The first meal my boyfriend cooked for me when we began dating was filet mignon ... wrapped in bacon ... pan-fried in butter. It was clear to me that this was a man who knew and loved his meat, and that the way to his heart would surely be through his stomach.
The problem was that I couldn’t tell a flank from a skirt. I ate meat rarely and then only in restaurants. But the combination of star-struck love and the deliciousness of the meal before me made me determined to bone up on the various cuts of steak and how to prepare them.
First things first. It’s a rare man or woman who can’t be won over with a nice, juicy steak. So learning what cuts to buy and how to cook them is key, not only to preparing a great meal, but perhaps, to romance.
Most steak aficionados consider this the best all-around cut because it has the most fat of all steak cuts, making it tender, juicy, and flavorful. If you’re a true novice, you might want to opt for this cut as your debut to steak preparation, since it is equally delicious grilled, broiled, or pan-fried with a little butter. Hard to go wrong here.
New York Strip Steak/Kansas City Steak
The name changes depending on where you are in the country, but the meat is the same. This cut is also pretty versatile, tender, and full of flavor. Prepare it either by grilling or pan-frying, and be sure to trim the half inch of fat that runs along one side only after cooking; the fat is what gives flavor and richness.
Beef Tenderloin/Filet Mignon
The most tender cuts of meat come from areas of the animal that are least used. Tenderloin is exactly what it sounds like: the tapered end of the loin that is the most tender—and therefore most expensive—cut of meat available. Keep in mind that tender doesn’t necessarily mean fatty; this is a relatively lean piece of meat, which is why it is usually wrapped in bacon or seared in butter. Because of its high price, tenderloin is usually reserved as a treat for special occasions.
A T-bone steak is actually two cuts in one—a New York strip steak and a tenderloin fillet— joined by a T-shaped bone. A Porterhouse steak is a T-bone that is cut further up the loin, making it larger and more tender. The T-bone is a little difficult to cook, since the meat next to the bone cooks more slowly than the rest of the steak. By the time the meat near the bone is cooked through, the rest of the steak will be as dry as leather, so this isn’t a good choice if you like your meat well done. The bone also makes it difficult to sear or pan-fry a T-bone, so opt for grilling or broiling instead.
Flank steak is not actually a steak, but rather the long, thin piece of meat between the cow’s ribs and hips. It is the traditional cut used for London Broil and is a popular choice during grilling season. If you’re entertaining a large group, the flank has a larger size than the rest of the cuts listed here (four to six portions per “steak”).
Because the flank comes from the lower half of the animal, it has more connective tissue, making it a little tougher than the other steaks, but also more flavorful. Prepare by marinating and then broiling or grilling whole, slicing thinly on a diagonal across the grain to sever the connective tissue fibers.
The skirt steak comes from the same area as flank steak and is also a long, flat piece of meat with a tendency toward toughness and lots of flavor. Skirt steaks can be grilled, pan-fried, or stuffed, rolled, and braised for very tasty results. And if you’re a Tex-Mex fan, you should know that only skirt steak is found in “real” fajitas.
This is a great choice if you’re on a budget. Its toughness ranks between the flank and other steak cuts. Since it’s a lean cut, top sirloin steak should be marinated and pounded to help tenderize it. After marinating, cook in any way you like, but keep in mind that this cut works really well for kebabs.
In general, you should look for bright red meat and marbled fat that is creamy white and evenly distributed through the meat in thin streaks. If the lines of fat are too thick, it means that the steak contains a lot of connective tissue that will make it tough.
In addition to the cut of meat, you’ll want to consider the quality of beef when making your selection at the supermarket or butcher shop.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) classifies beef according to eight different grades—prime, choice, select, standard, commercial, utility, cutter, and canner—by the amount of fat marbling in the muscle. Most of the beef served in restaurants is prime or choice. To be called prime, the beef must contain at least 8 percent of marbled fat; only about 2 percent of all the beef in the United States meets this criteria.
Another label you might notice is Certified Angus Beef, which means that the meat comes from Angus cattle, which are prized worldwide for their well-marbled meat. About 8 percent of all USDA graded beef is designated as certified Angus.
These basic guidelines for purchasing and preparing steak have gotten me through a year of dating a man who probably eats a full cow every day, starting with breakfast. While I don’t quite manage to eat that much myself, it’s good to know that my newfound knowledge of how to prepare a juicy, tasty steak won’t go to waste.