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Just like any meat lover out there, I was so excited when my first grill was shipped. For the better part of the week, I was constantly fantasizing about all the amazing BBQs I’d host in my yard. In fact, I planned a small steak session that weekend to “break in” my shiny iron baby.
When the day came, I drove to the supermarket and it suddenly hit me that I didn’t have the slightest clue on the type of meat I needed for grilling. Suffice to say, my planned steak-grilling session never materialized, which was a bit frustrating, as I was extremely looking forward to it. Nonetheless, I took that as a challenge to learn about, and also try out different cuts of steak (my waist-line can attest to that!) to a point where I can now give “expert” advice on the topic.
But before we start on the steak cuts, there are a few things you need to know.
Key Factors to Consider When Buying Steak
When shopping for a steak to cook on your grill, there are two main things you need to consider.
Not all steaks are equal. Some have more fat content, while others are all lean muscle.
So which is the best steak?
Generally, steaks are graded according to the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) guidelines. To that end, there are 8 grades, namely Prime, Choice, Select, Standard Commercial, Utility, Cutter and Canner. However, only three grades provide decent enough steaks for grilling, and that’s what we’ll focus on.
•Prime – This is the highest quality available, and contains more intramuscular fat than other grades. This fat is evenly distributed within the lean sections and appears in the form of white flecks known as marbles. Prime steaks are perfect for all sorts of fry-heat cooking, from boiling to roasting and grilling.
•Choice – Second highest in quality, and is widely available in retail outlets and steakhouses. It contains high-fat content, but the fat is not as well distributed and “marbled” as in Prime. Some Choice cuts (e.g. from the rib and loin) are as tender and juicy as Prime steaks and are also ideal for grilling, and other dry-heat cooking methods.
Most cuts, however, are not as tender and are better braised, wet roasted, or simmered, since dry heat can overcook them.
•Select – Leaner and less marbled than the above grades, but has very uniform quality across all sections. Some Select cuts are fairly tender but not as juicy due to lack of marbling. Nonetheless, these can be cooked under dry heat. The other non-tender cuts are much better marinated beforehand, or braised to preserve the juiciness and flavor.
Simply put, the first thing to check when buying a steak cut for grilling is the grade. If possible, stick to Prime or Choice steaks, but if you’re operating on a budget, Select cuts will also do.
Feel and Texture
NEVER buy any meat that has a green tint, or brown discoloration. More importantly, you need to physically inspect your steak cuts by poking them to determine the feel. A good and fresh cut should not be too soft or too rough, but should be slightly responsive to a firm poke, and return to its original shape afterward.
Additionally, good meat does not wet your hand when you touch it, nor does it appear damp when cut. It is important that you check, and avoid steak cuts that exhibit the mentioned characteristics as they will likely spoil your roast.
With that said, let’s have beef*!
7 Best Steak Cuts for Grilling
1. Ribeye aka Delmonico
The ribeye was undoubtedly made for grilling. It is exceptionally juicy, tender and full-flavored, and typically cook in less than 10 minutes ( provided your grill has been preheated). It is no surprise that it’s the most popular type of steak in the United States, and the one you’re likely to find in any BBQ you attend.
Ribeye also has a very high, but well distributed fat content (heavily marbled) which adds to the rich taste and tenderness. Ironically, ribeye steaks are way cheaper than the other cuts in the same quality band, not to mention widely available.
In most cases, they’re sold bone-in as most people believe that the bone marrow pervades the bone and enriches the taste of the meat and soup as it cooks. Of course, that depends on your cooking method, but you can also go with the boneless option if you don’t believe in that assertion. Whatever your preference, be sure to go for cuts with evenly distributed marbling, and completely avoid ones with large fatty sections in the middle, as they don’t cook well on the grill. Here is a sample recipe you can try.
2. Filet Mignon
If the ribeye is the king of steaks, the Filet Mignon is the Rolls Royce of the lot. I’m not only talking about the cost (although it’s among the most expensive beef cuts), but also the tenderness, and ripe, juicy look.
Further, filet mignon steaks are exceptionally tender - they’re cut from the tenderloin, and this makes them easier to cook. Their taste and juiciness is also great, although you might find them not as well flavored as other steak types, due to their low marbling. This should, however, not stop you from grilling and enjoying this premium and delectable steak.
In my case, a generous sprinkle of sea salt and ground black peppercorns after grilling enhances the flavor massively, and if that’s not enough, you can also smear some bacon oil on each cut.
But that's not all….
When shopping for your filet mignon, try to avoid packaged pieces and instead go for fresh cuts at a credible butchery or supermarket meat counter. The ideal thickness for a filet mignon is 1½ inches, but anywhere between 1 and 2 inches is acceptable. However, don’t buy any cuts with uneven edges or ones that look dry. The best cuts of filet mignon are red and sufficiently moist (not wet!).
