How to cook steak depends on what cut you’re dealing with, and when it comes to picking a choice piece of steak, you’ve got options. Which is the most tender piece of meat? How marbled should it be? Which is the leanest cut? What if I don’t have a grill?
Here’s a handy guide of what you need to know if you want to carnivore like a pro—and even if you’re just going out to a steakhouse, it can help you decide what exactly you’d like to order.
Also known as tenderloin, filet mignon is the most tender cut you can find (and the most expensive!). Not attached to a bone, this lean and tender steak offers a mild and almost buttery flavor. Although smaller than most other cuts of steak, tenderloins are cut thicker than most (two to three inches).
The key to sealing in all the flavor and juicy goodness is to cook this cut quickly. We recommend searing the outside until browned (2-4 minutes each side) and then finishing it in the oven (5-10 minutes, depending on your preference). Their fine texture means they’re not particularly suited for marinades, but you can always add a bold sauce like a port wine reduction. For an even richer indulgence, get our Blue Cheese Butter Filet Mignon recipe.
T-Bones & Porterhouse Steak
Cut and sold bone-in, the T-Bone (porterhouse) is named for the distinctive T-shaped bone separating two halves of meat. Cut from the front end of the steer’s back, the T-bone is half tenderloin and half NY Strip (surrounding a vertebrae that separates them), and so offers the best of both worlds: the juicy beefiness of a strip steak paired with the succulence of tenderloin. (Porterhouses are similar, but cut from farther back).
Point of fact: in order to be classified as a porterhouse, per USDA regulations, the tenderloin portion must be 1.25 inches wide. That’s more than double the tenderloin you’ll find in a T-bone (only half an inch wide).
For this cut, we recommend searing each side quickly in a cast iron skillet with a generous amount of olive oil, and finishing it on the grill. Remember to keep the tenderloin side further from the heat source as it will cook more quickly than the strip side. You’ll know you’ve nailed it when you take a bite of this mouth-wateringly marbled, medium rare masterpiece. Try this deliciously simple Porterhouse Steak recipe or our Bistecca Fiorentina recipe.
NY Strip Steak
The measure of any good steakhouse can be taken by how well they prepare a New York strip steak. Also known as Kansas City strip, Manhattan, shell steak, strip loin, and club steak, the New York strip is characterized by the perfectly-balanced marbling that gives it its beefy full-flavor. This cut is often enjoyed rare or blue to showcase its natural tender texture, and is a great candidate for broiling, although it can certainly be grilled or pan-fried, too. Get our Caramelized Shallot New York Strip Steak recipe.
Related Reading: Fun Facts About the Country’s Oldest Steakhouses
Tender and moist, the rib-eye has long been a steak lover’s favorite. Also known as the Delmonico, the Scotch fillet, and the Spencer (to name a few), the rib-eye has heaps of fat marbling throughout. The central eye of the meat has a finer grain, with a looser and fattier outer layer. All that generous, fatty marbling gives the rib-eye a particularly gamey flavor that serious meat eaters enjoy.
While a rib-eye cut is boneless, its close cousin, the rib steak, is cut with the bone attached.
Cut from the bottom sirloin, sitting adjacent to the flap (a.k.a. the sirloin tip), tri-tip steak is also sometimes sold as Newport steak, Santa Maria steak, triangle roast, or bottom sirloin—but you can always spot it by its uneven triangular shape (proportioned sort of like an elf hat), and size; it generally falls in the range of one and a half to two and a half pounds. Most commonly cooked in the style of Santa Maria barbecue (dry-rubbed and grilled over oak chips on the central coast of California), tri-tip also takes well to most marinades—try our Harissa Marinated Tri-Tip or our Hoisin Marinated Tri-Tip for starters—and can be roasted or braised if you don’t want to grill. If you do, though, try our Argentine Grilled Tri-Tip recipe.
Related Reading: Dry Rubs vs Marinades | What Is the Difference Between Barbecuing and Grilling?
Flank steaks, from the hard-working abdominal area, need high heat and a thin slice to stay tender. By butterflying them, you cut them across the grain, solving the need to slice in one fell swoop. The resultant curtain of meat is perfect for stuffing and rolling up, so grab a good marinade and start packing! Or try our Teriyaki Grilled Flank Steak recipe.
Flat Iron Steak
Also known as a top blade steak, flat irons, as their name implies, are a uniformly thick, rectangular cut taken from the shoulder. Cook them too long or over too low heat, and they can be hard to chew. But put them over a high flame for a quick sear on the grill, and you’ll wind up with a beefy, tender delight. They also take well to marinades (sensing a theme?).
Related Reading: Steak Frites, Perfected
Thin, long, and ropy, hanger steak comes from a part of a cow’s belly that literally hangs low, hence the name. It’s similar to flank steak in texture and tender as long as you don’t overcook it. Go fast and high, either on the grill or in a skillet, and marinate the meat for extra flavor.
Related Reading: Chefs Share Their Favorite Meat Marinades
Skirt steak, a long cut from the diaphragm, has big beefy flavor and a very loose grain (even looser than the flank) that sucks marinades right up (we especially like one with miso). But it can be on the tough side, so you’ll need to slice it thin or otherwise risk gnawing your way through it. These factors combined make it ideal for stir-fries, like our Beef and Broccoli Noodles recipe, or in classic Grilled Steak Fajitas.
The sirloin is the name for the general lower back area of a steer. There are a few different cuts that come from here, although most steak that’s sold as “sirloin steak” is taken from the bottom area, which is a bit on the tough side and moderately flavored. They’re fine as whole steaks, but perhaps better cut into smaller pieces and marinated for use in kebabs and such, like our Beef and Vegetable Kebab recipe.
Related Reading: Who Invented Steak Tartare?
Header image courtesy of The Picture Pantry / Lisovskaya Natalia / Getty Images