Choosing a quality cut of beef can be difficult, especially if you are someone with less experience. Steaks come in different sizes with different amounts of marbling and shades of color. Understanding how good quality steak looks, smells, and feels to the touch is essential. It’ll help you make the right decision when choosing a steak cut at a butcher shop, supermarket, or restaurant; it’ll completely change your understanding of meat quality and how it varies depending on many factors.
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In this article, I’ll explain eleven essential things to consider when selecting a good quality cut of beef. At the end of the article, you’ll find a list of 11 of the best steak cuts. So keep reading to learn about good quality beef and gain knowledge and confidence when picking a piece of meat for your next meal.
How to pick a good steak, and what to look for?
Here are the key factors you must consider before selecting a good steak:
- Cut location
- Diet of the animal
- Country of origin
1. Cut location
Before selecting a high-quality steak, one of the most important factors to consider is the beef cut location. Different parts of the cow have different amounts of marbling and muscle. Both marbling and muscle affect the texture and flavor of the steak.
The most tender cuts of steak come from the loin and rib section of the cow. The steaks have fewer muscle fibers and more marbling, giving them a rich flavor profile and a tender texture. The less muscle is used, the more tender it’s. In this case, both the rib and loin sections get very little exercise. However, worth mentioning that these cuts are some of the most expensive.
If you are searching for a lean steak cut, then cuts from the round and chuck sections have more muscle and less fat. They are less tender but have a stronger beef flavor than cuts from the rib and loin sections. At the same time, they are less expensive compared to premium cuts from rib and loin.
Cuts of beef from the short plate and flank have strong flavors; however, they have a chewy texture. Beef cuts from the plate and flank sections of the cow are well exercised, making them tough and with less marbling. However, compared to other premium cuts, they are quite a bit more affordable.
When selecting a steak cut, it’s important to consider your personal preferences for taste and texture. While some prefer a buttery smooth texture and mild flavor, others prefer steak with a bit of a chew and a strong beefy flavor.
2. Diet of the animal
An essential factor to consider when selecting high-quality steak is the diet of the beef. The cow’s diet can significantly impact the meat’s taste, texture, and nutritional value.
Grass-fed beef is raised on a diet of grass and forage. It’s considered to be of a higher quality; however, the meat has less marbling and a more robust beef flavor. At the same time, grass-fed beef tends to be higher in beneficial nutrients.
Grain-fed beef, unlike grass-fed beef, is raised on a diet mainly consisting of soy and corn-based grains. It has a higher fat content and milder flavor. Most steak lovers describe the flavor as a “buttery flavor.”
Keep in mind that grass-fed can vary in quality depending on the specific conditions of the farm. For example, those cows confined to a feedlot and unable to graze freely may not have the same quality as those truly grass-fed cows. Also, cows that are grass-fed but are given supplements like grains and other supplements may not have the taste and texture properties of truly grass-fed cows.
At the end of the day, it’s essential to buy high-quality steak from reputable sources. From ones that are certified and have a reputable organization. Snake river farms and a few other organizations are worth mentioning.
Marbling is undoubtedly one of the most important factors to consider before buying good quality steak. Marbling refers to the tiny flecks of white fat dispersed throughout the meat.
When inspecting the steak, look for a good distribution of marbling. Marbling should be white, cream-colored, or slightly yellowish, depending on the cow’s diet. Avoid steaks with large chunks of fat or grey fat, as this can indicate that the steak is older.
When choosing the steak, ensure it’s stored properly to prevent it from spoilage. The properly stored steak will ensure its freshness. It should be kept in the refrigerator in its original packaging to slow down the growth of bacteria and prevent it from drying out. Sometimes you’ll find steak vacuum sealed and stored in the freezer. Meat suppliers do that to extend the shelf life of steak. However, it can affect the texture and flavor of the meat.
It is worth mentioning that steak should be stored separately from fruits, fish, vegetables, or other non-beef products as it prevents steak from cross-contamination with other foods.
5. Color of the steak cut
The color of the steak can be a good indicator of its quality. For example, a bright red indicates that the steak is fresh, while a brown or gray color indicates that the steak is older or has been exposed to oxygen for too long. Read this article which explains how to know if the steak is bad.
