Steak is often chosen as a centerpiece meal for a celebration, and rightfully so. The decadence and expense of a perfect cut of beef should never be taken for granted. As the summer winds down and Labor Day is upon us, we are given a time to reflect on the nature of work and rest. I imagine some folks will be firing up the coals and grilling their favorite cuts while celebrating the chance to relax a moment, to catch a breath before the fall hurries us all through into a new year. Before the fire is lit, lets take a moment to reflect on the steak itself. What are the differences between cuts of beef? Why is beef, especially steak, more expensive than other proteins? And of course, how can we get the best flavor from our beef?
Where Steaks Comes From
The cow is a mighty animal with many muscles that keep the massive beast moving upright. Most cows head to the butcher when they reach around 1100 pounds. That’s a lot of weight to carry around. The amount of work a muscle does for the animal greatly contributes to the possible tenderness and adjustment of cooking techniques to ensure that the end result is edible. The easiest example is to look at the cheeks. Beef cheeks are delicious. They have a deep concentrated beef flavor that comes from their near constant working of the muscle, but the meat has to be coaxed into tenderness, usually by braising the cheeks for two to three hours so that they begin to fall apart like pot roast.
Most steak cuts come from muscles that don’t really do as much. The rib loin and the tenderloin are the most common primal muscles that steaks are trimmed from—giving us ribeyes and filets, respectively. The rib loin comprises the backside of the cow, down the vertebrae and connecting to the rib cage. Not a lot going on in that area as far as movement goes, so rib eyes tend to have a nice, thick fat cap and really good marbling—the amount of fat that intertwines throughout the muscle, looking like thin white veins in the midst of the bright red muscle. The marbling of the rib eye is where a lot of the great flavor of this cut comes from. Fat is flavor, folks, and the ribeye is generally the fattiest cut of all. Which is why it is my favorite.
The tenderloin actually does even less work than the rib loin. It is near the flank of the cow, seated underneath the short loin. It’s lack of activity makes it extremely tender, and easy to sear and eat rare, or shaved thin and served raw like carpaccio. The filet is championed as the finest cut by most people, and generally is one of the most expensive. It is a lean muscle, which is appealing to many for the obvious reason of reducing fat consumption, yet still enjoying a delicious steak. The cooks that don’t necessarily keep track of their fat intake will wrap filets in bacon or prosciutto to increase the flavor of the steak. Drenching a filet in butter is a common practice as well.
The short loin is the muscle between the tenderloin and rib loin and this is where the strip steak is cut from. Strips are generally a bit smaller than ribeyes but can have just as good a marbling percentage to them. The muscle is only slightly more active than the ribeye and tenderloin, so it isn’t quite as tender, but it is still very easy to prepare.
These three muscles are generally the most common and most expensive of all other beef cuts. They take up the majority of menu space in restaurants—even though they are proportionally the smallest apart of the animal.
There is a lot of expense to raising cattle. Obviously, cows are large animals that require a lot of work and time to get to their proper weight. Most of the beef you find in the supermarket is grain fed, and a 1,200 pound animal will need a lot of feed to get through the day. Pastured cows don’t eat feed, but they do eat grass. A lot of it. And moving them to fresh pasture daily is quite labor intensive. We should treat our steaks with reverence. Share the experience with friends and loved ones. Let the beef shine, and keep it simple.
Simple Steak Preparation
Heat a cast iron skillet or charcoal grill to very high heat.
Season your selected cut of steak with a good amount of salt and fresh cracked pepper
If using a skillet, add olive oil or lard. When it reaches the smoke point, add the steak.
With a grill, make sure it is screaming hot, and oil the steak before placing on the grill slats.
Cook for about two and a half or three minutes for each side.
If you wish for your steak to be cooked a little more than rare, place it in a 450 degree oven until it reaches the desired temperature, about four minutes for medium rare, six minutes for medium, and so on.
Remove from the heat and let it rest for about five to eight minutes. (Resting allows the meat to retain most of the juices that have been released from cooking.)
Slice and enjoy.