A long-time contributor to SeriouslySmoked. Jim has had a lifelong relationship with the art of grilling, passed on from his father and grandfather to him.
Annabelle is an experienced food writer and editor. She focuses on common sense, easy to replicate recipes formulated
to help keep things fresh and exciting while fitting into her day to day life as a wife and mother.
Steak is one of the quintessential “good times” foods; whether you’re enjoying a nice night out on the town or just looking to make a great dinner at home, steak is an easy go-to option for most people, and a comforting pick.
But it’s that second one where people might stumble. As important as buying a good quality steak cut is, people seem to forget the double meaning of that: you shouldn’t just worry about what part of the cow the steak came from (whether it’s a ribeye, a sirloin, a strip, etc.), but how each individual steak is cut, and the thickness is the most important part of that.
However, I doubt most people have whipped out a measuring tape at the restaurant to see how thick of a steak cut they typically get, so when you’re buying from a butcher it can be hard to know exactly what you want, and if you’re buying your steak’s prepackaged it’s similarly hard to know whether you’re getting a good deal or not.
So, a quick metric to get out of the way first: when buying steak, thicker cuts are almost always better. Unless the cut is designed to be very thin (like a skirt steak), a thicker cut is going to be all around better for most purposes.
The reason for this is fairly simple: thicker cuts are easier to cook. The more meat that’s there, the easier it is to bring it to the proper temperature without overcooking it. After all, an undercooked steak can always be put back on the heat to cook longer, but there’s no such thing as “uncooking” a steak, or any food for the most part.
There are three standard sizes I’d say are good for steaks: 1 inch, 1.5 inches, and 2 inches.
Of the three, the 1.5 inch steak is by far the more desirable cut of the three, in my opinion. It’s the easiest to cook and will give you beautiful, delicious, meaty chunks of whatever steak you choose. You get a lot of leeway with a 1.5 inch steak, but without it ever tipping over to the point it’s cumbersome to cook. Basically, unless you know for a fact what other thickness you want, and have a specific purpose in mind, stick with 1.5 inches as the default.
A 1 inch steak is something you might buy for a few reasons, but this would usually be something you grab when you want to cut it up and use the steak for something else; a lot of steaks are absolutely delicious when cut into rough 1 inch cubes for use in stuff like curry and stews, and these types of recipes are great for leftover steaks as well.
The 2 inch steaks (and beyond!) pose a bit of a dilemma. They sort of take things to the extreme, cooking very slowly. In fact, an extremely thick steak is going to cook too slowly to really cook via traditional methods; you can’t just throw it over the fire or in a skillet and expect everything to turn out okay. The exterior will burn before the interior is cooked.
A 2 inch or thicker steak would be something you’d want to share, like a very large bone in ribeye or a porterhouse (though many of both are often cut thinner as well). Honestly at this point your steak starts to resemble more of a roast, though it technically still fits the definition.
In the case of an extra thick steak, instead you’ll want to use the reverse searing method. You’ve likely heard of this technique if you’ve watched a cooking show about steaks and roasts before.
The gist of it is that when cooking a normal steak, your goal is to sear the meat; the ideal here is to get a rare, medium rare, or medium steak, usually one of the first two. This involves just searing the outer layer of the meat and just a little bit deeper, so you retain the juiciness and flavor. To this end, you can’t just slap it onto a grill or skillet at a very high heat and cook it for a very short amount of time.
In fact, this taken to the extreme is how you cook extra thin steaks, so don’t worry TOO much if you get stuck with a very thin cut for whatever reason. You primarily just need to keep the heat the same and reduce the cooking time drastically; less than a minute on each side.
For the reverse searing method…well, you work in reverse. You cook the meat first, over a very low heat, until it’s close to the optimum temperature inside. THEN slap it onto the high heat for a very quick sear to seal in the juices, and it’s good to go. This, obviously, takes quite a bit longer than cooking a steak usually would, so keep that in mind.
There is also the “reverse reverse” searing method, where you sear the exterior as normal, and THEN stick it into your oven or something at a low heat until its internal temperature reaches the desired levels. Both work about the same in terms of effectiveness, but the latter is great if you want to do a butter basting technique for your steak.
In any case, keep in mind that this also comes down somewhat to preferences and steak cuts as well. Some steaks work better as thicker or thinner cuts by a bit, and you may simply prefer to have a thinner steak that you can cook in a flash for a quick weeknight meal; there’s no wrong answer here. The moral of the story really is to have a local butcher you can go to that will cut your steaks to order more than anything else.
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