Worth mentioning that grass-fed and grain-fed beef has slightly different colors. Grass-fed beef has a bright red color with yellowish marbling, while grain-fed has a faded red color with white flecks of marbling. Yellowish marbling on grass-fed cows is because of the pigments in the grass and other plants the cow consumes.
When purchasing steak, it’s important to inspect it closely. Ask the butcher or the person in charge at the store about the freshness of the meat.
6. Smell of the steak
The smell is an excellent indicator of the steak’s quality. It should have a fresh, clean scent. A steak with a strong or sour smell may indicate that it’s spoiled.
If you have a chance, before purchasing a steak, give it a good sniff. If it has any strong or off-putting odors, avoid it.
However, beware that the smell of the steak can change depending on the cut, diet, and other factors. For example, dry-aged beef may have a distinct smell of nuttiness and earthiness, which is a desirable characteristic of this kind of meat. If you’re unsure whether the meat is fresh, ask the butcher.
7. Country of origin
Different countries have different regulations and standards for raising and processing beef. It’s essential to consider the origin of the steak because it can affect the quality and flavor of the meat. Australia, Japan, Argentina, and the United States are some of the most well-known countries for producing high-quality beef.
Beef raised in Australia is considered one of the best in the world. It’s well known for grass-fed beef, high animal welfare standards, and sustainable farming practices. Australian beef is known for its vibrant flavor and tender texture.
Japan is famous for its Waguy and Kobe beef. It’s considered one of the world’s most luxurious and expensive beef. Japan is known for having incredibly high standards resulting in rich and tender flavor due to beef’s high degree of marbling.
The United States is a major producer of beef. It’s known for its versatility, rich flavor, and its high-quality marbling.
Argentina is known for its high-quality grass-fed beef. Argentine beef has a rich flavor profile and tender texture.
8. Aging process: Dry-aged, wet-aged, or fresh steak
You can choose either to buy fresh steak or dry-aged steak. Typically dry-aged steak is more expensive and has more flavor. However, not everyone prefers dry-aged beef. Here’s what you need to know to choose dry-aged beef.
Aging is the process that allows the steak to hang and dry in a controlled environment. It allows enzymes to break down the muscle fibers and make the meat tender and flavorful.
Typically the dry-aging process takes between 14-30 days. It can take as long as 120 days, but that is a whole other territory worth exploring only for true steak lovers.
You can also purchase a wet aged beef. Wet-aged steak is vacuum sealed in its own juice and aged for 7-10 days. Both dry-aged and wet-aged beef results in a more tender and flavorful steak. However, dry-aged steak is more desirable and has a more pronounced and complex set of flavors.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a grading system to classify beef quality. The system is based on the beef’s marbling, maturity, and muscle texture. However, the grading system is voluntary, so not all beef producers choose to have their beef graded. Here’s how the beef is graded:
- Prime: The highest grade indicates the most marbling and the best flavor and tenderness of the beef. Unfortunately, prime beef often goes to high-end restaurants and steakhouses; therefore, it can be hard to find it in your local supermarket.
- Choice: It’s the second-highest grade. Steak cuts labeled with the “choice” have less marbling and slightly less flavor; however, they are readily available in supermarkets.
- Select: Select grade sits below the Prime and the choice. It has less marbling, a slightly worse texture, and not as much flavor. You can easily find select steaks in supermarkets.
When selecting a good quality steak, look for one at least an inch thick. Here’s a steak size chart if you want to learn more about different sizes. Cooking thick steak is more forgiving since it’s not as easy to overcook as thin steak, making it a better option for less advanced home cooks. At the same time, thicker steak has enough time to cook and develop a good crust which is harder to achieve on a thin steak without overcooking. When cooking a thick steak, the heat has enough time to penetrate the center of the steak without drying it out too quickly, resulting in a more evenly cooked piece of meat.
While it takes a bit longer to cook, thick steaks generally have more flavor and are slightly more tender, making them a far better option than thin steaks.
Price is often an excellent indicator of steak quality; however, remember that sometimes the price can be misleading if you are unfamiliar with different steak cuts. Typically those steaks labeled as Prime, such as ribeye, strip, or filet mignon steaks, have a much higher price tag. That is because, in general, these steaks are more popular and because they have more marbling, flavor, and tenderness. In contrast, you can find an affordable cut of steak that is good quality; however, the cut may be less well-known, such as flat iron steak. The lower price of the steak should not deter you from buying, considering it’s a cut from a less-known area of the cow.
