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Everything You Need to Know to Choose the Right Cut of Steak

Acclaimed chefs, butchers and purveyors offer their advice on beef.

steak tomahawk Photo: courtesy One Fifth Steak

Whether dining out or in, there’s nothing quite like a juicy slab of beef on your plate. This only leaves the question: What are the best cuts of steak? Do you go for a melt-in-your-mouth filet mignon, or a hunk of ribeye that would draw the envy of your caveman ancestors? Or perhaps the unsung flank steak would hit the spot in an unexpected way?

The best cut of steak is ultimately going to depend on your personal taste. But because it can be difficult to keep straight your tomahawks from your T-bones, we’ve made it easy for you to decode them by helping you understand what part of the cow they come from, how they taste and how to prepare them.

Don’t set foot into a steakhouse or your favorite butcher shop before brushing up on your beef cuts. From the high-end (think: your filets and porterhouses) to oft-overlooked butcher’s cuts (hi there, hanger steak), here are the best cuts of steak, explained.

Filet Mignon

Filet is lean and tender, but not quite as flavorful as other cuts.  Photo: courtesy Brian Sanford/Shutterstock

Filet Mignon, Bone-In Filet, Tenderloin and Chateaubriand

The filet is the first of what makes up the Holy Trinity of steaks—filet, strip and ribeye. “The filet is probably the safest cut. Meaning that no matter where you get it, it’s going to be tender,” says Katie Flannery, butcher and COO at Flannery Beef.

When it comes to tenderness or toughness, think about how much the muscle a cut of steak comes from works. The less a muscle is used, the more tender the steak is going to be. Filet comes from the tenderloin, which is located in the middle of the animal, right next to the cow’s vertebrae. “It’s where you put the saddle on the cow, if you were to put a saddle of the cow,” she says. “They’re not doing gymnastics. They’re not moving their lower backs much, so filet muscle get almost zero use during the animal’s lifetime. That’s why it’s so tender.”

But while filet ranks high on tenderness, it’s not going to pack as much of a flavor punch as other cuts of steak. “Fat is flavor,” says Hilary Henderson, chef de cuisine at the Michelin-starred CUT by Wolfgang Puck in Beverly Hills. “You’re not going to get an intense beefy flavor from the filet simply because it doesn’t have the fat content.”

This is why you’ll likely see the filet in a beef Wellington or doctored up with a sauce or demi-glace “It takes well to a heavy heat sear and kind of a lower temperature roast,” says Chris Pandel, executive chef at Swift and Sons in Chicago. “Realistically it’s best eaten medium rare and even closer to rare, given the opportunity.”

Though the compact little filet mignon that graces so many restaurant menus isn’t the only cut of meat from this part of the cow. It comes from a larger primal cut, explains Henderson. “That’s where you get your bone-in filet. “With a bone attached what you’re getting is a more intense flavor,” she says. “It’s been said that the bone helps hold in the juices.”

And if you see Chateaubriand on the menu, that just means an extra-large portion of tenderloin, usually enough to feed two.

St. Elmo steakhouse

Cowboy steak from St. Elmo steakhouse.  Photo: Courtesy of St. Elmo

Ribeye, Cowboy Steak, Tomahawk Steak and Ribeye Cap

For those who don’t fear fat, the heavily marbled ribeye has flavor to spare. “I like to push the ribeye for anyone who loves steak,” Flannery says. “It tends to have more internal fat than the filet and the New York. For anybody who shies away from fat, I’d say stick with filet or New York.”

Ribeye runs along the back of the animal, and it has a couple muscles on it. The two most important muscles are the actual ribeye itself, which is usually well marbled and is also surrounded by a couple of layers of connective tissue and fat. Then running along the top of it is the ribeye cap. “Cap steak is like the best steak on the entire animal. If you take it off by itself it’s unreal,” Pandel says. “It’s well marbled, it’s a lifter muscle so it’s used a ton, which gives you a rich, beefy flavor.”

Thanks to the high fat content, a ribeye is a great contender for the grill. “It craves smoke and charcoal,” Henderson says. If you’re feeling extra rustic, consider a cowboy steak, which is often used to refer to a bone-in ribeye, or the tomahawk steak, which is a bone-in ribeye with a french-cut bone, where the meat is cleaned away from the bone largely for aesthetic purposes.

New York Strip Steak

There are many names for nearly the same steak.  Photo: courtesy Anna Hoychuk/Shutterstock

Sirloin, Strip Steak, New York Strip, Kansas City Steak and Shell Steak

The New York strip—which you may hear referred to as a sirloin, Kansas City steak, or a shell steak—is like the Miss Congeniality of steaks: It’s got something for everyone.

“The primal cut is a strip loin,” Henderson explains. “That’s where the strip steak part comes from. New York steak is a strip steak is a sirloin. Then to call it a Kansas City means the bone’s in.” The New York strip comes steak comes from essentially the lower mid-portion of the back where the cow’s ribs end. “Those muscles, while it’s still part of the loin, is a little more dense of a cut than the ribeye,” Pandel says.

Pandel thinks of the New York strip as the steak-eater’s steak. “It’s got great texture, it’s got a good chew to it, it’ll eat well at rare; it’ll eat well at medium-rare; it’ll eat well at medium.” It falls between the filet and ribeye on both the tenderness and flavor scales, presenting solid middle ground. “It’s the perfect cut for somebody who doesn’t know what they want,” Flannery says.

