Let's talk steak — a big, beautiful slab of beef. I used to only eat steak when my parents treated us to an old-school steakhouse, and while I relished every minute of those meals, the menu always intimidated me. What was the difference between a New York steak and a ribeye? Why was filet mignon so freakin' expensive?
Whether you cook steak at home or save it for a special occasion out like we did, it's important to know your high-end steak cuts. Here are the four most popular ones, and we'll cover where they're cut from, what they taste like, and how best to cook them. Are you ready for your steak primer? Let's go!
Steak is a loose term and can refer to lots of different cuts of beef. While there's flank steak, hanger steak, skirt steak, and countless other cuts of beef that are classified as steak, we're going to focus on four popular and more expensive cuts, the ones you see at a steakhouse: tenderloin, New York, T-bone, and ribeye.
Where Are They From?
Let's take a look at the cow diagram above. All four of these steaks come from a few muscles in the same general area toward the top of the steer: the short loin, tenderloin, and the ribs. These muscles aren't exercised very much or contain a lot of connective tissues that need to be cooked for a long time to be broken down.
As a result, these steaks are much more tender than other cuts of beef, and fast cooking and intense heat are all that's needed to char and brown the outside of these meats while the inside can be eaten as rare as you like.
Why Are These Steaks so Expensive?
Relative to the size of the steer, these premium cuts are only a small percentage, which contribute to their premium prices.
Since they're expensive, it's really worth knowing how each one is different so you buy the one that you like the best! Do you like big beefy flavor, or is the tenderest cut your favorite? Here's everything you need to know about each cut so that you make a wise choice.
Tenderloin (aka filet mignon)
- Other names: Filet mignon, Châteaubriand, fillet, filet
- How it's sold: Boneless; the most expensive cut of steak
- Where it's from: Short loin and sirloin, under the ribs. A whole tenderloin starts out wide and then tapers at the other end (the "tail"). Filet mignon is from the smaller end, Châteaubriand the thicker end.
- What it looks like: When trimmed of silver skin, gristle, and fat, tenderloin is small and compact. The meat is lean and very fine-grained in texture. Because of its smaller shape, tenderloin steaks are cut thicker than most steaks.
- What it tastes like: The tenderest of all the steaks and lean, tenderloin is buttery and mild in flavor.
- How to cook it: Because cuts of tenderloin tend to be thick, the best way to cook it is to sear the outside until browned, then finish the cooking in the gentle, even heat of an oven.
2. New York Strip
- Other names: Strip, Manhattan, Kansas City strip, top sirloin, top loin, contre-filet
- How it's sold: Usually boneless
- Where it's from: Short loin behind the ribs
- What it looks like: Fat on one edge of the steak. While there is some fat marbling throughout, there are no large pockets of fat. The meat is fine-grained in texture.
- What it tastes like: With medium fat content, New York strips are tender, but not as tender as tenderloins or ribeyes, and have good, beefy flavor.
- How to cook it: Cook over high heat — pan sear, broil, or grill.
Other names: Porterhouse
How it's sold: Bone in. According to USDA regulations, the tenderloin portion must be 1.25" wide to be classified as a porterhouse and only .5" wide to be classified as a T-bone.
Where it's from: A cross section of the unfilleted short loin
What it looks like: The name says it all: there is a T-shaped bone with meat on both sides of the longer portion of the bone. On one side is a piece of the tenderloin, and the other side is New York strip. Generous fat marbling throughout.
What it tastes like: You get the best of both worlds with this cut: super tender, buttery tenderloin, and beefy, juicy strip steak.
How to cook it: Because there are basically two different kinds of steak in one cut, you have to be careful when cooking since the tenderloin will cook more quickly than the strip side. Try to keep the tenderloin further away from the heat source: use a two-level fire when grilling or position it away from the heating element if broiling.
- Other names: Entrecôte, Delmonico, Scotch fillet, Spencer, market, beauty
- How it's sold: Bone in or boneless
- Where it's from: Upper ribcage, ribs #6-12. Ribeyes are basically a prime rib or standing rib roast cut down into individual steaks
- What it looks like: Lots of fat marbling the meat and large pockets of fat interspersed throughout. The middle (central eye) has a finer grain while the outer section is looser and fattier.
- What it tastes like: Super beefy, juicy, and flavorful.
- How to cook it: Cook over high heat — pan sear, broil, or grill. With the high fat content, though, you need to be careful about flareups.
(Image credits: Christine Gallary; life_is_fantastic/Shutterstock)