Worth mentioning that the price of the steak is affected by factors such as the location of the store, time of the year, and availability of the steak. Often it’s best to buy steak online since it’s a bit cheaper.
Which cut of steak should I choose?
Below you’ll find a list of 11 amazing steak cuts. I’ll explain briefly how to choose each one of them. Chosen steaks were selected based on flavor, tenderness, and texture.
Ribeye steak is undoubtedly one of the most sought-after cuts of beef. It has abundant marbling, a smooth texture, and an incredibly beefy flavor. It’s carved from the cow’s rib section, which is located near the rib bones. Since muscles in this area are not heavily exercised, ribeye steak has a high amount of marbling, making it juicy and tender throughout.
When choosing rib eye or rib steak, it’s essential to look for cuts with well-distributed marbling throughout the steak. Yet another crucial thing to consider is the thickness of the steak. The thick steak will cook more evenly throughout, making the texture of the meat more consistent. At the same time, cooking a thick steak cut allows more room for error, meaning there’s less chance for you to overcook the steak.
T-bone steak is one of the most popular cuts because it combines both tender and flavorful cuts. It’s carved from the short loin of the cow and contains a small section of a strip steak and a tenderloin filet.
When choosing a t-bone steak, it’s essential to look for cuts with good marbling dispersed evenly throughout the strip section of the meat. The filet section is leaner but should also contain tiny flecks of marbling. Make sure to consider the thickness of the steak. While typically, t-bone steaks are between 1 1/2 to 2 inches thick, make sure it’s no less than that. Thicker t-bone steak cooks more evenly and has a more consistent texture.
Porterhouse steak is very similar to t-bone steak. Both cuts share identical flavor profiles and tender textures. However, porterhouse steaks are carved from the short loin’s larger end, resulting in a larger tenderloin filet.
When choosing porterhouse steak, ensure it has a good amount of marbling on the strip section. The Filet part of the steak is leaner and thus has less marbling anyways. Also, ensure that the bone that separates the two cuts is well attached to the meat. Although the porterhouse steak is large, still consider the thickness. It is usually cut at 2 inches thick. Make sure it’s not below 1,5 inches in thickness.
Filet mignon is a premium cut of beef known for a hefty price tag and highly tender texture and mild flavor profile. It’s carved from the tenderloin of the beef near the spine. The tenderloin part doesn’t get much exercise making the meat fork tender.
When choosing filet mignon, the most important thing to consider is the shape and thickness of the steak. It has to be at least 1,5 to 2 inches thick and uniform in shape. Look for a well-distributed marbling throughout the steak. Even though filet mignon does not contain a lot of it, make sure it has a decent amount since it adds juiciness and flavor to the meat.
New york strip steak
New york strip is a very popular cut of beef offering a rich flavor and tender texture. It’s carved from the short loin of the animal and contains a good amount of marbling. This area of the cow doesn’t get much exercise; therefore, it’s prone to collecting fat. Marbling makes strip steak incredibly juicy and flavorful.
When choosing a good-quality new york strip steak, make sure it has good marbling and lots of it. Additionally, ensure that the strip steaks are between 1,5 to 2 inches thick. It’ll cook more evenly and give you a more consistent texture. At the same time, it’s harder to overcook a thick steak than a thin one.
Top sirloin steak is an excellent cut with bold flavor and a reasonable price tag. It’s cut from the sirloin of the cow located near the hip. It’s a well-worked muscle; therefore, it does not have a tender texture like rib eye or new york strip steak. However, what it lacks in tenderness, it makes up in flavor.
When choosing a top sirloin steak, look for one with a good amount of quality marbling. Also, ensure the steak is thick enough to cook evenly throughout.
Prime rib is an expensive cut of beef known for its tender texture and unique flavor. It’s carved from the rib roast of the cow, which is located in the upper ribcage. Prime rib has a high amount of marbling, making it juicy and flavorful.
When choosing prime rib, look for a cut with good marbling, and lots of it dispersed throughout the meat.
Tri-tip steak is a cut of beef carved from the bottom sirloin of the animal. It’s an excellent and versatile steak that has a rich flavor. Unlike the rib eye or new york strip steak, tri-tip steak does not have a melt-in-your-mouth tender texture. However, it’s affordable, has a decent amount of marbling, and still offers excellent flavor and a nice texture with a bit of chew.
