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December/January 2008

Getting to Know: Beef Steaks

The cut of meat you choose has everything to do with the flavor of the steak, as well as how you should cook it. This guide helps explain what you need to know.

With the wide variety of steaks at the supermarket these days, it's tough to know which cut of meat to purchase. Here are 12 of our favorite beef steaks, rated on a scale from 1 to 4 stars for both tenderness and flavor.

Top Blade Steak

Top blade (or simply blade) steak is a small shoulder cut. It is an all-purpose steak. While it is very tender and richly flavored, a line of gristle that runs through the center of the meat makes it a poor option for serving whole. Remove the gristle and slice the steak thinly for stir-fries or cut into cubes for kebabs or stews.

Tenderness: ***
Flavor: *** 

Flat-Iron Steak

This cut is named for its flat, tapered shape, which is reminiscent of the business end of a clothes iron. Cut from the same area as the top blade, but in a manner that eliminates the gristle, the flat-iron is inexpensive, flavorful, and tender. Unfortunately, most are sold to restaurants, making this cut scarce in supermarket meat cases. Grill, pan-sear, or slice thinly and stir-fry.

Tenderness: ***
Flavor: *** 

Shoulder Steak

Sometimes labeled as London broil or chuck steak, this 1½- to 2-pound boneless steak is a great value for cost-conscious cooks. Although cut from the shoulder, it is relatively lean, with a moderately beefy flavor. Since this steak can be a bit tough, it should be sliced thinly on the bias after cooking. Grill or pan-roast.

Tenderness: **
Flavor: ** 

Strip Steak

Available both boneless and bone-in, this moderately expensive steak is also called top loin, shell, sirloin strip steak, Kansas City strip steak, or New York strip steak. Cut from the middle of the steer’s back, strip steaks are well-marbled, with a tight grain, pleasantly chewy texture, and big beefy flavor. Grill, pan-sear, or broil.

Tenderness: ***
Flavor **** 

Rib-Eye Steak

Cut from the rib area just behind the shoulder, a rib-eye steak is essentially a boneless piece of prime rib. This pricey, fat-streaked steak is tender and juicy, with a pronounced beefiness. In the West, rib-eyes are sometimes labeled Spencer steaks; in the East, they may be called Delmonico steaks. Grill, pan-sear, or broil.

Tenderness: ***
Flavor: **** 

Tenderloin Steak

Cut from the center of the back, the tenderloin is the most tender (and most expensive) cut of the cow. Depending on their thickness, tenderloin steaks may be labeled (from thickest to thinnest) Chateaubriand, filet mignon, or tournedos. Tenderloin steaks are buttery smooth and very tender, but have little flavor. Grill, pan-sear, or broil.

Tenderness: ****
Flavor: *

T-Bone Steak

A classic grilling steak, this cut is named for the T-shaped bone that runs through the meat. This bone separates two muscles, the flavorful strip (or shell, top of photo) and the buttery tenderloin (bottom of photo). Because the tenderloin is small and will cook more quickly than the strip, it should be positioned over the cooler side of the fire when grilling. Grill or pan-sear.

Tenderness: ***
Flavor: ****

Porterhouse Steak

The porterhouse is really just a huge T-bone steak with a larger tenderloin section, which accounts for its higher price. It is cut farther back on the animal than the T-bone. Like the T-bone steak, the porterhouse steak, with both strip and tenderloin sections, has well-balanced flavor and texture. Most porterhouse steaks are big enough to serve two. Grill or pan-sear.

Tenderness: ***
Flavor: **** 

Top Sirloin Steak

Cut from the hip, this steak (along with its bone-in version, round-bone steak) is sometimes called New York sirloin steak or sirloin butt. Top sirloin steak is a large inexpensive steak with decent tenderness and flavor, but do not confuse it with the superior strip steak. Slice thinly against the grain after cooking. Grill or pan-sear.

Tenderness: **
Flavor: ** 

Flank Steak

Flank steak, aka jiffy steak, is a large flat cut from the underside of the cow, with a distinct longitudinal grain. Flank steak is thin and cooks quickly, making it ideal for the grill. Although very flavorful, flank is slightly chewy. It should not be cooked past medium and should always be sliced thinly across the grain. Grill, pan-sear, or slice thinly and stir-fry.

Tenderness: **
Flavor: *** 

Skirt Steak

This long, thin steak is cut from the underside (or “plate”) of the animal. Also known as fajita or Philadelphia steak, it has a distinct grain and an especially beefy taste. As its alias implies, sliced skirt is a good option for fajitas, but it can also be cooked as a whole steak. Grill, pan-sear, or slice thinly and stir-fry.

Tenderness: **
Flavor: *** 

Flap Meat Sirloin Steak

Cut from the area just before the hip, this large (upward of 2½ pounds) rectangular steak is most often sold in strips or cubes. To ensure that you are buying the real thing, buy the whole steak and cut it yourself. Though not particularly tender, flap meat has a distinct grain and a robust beefiness. Slice thinly against the grain after cooking. Grill, pan-roast (whole), or pan-sear (strips).

Tenderness: **
Flavor: ***