Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Beef on Steak and Getting Grilled on Grilling

Dear Tricia, What is the best cut of beef to grill for steak? I often go into the grocery store and there are a million different choices. Some are cheap and others are crazy expensive. I don't want to just go with the most expensive. What is the best way to choose your steak? Sirloin, T-bone, filet? Marbling, etc?

Lawdy, this one's a doozy of a question, but I think I can help you. Welcome to Beef 101: I'm so glad you decided to attend my class today. There will not be a quiz at the end of the class, but I would suggest having a cocktail.
As far as picking the "best" steak to grill, think of it like wine: everyone has their favorite, but one isn't necessarily better than another. For instance, I prefer my wine out of a box, but that doesn't mean it's not as good as a cheap bottle of Chateau de Gas Station. The same goes with steaks. I prefer a filet mignon, but that doesn't mean its going to taste better or worse than a porterhouse. There are a few cuts that will be a little easier to eat, grilled, than some others so lets get to that.
Check out the photo of the rainbow-colored cow above. (He's so fancy!) There you'll see where each cut of beef comes from within the cow. Now, when you want a steak, you want a piece that is both tender and flavorful. And knowing that steak is basically just a cut of muscle, tenderness comes from parts that are muscles that don't get used a lot. In comparison, think about Lance Armstrong's quadriceps (that big muscle on top of your thigh) compared to say... Rosie O'Donnell's. Golden Boy uses his quadriceps a lot, so his are very firm and tight. Hard as a rock, I'm sure. Rosie's obviously don't get used as much, so they're on the softer side. But if you were to cut off a chunk of her thigh and grill it, it's going to be a lot easier to eat than Lance's. I know, the cannibalism references aren't nice, but it's a good visual for what parts of the cow are tender.
For good flavor, you want some marbling. Marbling is very thin strands of white fat that are present throughout the beef. You should be able to see them with your naked eye. While marbling adds great flavor, it makes the steak less tender, so you want to try and find a good balance of the two. A steak with no marbling at all will be very tender, but less flavorful. And a steak with thick lines of fat will not be tender because all that fat is just connective tissue that is hard to chew. I mean, come on: gristle has an unpleasant name for a reason.

Tenderloin- Like the name easily suggests, the tenderloin is the most tender part of the cow, because its a muscle that doesn't get exercised. (And if anyone can tell me why San Francisco's grimiest neighborhood is named "The Tenderloin," I'll buy you lunch at Chili's. That's about all I can afford these days.) Filet Mignon (french for "cute steak") is the most tender but less flavorful. Filets are usually much smaller, but thicker cuts, so if you like your meat well-done, go for a thinner cut like a New York strip or a T-Bone.
Short Loin- This is a great section of beef for grilling. The Porterhouse cut comes from this area, which has a little bit of tenderloin on it. The T-Bone also comes from this area, and the New York Strip is cut from the T-Bone. Not sure which one you feel like grilling? Well, take a look of the quality of steaks in the grocery store that day. Maybe the New York Strip has nicer marbling than the porterhouse, or maybe the porterhouse is a little bit fresher. Or maybe one's on sale and the price is more appetizing. Hey, I don't judge. We're in a recession for Pete's sake.
Rib Cuts- This is where the rib-eye, rib roast, and ribs are cut from. They're much less tender than the cuts on the short loins, tenderloins, and sirloins, however much more flavorful. The Rib-eye and ribs are great for grilling, and even better when marinated. You can get rib-eyes with or without the bone. The rib roast is not something you'd want to grill; hopefully just the sheer size of it tells you that its better for roasting. And if you disagree, than you need to go back to eyeball school.
Sirloin- This gives you the sirloin steak or the top sirloin. Like the rib cuts, the sirloin is less tender but much more flavorful than the steaks cut from the short loin.
Flank- While very flavorful, the flank steak is incredibly tough. You have cut it against the grain in order for it to not rip your jaws off while chewing. Flank steak is great for grilling on kabobs if its cut into small pieces.

Beef you don't want to grill:

Round- This is usually ground up to make ground round, or roasted as a round, or rump roast. (And the namesake of my precious blog.)
Chuck- This is a strange cut because its heavily exercised (which makes it tough), but it has lots of good marbling and collagen (fat) that melts when cooked and makes it hella flavorful. You'll commonly see it as ground chuck, but this one is best for roasting or stewing.
Brisket- Hopefully you know not to grill a brisket. That's just blasphemy. Do I need to elaborate?
Shank- This is the toughest of all cuts, so its pretty much used for stewing and that's all. If you're dying for a grilled steak and that's all that you have, make sure you let me know how long it took for you to chew it.
Plate- Short ribs, skirt steak, and hanger steak come from this area. It's very tough and fatty, but this is where fajita meat comes from. So, if you want to grill skirt steak for fajitas, make sure you marinate it really well first.

As a disclaimer, I need to mention that the fancy cow diagram above describes American cuts of beef. In England, they have a completely different diagram and use other parts of the cow differently, but since England isn't really known for their beef, or cuisine for that matter, I'm going to say our diagram is superior.
For more help on grilling and marinating, go check out one of my earliest blog entries, "My wife kicks ass at grilling and I'm less of a man now."

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