By Julia Sharp
Photography by Emily Long
Meat has been a staple in mankind’s diet for centuries, and it’s no secret that most of us enjoy a good steak. But with 15 or more cuts available from beef, choosing the right steaks can seem like a daunting task. Here, Erik Niel, Executive Chef and Owner at Easy Bistro & Bar and Main Street Meats, shares his tips for selecting and preparing the perfect steak.
Marbling refers to the two types of fat on the meat, and more marbling means the meat will taste better overall. The first is extramuscular fat, which is visible from the outside, but doesn’t have much effect on the flavor. The second is intramuscular fat, which is only visible after the meat has been cut against the fibers of the muscle. For the best flavor, Niel recommends looking for a high concentration of clean, white streaks of fat within the muscles.
The three most popular cuts are the ribeye, strip, and tenderloin. These are taken from the middle of the cow and are typically the most tender and flavorful selections. Middle cuts are the most common steaks seen on restaurant menus, and they’re typically higher in price. When cooking a steak in a traditional cast iron skillet, Niel says the ribeye is a great cut to choose. “Ribeye has a high fat content, caramelizes nicely, and isn’t too thick, which allows you to get a really good sear on it without overcooking.”
Steaks can be cut as thick as you want, but Niel recommends using steaks that are at least three-quarters-of-an-inch thick when cooking in a cast iron skillet. After your steak has been cut to the preferred size, it’s important to let the meat rest at room temperature at least an hour before cooking. This helps ensure you’re able to cook the steak thoroughly without charring the outside. Niel also recommends seasoning with kosher salt immediately before placing it in the pan. “If you’re salting the meat 20 minutes before cooking, you’ll notice little white spots developing around the salt,” he says. “That’s because the salt is beginning to chemically cook the meat. The same thing goes for vinegar-based marinades, which will begin to pickle the cut and remove moisture, interrupting the natural flavors of the steak.”
There are a variety of other cuts called butcher steaks, which include the skirt, flank, tri-tip, Denver, center-cut sirloin, flat iron, and hanger steak. These are less expensive than middle cuts, but they can taste just as delicious when cooked correctly. Like a ribeye, skirt steaks are also ideal for pan searing due to their marbling, rich flavor, and ability to take on great color without becoming overdone.
Long Cooking Meats
Oxtail, shanks, and brisket are some of the least expensive – and often less popular – cuts of meat available. They’re considered long cooking meats because they’re very tough and need to be cooked, braised, or smoked for a long time to be tender.