You’re standing at the butcher counter or the grocery store meat cooler and you’re overwhelmed. What’s the difference between this steak and that steak, and why does this one cost twice as much? It’s happened to the best of us. Fortunately, you can become a pro at knowing how to choose steak by following some simple principles we’ve included in this steak guide. Let’s get started!
What Makes a Steak a Steak?
First things first — before we worry about how to buy steak, let’s define what a steak is. We tend to associate steaks with beef, but maybe you’ve also had a tuna or salmon steak. The main defining characteristic of a steak is that it’s cut against the grain of the muscle fibers. However, a few steaks are exceptions to that rule, like flank steak and skirt steak. However you define it, what most people are interested in is making sure they get a good steak.
What to Look for in a Steak
We’re back at the meat counter, but this time you know what to look for to choose the best steak possible. Here are the six factors that can help you spot a steak destined for greatness on your grill.
The most crucial factor you want to look for in steak is one that’s easy to see at a glance — marbling. Marbling is the bits of fat distributed throughout a cut of beef. Think of marbling as white confetti that means it’s about to be party time for your taste buds.
Look for steaks with plenty of small white specks and stripes. The more solid red a steak appears, the less marbling it has and the tougher and less flavorful it’s likely to be. Unlike large bands of fat, which tend to be chewy and cause flare-ups on the grill, smaller flecks of fat throughout a steak will melt while it’s cooking, creating a bite that is — to put it in technical terms — pure heaven.
Color is another factor to consider. Part of that is looking for milky white marbling and fat, though fat in grass-fed beef can have a more yellowy tint. Either way, the fat should never look brownish.
The flesh on a fresh steak should be a deep pink or light red. A steak that’s starting to look brown or gray isn’t necessarily spoiled, but it means the steak has been exposed to oxygen for longer, which may indicate it’s older.
3. Moisture and Packaging
Another visual test to put a prepackaged supermarket steak through is a quick inspection of the package and the moisture inside. If a steak seems especially wet or is sitting in a pool of liquid, it probably means it was frozen and then thawed, so it’s not the freshest option.
You should also check the packaging just to ensure there are no tears in the plastic shrink wrap or cuts in the styrofoam tray. It’s also a good time to check the sell-by or use-by date to make sure the steak is still well within its window of peak freshness.
Tenderness isn’t something you can see, but you can take an educated guess on how tender a steak will be by knowing its cut. The key is understanding which muscles a cow uses more, resulting in tougher meat, and which muscles the cow neglects, resulting in tender meat. For instance, steaks from the chuck and round tend to be tough, while cuts from the loin tend to be more tender.
In some primal cuts, steaks can be tougher or more tender, depending on their place in the muscle. Top sirloin, for instance, is more tender than bottom sirloin. Keep in mind that tenderness is just one factor. A steak that’s a bit tougher but has better marbling may suit your tastes over one that’s perfectly tender but also lean.
Thickness is another factor, but it’s one that also comes down to preference. Some steak enthusiasts will insist on steaks that are at least an inch thick. Some will even tell you an inch and a half is better. A thicker steak makes it easier to build up a good sear without overcooking the steak. The result is a juicy steak with a nice amount of pink inside.
Again, it’s a matter of preference. You may prefer a thinner, well-done steak. If that’s the case, maybe just don’t tell your steak-loving friends — but we’re not here to judge.
6. USDA Quality Grade
Another point you can look for is a quality grade from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA. These grades are indicated by red and blue shields on the steak’s packaging — but what does the USDA grade mean? It depends on the grade, but any grade is a good sign, as standard steaks don’t receive them.
The three grades to look for include:
- Prime: Prime is the highest grade steak. It comes from young, healthy cattle and has loads of beautiful marbling. You’re far more likely to find these top-quality steaks on upscale restaurant menus than at a butcher shop or supermarket.
- Choice: Choice is the next level down from prime, and it’s a more realistic label to look for if you want an exceptionally good steak. These steaks come from the loin and rib and are guaranteed to be tender and bursting with flavor and juiciness.
- Select: Select may be the lowest out of the three grades, but it’s still a sign of a good steak that should be fairly tender. These steaks just tend to be on the leaner side so they may not wow you as much with the flavor.
What Is the Best Cut of Steak?
Ultimately, the best cut of steak is the one you like the best. For some, it’s a juicy, tender bone-in ribeye. For others, it may be a New York strip steak that packs lots of flavor into every bite.
Whatever your personal preference, the most expensive cut of steak you’re likely to find at the store or butcher is the tenderloin, or filet. A tenderloin steak is as tender as you could imagine, but it’s also pretty lean, which means it isn’t as flavorful as some other cuts and it dries out easily during cooking. That said, a chef who knows what they’re doing can make a delicious filet mignon that melts like butter in your mouth.
Frequently Asked Questions About Steak
If you want to learn more about steak, you may still have some questions. Here are some of the most common FAQ questions about steak, along with our answers:
- What is Angus beef? Angus is a Scottish cattle breed that has become the most popular breed in the U.S. Steaks that are “certified Angus beef” aren’t higher quality — they just come from Angus cattle. That said, Angus beef does tend to have better marbling than other types.
- What are Wagyu and Kobe beef? Wagyu beef comes from Japanese cattle breeds. Kobe beef, more specifically, is Wagyu from a certain cattle breed, called Tajima-Gyu, raised in Hyogo, Japan. Kobe beef is known for being highly regulated and high quality.
- What’s better, grain-fed or grass-fed beef? Like many aspects of steak, it’s a matter of taste. The main thing to note is that since grass is a lower-calorie food than grain, grass-finished cattle — and the steaks that come from them — tend to be leaner.
- Should I get a dry-aged steak? Dry-aged steak is costlier, and for some steak lovers, it’s the height of delicious meaty flavor. If you want dry-aged steak but don’t want to buy it from a specialty store, try making your own at home.
- Where is the best place to buy steak? There are a few solid options for where to buy steak meat. Your local grocery store may have some great steaks, but you’re only likely to find the most popular cuts. You’ll get a better selection and more expertise by visiting a butcher shop. Another option is to order steaks online, where steak delivery companies ship steaks either refrigerated or frozen in coolers straight to your door.
Turn a Good Steak to a Great Steak With Grilla Grills
Knowing how to pick a good steak is key for any steak enthusiast, but even the best cut of steak will disappoint if it’s not cooked well. Show your steak and your stomach some love by cooking your steak on a pellet grill or kamado charcoal grill from Grilla Grills. All of our grills are heavy-duty and are exactly what you need to take your steaks to the next level. Plus, our grills are a great value, so you’ll have some room left in your budget to get those top-quality steak cuts!
Check out our products today so you can get grilling!