finally, my two last tips. First, NEVER cut into that steak as soon as you take it off the grill. Let it rest at least five minutes before you touch it. This is a Cardinal Sin that most rookie grillers make and it will ruin a great cut and perfect cooking job. And finally, as soon as you do take it off the grill, put a patty or small scoop of butter on top of the steak and let it melt over it as it rests. This is an old school, classic steak house trick that ensures wonderful flavor and a melt in your mouth experience! As the summer goes on, I will give you more steak tips about cooking, seasoning and aging. But at least now you know how to get started… you know your meat, man!