The Perfect Steak: Selecting Your Cut of Steak

By on January 19, 2016

This post is part of our Fired Up Food series, Flame-Cooking The Perfect Steak, giving you a total guide to one of the best meals imaginable.

Brows the list below to skip to a specific step:

  1. Selecting a Steak
  2. Preparing Steak
  3. Seasoning
  4. Fire, Fuel and Cooking Surface
  5. Cooking Process
  6. Cooking to Temp
  7. Resting
  8. Cutting and Slicing
  9. Saucing and Sides
  10. Alternative Cooking Methods

The most important choice in making the perfect steak is selecting your cut. Knowing the attributes of each cut will allow you to choose the right one for your intended purpose and ultimately save you a ton of money – so you don’t pay for filet mignon to make steak fajitas. Lots of resources are available to tell you the difference between a New York Strip and a flank steak.

Selecting Your Cut of Steak


The most tender steaks come from muscles the cow uses the least. Filets are cut from the tenderloin, which is the long muscle that rides inside the ribs below the spine. This muscle isn’t exerted much, so filets are very tender, but they also have little intramuscular fat and less flavor than more used and fatty muscles.

The-Perfect-Steak-Selecting-your-Cut of Steak


To present a steak as a steak cooked to a perfect medium rare, look for cuts at least 1½ inches thick. That’s the minimum thickness which will deliver an accurate reading to a thermometer probe inserted to its center. Some types of steak like flank steaks, hanger steaks, and skirt steaks will be significantly thinner and require a different style of cooking.

The-Perfect-Steak-Selecting-your-Cut of Steak-thickness


It’s easy to get trapped in the idea every diner needs his or her own steak, but don’t! If you’re looking to deliver a consistent, perfectly medium rare steak, it’s more easily done with larger pieces of meat. So if you have enough diners who want their steak cooked to the same doneness pick bigger steaks, cook whole, and slice for presentation after the meat has rested.

The-Perfect-Steak-Selecting-your-Cut of Steak-size


The term marbling refers to intramuscular fat. These are the flecks of white showing up in the red part of the meat. The layer of fat around the outside of the muscle should always be removed before doing any type of high temperature cooking. If you’re going to cook a steak by a low temperature method, the external fat will melt rather than burn and help ensure the steak is juicy and tender.

The-Perfect-Steak-Selecting-your-Cut of Steak-marbling


You can’t escape it. You’re going to get what you pay for. The most well-marbled and tender steaks are going to cost significantly more than cuts like round steak and skirt steak. If you’re going to serve a steak straight up, it needs to be a good one. If you’re going to marinate it or slice it thin or country fry it then you can go with a less expensive cut and take additional steps to tenderize it.


USDA Grades 

USDA stands for United States Department of Agriculture. They recognize three grades of beef:

Prime is the top grade. It has abundant marbling. Only 2-3 percent of all beef is labeled as prime. You’ll normally only find this in gourmet butcher shops and grocers or online. It’s pricey!

Choice is the middle grade. It is very high quality, too, but with a bit less intramuscular fat. It’s usually available at most grocery stores’ meat counters. There is a great deal of variability in this grade, so ask the meat department manager to point you in the right direction.

Select is the USDA’s lowest grade. Comparing against the higher grades side by side you’ll easily see the difference in the marbling. Select has much less and won’t be as tender or flavorful.

A great deal of the beef you’ll see in the counter display won’t be graded at all, so it pays to make friends with your neighborhood butcher or your grocery’s meat department manager. His or her tips can be nearly as valuable as your stock broker’s!

The-Perfect-Steak-Selecting-your-Cut of Steak-USDA-Grades

Even More Info

You’ll likely run across labels indicating how the beef was raised and fed.

Grass Fed: All cattle eat a natural diet of grass at the beginning of their lives. The question is whether the animal was switched to grain to fatten up before slaughter, or whether it continued to eat grass and hay throughout its life. The USDA grass-fed standards specify a grass-only diet as well as continuous access to pasture during the growing season, but with no restriction on antibiotics, hormones, or pesticides, and the program is voluntary. Look for another third-party verifier, such as the American Grassfed Association. Grass fed beef tends to be flavorful, but leaner so more care must be taken in cooking it.

Free-Range Free-Roaming: These terms have no legal definition when applied to beef.

Organic: The USDA organic logo means the meat has met standards prohibiting the use of growth hormones, antibiotics, genetically modified feed, and animal byproducts.

Raised Without Antibiotics: Producers must submit documentation supporting the claim, but unless otherwise noted, it isn’t verified.

No Hormones Administered: Producer must submit documentation showing cattle did not receive growth stimulating hormones, but unless otherwise noted, it isn’t verified.

Natural: As defined by the USDA, “natural” or “all-natural” beef has been minimally processed and contains no preservatives or artificial ingredients. Virtually all fresh beef conforms so the term has no real significance.


Share the flame:


The following two tabs change content below.
Love cooking over an open flame? So do we. We're in pursuit of the perfect meal cooked over a fire. Grill, pit, campfires and more. Let's go for a ride.

Latest posts by Fired Up Food (see all)