So, you want to grill steaks for dinner, but when you get to the butcher counter you are flooded with options and may be unsure which to grab. A lot of factors play into the steak you should choose, price, quality, marbling, and cut.
There really isn’t such a thing as the “best” cut of steak because every cut is unique and has its pros and cons. I’m going to break down some of the more popular cuts of steaks so you can use this as a guide next time you plan a steak dinner.
The best cuts of steak
1. Tenderloin (Filet Mignon)
Filet mignon is a steak that is cut from tenderloin. Some restaurants and butchers will use the terms interchangeably, but if you want to get technical the filet mignon is cut from the end section of the whole tenderloin roast.
The tenderloin steak is cut from the loin primal, which is the area just below the backbone of a cow. This muscle does not get exercised nearly as much as other muscles, which accounts for its lean and tender nature.
This cut is extremely popular due to its tenderness. The tenderloin does not contain a lot of intramuscular fat, so it’s not packed with flavor – but what it lacks in flavor it makes up for in tenderness. I’ve had filets that I could easily cut with a spoon.
But with popularity comes a steeper price tag than other cuts. If you plan to get a good quality filet mignon, you are going to need to shell out a bit more money than you may like.
As far as preparation goes, filet mignon doesn’t need much. A bit of simple seasoning, a hot cast iron pan, a little butter, and herbs for finishing and you’re good to go. Because it is so lean it can lack the beefy flavor you get from fattier cuts, it is commonly paired with sauces or reductions.
The ribeye steak is commonly regarded as the king of steaks. Even a full ribeye roast, aka Prime Rib, is regarded as one of the delicacies of the steak world. Ribeye is full of marbling, fat, and flavor.
Ribeye steaks are sold in both the bone-in and boneless varieties. Depending on the style of cut, there are several names you may find when shopping for ribeye. Tomahawk, Cowboy Steak, and Delmonico are all ribeye steaks, but each has been butchered differently.
This cut is extremely popular because it is full of flavor from the higher fat content and marbling. It’s also a larger cut than a tenderloin, so it’s a heartier choice.
When it comes to preparing a ribeye steak, it’s a perfect steak to throw on the grill. The higher fat content will work to keep the muscle fibers moist during the cooking process, so you don’t have to worry as much about your steak drying out.
Like all good beef, it doesn’t need much more than a bit of salt and pepper to bring out that beefy flavor.
3. Strip Steak (New York Strip)
The strip steak, also known as a New York Strip or Kansas City Strip, is a flavorful and hearty cut. With less fat content than a ribeye, but more than a filet, it’s a great option for indoor and outdoor cooking styles.
The strip steak is cut from the loin primal, the same as a filet mignon, so it’s a relatively lean cut but still packs in a good amount of beefy flavor.
They don’t contain a lot of connective tissue, so they can be extremely tender but they do have a fair amount of intramuscular marbling, so you will still get the flavor you are looking for.
When preparing a strip steak, you can opt to either grill or pan-sear it, both methods will yield fantastic results.
Strip steaks also pair nicely with marinades, so if you are a fan of a marinated steak then this cut is a great option for you.
Check out recipe for Grilled New York Strip Steak.
The sirloin steak is a flavorful cut that is extremely versatile and relatively inexpensive. It’s a lean cut, but still packs a punch of beefy flavor so it can be incorporated into a number of dishes or served on its own.
The sirloin is cut from the sirloin primal. The sirloin primal is generally divided into a top and bottom section. The top sirloin is where the sirloin steaks are cut from, and the bottom sirloin is where you will find cuts like Tri Tip which hare great for reverse searing. The sirloin cap has gained a lot of popularity in recent years and is commonly known as Picanha.
Sirloins are great for grilling because they stay juicy, and are relatively even in shape and size. Sirloin is also a popular cut to choose when making kabobs, stir-fries, or even chili!
This is also a fantastic cut to pair with a marinade or injection because it will take on whatever flavor you introduce it to.
5. Flat Iron
While not as popular as other cuts, the flat iron steak is a fantastic and underrated option.
It’s extremely tender – second only to the tenderloin and packed full of flavor. You will find good marbling in a flat iron steak, but still, get the lean and tender cut that some prefer.
The flat iron steak is cut from the chuck primal, which comes from the shoulder area and provides steaks that are full of rich and beefy flavor.
Most roasts from this primal are ideal for roasting, but it also includes the flat iron steak which is a perfect choice for grilling.
As far as preparation goes, this steak was made for grilling. It’s nicely marbled and extremely tender, so it can withstand the heat of the fire.