When looking for a tri-tip steak, look for quality marbling. It should be evenly dispersed throughout the meat. Make sure the steak is thick enough. It’ll cook more evenly and offer more room for error.
Skirt steak is a beef cut carved from the plate section of the cow that sits below the ribs between the brisket and the flank. It’s a long, juicy piece of meat with a robust flavor. Skirt steak has a tender texture with a decent chew if cooked properly.
When choosing skirt steak, look for cuts with good marbling. At the same time, try to avoid inside skirt steak. A longer and more narrow outside skirt steak is more desirable since it has a more tender texture.
Flat iron steak
Flat iron steak is a well-marbled, incredibly tender, and delicious steak. It’s carved from the shoulder of the cow and has a distinctive rectangular shape resembling flat iron. If you want to learn more about flat iron steak, read this article.
When choosing a flat iron steak, look for good, evenly dispersed marbling. Some of the best flat iron steaks have an abundance of fat ribbons in the meaty parts.
Flank steak is carved from the bottom abdominal area of the cow and has an intense beefy flavor. It contains a lot of hard-working muscles; therefore, it has more connective tissue and needs to be cooked properly to avoid it becoming too tough. Worth mentioning is to slice the steak thinly against the grain. It’ll make the steak less chewy.
When choosing flank steak, look for good marbling. Even though it’s a lean piece of meat, it still has some marbling.
Best ways to cook the steak
Grilling, pan frying, broiling, and oven roasting are the best cooking methods for achieving a delicious steak experience. However, first, you need to understand that different cuts of steak respond differently to various cooking methods. For example, while ribeye steak benefits from cooking in a cast iron skillet or grilling, the steak cut from the chuck primal benefits from braising or slow cooking. The more tender the steak is, the less time it needs to be cooked. In contrast, the tougher the steak is, the more time it needs to be cooked.
But why are grilling, pan frying, broiling, and oven roasting some of the best cooking methods? Grilling, pan frying, and broiling are the most popular cooking methods because they offer high heat and the ability to control temperature more precisely. At the same time, high-heat cooking methods result in a delicious crust on the steak’s exterior, which is impossible to achieve when slow cooking.
Oven roasting is also a versatile method, especially for large cuts of steak. It allows for a large piece of meat to cook evenly throughout.
Before choosing a good quality steak, decide on the cooking method you want to use to cook the steak. If you want to grill or pan-fry steak, it’s best to choose a tender steak with a lot of marbling. However, if you want something more affordable and something you can slow cook, then select a tougher cut of steak.
When choosing a good quality steak, understanding factors such as the cut, grade, marbling, color, and smell is essential. Knowing all these things can significantly impact the meat’s flavor, tenderness, and overall quality. To sum it up quickly, buying and cooking a good-quality steak requires attention to detail and a comprehensive understanding of various factors that impact its quality. Above, you can read and learn everything you need to know to make a good buying decision.
How long can I keep steak in the refrigerator or the freezer?
Steak can be kept in the refrigerator for 3-5 days and in the freezer for 4-12 months. It’s crucial to store steak properly to prevent spoilage and the growth of bacteria. To ensure the maximum flavor of the steak, it’s recommended to consume it within a few days of purchase or within a recommended time frame for freezer storage.
What is Angus beef?
Angus beef is a type of beef that comes from a specific breed of cattle known as Aberdeen Angus. It’s known for its marbling, rich flavor, and tender texture. To be labeled as Angus beef, the cattle must meet strict standards for genetics, feeding, and processing to ensure it’s of the highest quality.
What are wagyu and Kobe beef?
Wagyu refers to any beef produced from Japanese cattle, while Kobe beef is beef from Tajima-gyu cattle raised in the Kobe region of Japan. Wagyu beef is known for its high degree of marbling resulting in a rich flavor and melt-in-your-mouth tender texture. It has to undergo rigorous inspections to ensure it meets strict standards for genetics, feeding, and processing.
Bone-in or boneless steak cut?
Bone-in steaks have a rich flavor as the bone helps to retain moisture and flavor in the meat; however, they are harder to cook and slice. In comparison, boneless steaks are easier to cook and cut and more versatile.