3. Striploin aka New York Strip
You probably won’t hear much about this particular steak, but the truth is, it’s actually one of the best beef cuts available. The striploin is cut from the short loin, which despite not being as tender as the tenderloin, it still provides a nice, beefy chew.
In most supermarkets and butcheries, striploin is sold as a choice or select grade steak as it’s leaner than the ribeye and filet mignon. It is, however, very tender and the lack of fat pockets significantly reduces the chances of overheating, and flare-ups, which are quite common when you brush your cuts with oil.
Additionally, Striploin is rich in flavor and cooks fast, especially if you warm it up on lower heat before moving it to a high heat section. You may find the flavor a bit lacking if you are used to ribeye steaks, in which case you only need to add a bit of seasoning. I like seasoning my striploin with brown sugar, dried rosemary and red pepper
Sirloin is not particularly known for its tenderness – compared to the short loin steaks such as filet mignon – but its flavor is to die for. This is because it has generous marbling (which can be too much sometimes) and yet still sufficiently lean and meaty to give that beefy taste we all like. Matter of fact, I don’t season my sirloin roasts with anything more than the usual salt and pepper as I find their natural flavor and smell very delectable.
Notably, it will take you a bit of extra time to prepare your sirloin because of the higher lean concentration and lower fat levels. Basically, you need to let your cuts sit (at room temperature) for around 15-20 minutes after adding the seasoning before placing them on the grill.
For the cooking, you can use propane gas for your first couple of times as it’s easier to regulate the temperatures. It, however, adds little flavor and I prefer to use my old wood-fire grill that uses a combo of wood chips and charcoal, as the smoke from the chips (I used oak wood chips) enhances the natural flavor and smell immensely.
Another popular and tasty roast that you want to try out is the T-bone steak. Like the sirloin, T-bone steaks are also cut from the short loin, and include a bit of tenderloin and filet mignon. Since they consist of some of the most expensive cuts of steaks available, T-bone cuts are regarded as high quality, and consequently priced as such.
As you can imagine, T-bone steaks are relatively larger than other steaks and have more varied flavors and tender spots. In fact, they’re the only type of steak I eat without seasoning.
Interestingly, T-bone is made up of 2 different steaks of varying tenderness, and therefore, won’t cook at the same time. In particular, the section near the bone takes a bit of time to heat up and cook as the bone has a cooling effect. Nonetheless, both the strip loin and tenderloin are all tender steaks and contain relatively less collagen, and won’t take more than 15 minutes on a high heat grill. Of course, you need to finish cooking it on indirect heat if you want to get the best flavor.
6. Prime Rib aka Standing Rib Roast
They say that a prime rib roast is among life’s best gifts and I tend to agree, despite the fact that my love for this particular treat has left me ‘broke’ one too many times. What makes prime rib a great steak is the fact that it has a bit of everything. The overly fat outer side contributes to the flavor and tenderness, while the considerably leaner inside provides that chewy, beefy taste.
I prefer my prime rib cuts to be bone-in, as the space between the bone and meat gives me lots of space for seasonings. Have I mentioned how much I love seasoning already? No? In fact, I recommend trying out the best BBQ rubs listed here. Anyway, you can always ask your butcher to remove the bone if you don’t like it; there are no rules in this game.
As a rule of thumb, you need to expose more of the meaty section of your roast, which means shorter cuts, to enable more smoke (and seasoning) to reach them. In fact, the meaty part needs the additional flavoring more than the naturally well-flavored fatty skin.
In regards to the seasoning, a generous drizzling of salt and pepper, and a moderate rub of olive oil will give you the tastiest, dark brown rib roast.
7. Skirt Steak
When it comes to steak cuts, there’s the misconception that thicker is better, which is not always true. The skirt steak, which is a tasty, beefy and tender steak, and yet so thin (average thickness is ½ inches) is proof that…size doesn't matter.
More than any other steaks, the skirt is easy to marinate - the flavorings penetrate easily through the thin, smooth surface. Also, skirts can be cooked over all sorts of grills that can produce blisteringly hot heat. The high heat helps to tenderize the insides well while keeping the exterior pleasantly brown.
Another thing I love about these ribbon-thin babies is that I can fit an entire roast on my medium-sized grill, instead of cooking in batches, which gives me enough time to savor the flavorsome treat.
PS: Your butcher won’t tell you this, but…..
Skirt steaks come in two types; the inside and outside skirt - the outside skirt, which is typically 3 to 4 inches wide and between ½ and 1 inch wide, is the safest bet as it comes from the diaphragm and is thus very tender and easy to cook.
In contrast, the inside skirt is cut from the abdominal muscle, and is often wider (5 to 7 inches) and thus, pretty tough and chewy.
And like the filet mignon, quality skirt steak is hard to find – there’s only 4 of them, 2 inside and 2 outside, in every carcass. However, once you get a taste of a well prepared inside skirt, you will be hooked.