You do not want to cook a flat iron steak much higher than medium because it will start to dry out quickly and the best temperature for serving flat iron is medium-rare. A little salt and pepper are all you need because of the beefy flavor of this cut.
This wouldn’t be a proper article about steak if I didn’t include the infamous Porterhouse.
The porterhouse steak is actually two steaks in one – you get a filet mignon separated by a T-shaped bone with a strip steak on the other side.
Another popular cut is known as the T-Bone steak, which has a smaller portion of filet included compared to the porterhouse. This cut is perfect for sharing but can be enjoyed on its own if you have the appetite. Many steakhouses will market this cut as “made for two people” because of its size.
The porterhouse steak is cut from the point where the top loin and the tenderloin meet. If you were to remove the bone you would be left with a strip steak and a filet mignon, which makes it a great option if you can’t decide what type of steak you are in the mood for.
When you are ready to prepare a porterhouse steak, you can cook it a few different ways. A grill is a great option for this massive cut because of its size, but it can also be seared in a cast iron pan and finished in the oven.
Like most steaks, it doesn’t really need much more than simple seasoning but is commonly paired with sauces and reductions.
Best Steaks for Grilling
So, now you know a little more about the most popular cuts of steak – but which options are the best when you are ready to fire up the grill?
When you are grilling, especially over an open fire, you want to find a steak that has a good amount of fat content so that it doesn’t dry out. Ribeye, Strip, and Porterhouse steaks are my favorite options when I want to fire up the grill. The Flat Iron is also a great option for grilling because of its heavy marbling.
You can grill steak directly over heat for a quick cook, or you can use the reverse sear method where you start it out over indirect heat and then finish it off with a direct sear.
The great thing about grilling steaks is that it will allow you to get a flavorful char and wood smoke flavor in the meat, which really can’t be beaten.
How steaks are graded
Now that you’ve decided which steak you want to try, the last thing to keep in mind is the USDA grading system. This is a system in place that grades steaks based on the amount of marbling they have which equates to flavor.
There are 8 USDA grades of beef, but the ones you will commonly see in the retail market are Select, Choice, and Prime. These grades have been used by the industry since 1927 and were put in place to help guide consumers when they are shopping for beef.
Prime beef is going to be the highest quality. It is produced from young, well-fed cattle and will have abundant marbling.
Choice beef is still high quality but will have slightly less marbling than a Prime steak. Depending on the cut and tenderness, Choice beef can be grilled, seared, or even braised.
Select beef is going to be the leanest option commonly available to consumers. While you may be lacking flavor and juiciness, you can still find Select steaks that are great for a quick meal.
When shopping for Select steak keep in mind that marinating and tenderizing will help a lot in creating a top-notch final product.
Other factors to consider when shopping for steak
The color of your steak is important. Steaks that have not been exposed to oxygen e.g. stored in an airtight cryopak, will be maroon or even slightly purple.
Once the meat is opened and exposed to oxygen e.g. sitting on display at the butcher counter, it should turn to a bright red color.
The longer meat is exposed to oxygen, the more of that red color it will lose. After a few days, the meat will start to turn brown.
You always want to look for steaks with bright and even red coloring throughout.
Depending on the cut of steak that you are shopping for, it may be wise to take thickness into account.
One inch is about as thin as a proper steak should be, but for fattier cuts like a ribeye you want to look for a steak that is at least 1-½” to 2” thick.
The thicker the steak is the more insulated the center of the steak will be during the cooking process. A thick steak will allow you to get a beautiful sear, but still not overcook the meat in the center of the cut.
3. Price Point
At the end of the day, price matters when it comes to food. Before you shop, determine what your budget is.
If you want a ribeye steak, for example, a boneless steak will yield more meat for your money compared to a bone-in steak.
If you want a tender, leaner steak but don’t want to drop the money on a filet mignon, check out a flat iron. It’s almost as tender as a filet and a fraction of the price.
Now you’re ready for some steak shopping!
Now that you are armed with a little bit more knowledge about steak shopping, you’re ready to hit the butcher counter!
Determine what type of steak you are looking for and what your budget is for the trip before you head to the store.
As you are browsing the butcher counter, keep an eye out for steaks with abundant marbling and bright, red coloring.
If you get stuck and aren’t sure what to choose, don’t be afraid to ask your butcher! They are almost always willing to help and they are usually excited to share their knowledge with you.
If you prefer to order meat online, there are a number of online sources for steak shopping. Check out our article on the Best Mail Order Steaks!
And don’t forget the steak knives
Since you’re going to the effort of picking out the best steak, why not invest in some great steak knives to go with it. We’ve done the research for you and you can check it out here.