Like a ribeye, a New York strip steak tastes great on a hot grill, but your best bet may be whipping out your cast-iron skillet. “Because the New York strip is usually a pretty even cut, it has a lot of surface area, and it does well on a cast-iron pan on high and medium-high heat,” Pandel explains. He suggests searing it on high heat, letting it rest, and basting it with butter and aromatics.

“What’s nice about the New York is it has a lot of external fat that runs along the outer edge of the steak, so someone who doesn’t want to have that much fat can cut it off.” She likes to cook a New York strip with the fat to boost the flavor and then trim the fat before eating it. “I usually give the fat to the dogs, she says. “It’s win-win.”

Porterhouse steak charcoal

Can’t choose between filet and strip? Get both in one.  Photo: courtesy DYLAN + JENI

Porterhouse and T-Bone

The porterhouse and T-bone are another best-of-both worlds option because they include two cuts: the filet and strip. But what’s the difference between a porterhouse and a T-bone?

Here’s a bit of a brain-bender to chew over (pun intended): All porterhouse steaks are T-bone steaks, but not all T-bones are porterhouses. A T-bone refers to that (you guessed it) T-shaped bone that cradles tenderloin on one side and strip loin on its other.  The tenderloin that the filet comes from is torpedo-shaped, rather than a uniform cylinder. Toward the rump end of the tenderloin, you’re going to get larger filets from the more bulbous side than the tapered end. Conversely, cuts from the rib end will be smaller, so porterhouses are going to be cuts from the rump-end of the animal. To be considered a porterhouse, the filet portion must be at least 1.25 inches in diameter.

Since they feature two different cuts of steak, porterhouses are notoriously difficult to nail at home. The exterior portions tend to get overcooked, while parts of the meat closer to the bone have the tendency to be rare, and the discrepancy can be disconcerting, says Pandel. “The most important thing to know is you have to know that those two cuts are going to cook differently and you’ll have to make a compromise,” Henderson says.

Delmonico steak

A steak from the famed Delmonico’s in New York City.  Photo: courtesy Brogan and Braddock

Delmonico

Legend has it that the Delmonico cut originated at the famed steakhouse by the same name. It’s a variation on the ribeye. As you go from the middle of the cow’s back toward the shoulder or the chuck area, there’s a spot where the shoulder blade starts to tuck into where the ribeye is. That’s where you’ll find the Delmonico steaks.

“They usually have a couple of extra muscles from the shoulder entwined in the actual steak itself, which gives you a much more interesting texture,” Pandel says. “Those muscles lean toward a beefier flavor. Shoulder muscles are used all the time and has more connective tissue and more intramuscular fat.” It’s safe to prepare Delmonico steaks in the same way you’d prepare a ribeye, but keep in mind that the further you get into the chuck, the more time the meat might require.

Hanger Steak

Chef’s love this cut.  Photo: courtesy Witsanu Singkaew/Shutterstock

Hanger Steak

Once you get beyond the traditional steakhouse cuts, you venture into the territory of butcher’s cuts. “If you can find them in a prime grade, you are totally safe knowing it’ll be a phenomenal cut,” Flannery says. “As you go lower in grade levels, you’ll see a much  faster decline in overall quality.”

Hanger steak comes from the muscle that acts as the piston of the cow’s diaphragm—it helps the animal’s lungs move up and down. “You may think it’s going to be tough, but it’s got a massive tendon that does all the heavy lifting,” Flannery says. In other words: The hanger’s just along for the ride, making for a tender cut of meat.

The tricky part is that sometimes they’re sold with that sinewy tissue intact. “If you purchase a hanger and it still has that tendon, after you cook it up one bite would be life-changing, but another, if you started chewing Monday, you wouldn’t be done until Friday,” Flannery says.

Something else to keep in mind: The texture of a hanger steak can make it difficult to accurately estimate the steak’s doneness. It tends to be bouncier than other cuts, which makes the steak temperature finger test less reliable. A couple other pointers: Hanger steak requires a long rest time, so be sure to rest it at least half the time you cooked it for, Pandel advises. “If you slice it to early, it has a tendency to leave all its juices on the cutting board,” he says. And speaking of slicing, “Because it’s a wide-grain muscle it’s important you slice against the grain, otherwise the whole thing will be very chewy and unpleasant to eat.”

skirt steak

Throw these on the grill.  Photo: courtesy Antonio Truzzi/Shutterstock

Skirt Steak

Skirt steak describes the muscles surrounding the cow’s diaphragm and holding the ribcage in place. It is a cut that’s heavy on the intramuscular fat and connective tissue, which gives it a super meaty flavor. “They’re great on the grill, but they do flare up a lot because of the fat content,” Pandel says. It cooks quickly though. “Don’t expect to eat a rare one of these guys,” he says.

Flank Steak

Flank loves a good marinade.  Photo: courtesy Hiphoto/Shutterstock

Flank Steak

Depending on what kind of animal your flank steak comes from, flank steak may be well marbled or it can be lean. They’re relatively thin, so they do well with a quick grill or sear. Due to the long striation and connective tissue, the flank takes well to a marinade, which can help break it down, and making the texture more tender and palatable, according to Pandel.

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