Picking out a steak used to be a relatively simple exercise: You grabbed a New York strip or a rib eye, lit your grill, and you were good to go. But these days, selecting a steak is nearly as nuanced as choosing a college. Do you want grass-fed? Or perhaps grass-fed, grain-finished? Or dry-aged? Or both? And what cut would you like? There’s still New York strip, but there’s also bavette and merlot (seriously, it’s not just a wine).
We talked to the experts—Tanya Cauthen, a Swiss-trained chef, master butcher, and founder of Belmont Butchery in Richmond, Virginia, and Ben Turley, a butcher, sausage maestro, and owner of the whole-animal butchery the Meat Hook in Brooklyn—for the answers to these meaty questions and more.
STYLE OF BEEF
100 Percent Grass-Fed
Grass-fed beef is what you probably want to be eating—it’s far leaner and healthier and much more flavorful than grain-fed. Here’s why: 100 percent grass-fed animals eat grass and only grass for their entire life. This means that they have to forage for their food and become fairly lean and muscular compared to their grain-fed cousins on the farm, who tend to be lazy and fat. “Grass-fed cows are athletic animals, with long and lean and stringy muscles,” says Cauthen. “This makes grass-fed beef more assertive and mineral-y, with a gamey and earthy flavor.”
While it can be an acquired taste, Turley loves it. “I think as you get older, you lose your sweet tooth, and in that same way, you crave a beef that isn’t quite as mild.” Grass-fed beef is more nutritious than grain-fed beef because it contains a higher concentration of omega-3 fatty acids, associated with the “good” types of fat, the ones that may help lower the risk of heart disease, depression, dementia, and arthritis.
Also, since the cows are out grazing with all of that open space, their lives are less stressful, and much more sanitary. They tend not to get sick and are much less likely to be contaminated with bacteria like E. coli. They are less often on antibiotics.
The leanness of grass-fed beef means you should be a bit more conscious of temperature when cooking. Turley says you can cook it on a hot pan on the stove top but recommends not cooking grass-fed beef above medium-rare; Cauthen will not cook it on the stove top at all. She prefers to cook it slowly in an oven at 225°F for about 30 minutes and then sear it to finish. That said, grass-fed beef is perfect for everything from steak to braises and burgers.
Grain-fed beef tends to be milder and sweeter than grass-fed beef. It’s what most people are used to in terms of the familiar flavor of a steak. And it’s cheaper, too: A 100 percent grass-fed steak is $21.99 per pound on FreshDirect; a grain-fed New York strip is $12.99 per pound. But that familiar taste comes with a high ethical price tag. Cows were never meant to digest grain. They are ruminants meant to be bred on grass. The introduction of excessive amounts of grain can lead to a variety of problems, such as bacterial infections. Also, most grain-fed cows are raised in a concentrated animal feeding operation by big agriculture, which leads to a high rate of illnesses requiring antibiotics. Growth hormones are also used so that cows can be slaughtered at 16 months rather than the 30 months it takes to raise a cow without growth hormones. “Big ag makes food cheaper and more accessible for American diet, which is highly dependent on protein. But you have to look at what that cost is,” offers Turley.
Given the fattiness of grain-fed beef, the cooking process is more forgiving—it can be cooked completely over high heat on the stove top and can tolerate temperatures like medium and medium-well—even well done if that’s your preference.
According to the USDA, organic beef must be raised on certified organic land, and it must be fed certified organic feed (read: grain). The cow cannot be given antibiotics or added growth hormones, and it must have outdoor access. “You are still getting a grain-fed cow that may spend most of its time indoors,” Turley says. But that grain feed is organic. That said, there are no flavor differences in organic beef unless it is also grass-fed, and organic beef can be cooked as you would grain-fed beef.
This term is tricky because it may conjure images of cows blissfully munching grass on the pasture all day long. But that’s not necessarily the case. The USDA does not have a definition for pasture-raised beef—it’s more a marketing term. “For a label to bear the claim ‘pasture raised,’ livestock should have had continuous, free access to the out-of-doors pasture for a significant portion of their lives,” says Veronika Medina, a public affairs specialist at the USDA.
But how much is “significant” is not defined. “Growing grass is hard to do,” says Turley. “Most pasture-raised cows are pretty much grazing on lots of dirt and whatever grain the farmer puts out for them.” The amount of grain and grass the cow is fed really depends on the farmer, and again, it’s best to talk to your butcher about his or her beef source to make a more informed decision. Cauthen, for instance, purchases pasture-raised beef that is not more than 20 percent grain-fed, which she says is a good balance and helps for marbling and sweetness. “Pastured beef is a good stepping stone for customers who want the nutrition benefits of grass-fed and a more familiar flavor profile,” she says.
Like grain-fed beef, pastured beef has a good amount of fat, and Cauthen says you can cook it on the stove top as you normally would any steak. “It’s much more forgiving in cooking technique than a purely grass-fed cut,” she says.
Dry aging is a process that exposes beef to air in a humidity-controlled room so dehydration can further concentrate the meat’s flavor. Dry aging your beef does a couple great things and one not-so-great thing. Let’s get to the not-so-great news first: Dry-aged beef is expensive. It has to be stored (which costs money), and in the process of dry aging, the animal loses water weight, and butchers need to charge more per pound to make up for that loss. Okay, now for the upside: The process of dry aging beef means the flavor gets concentrated, and the enzyme action actually tenderizes the meat. So you get a super flavorful, wildly tender piece of meat.
But the question remains: Just how aged do you want your steak? Cauthen does not recommend buying beef that’s aged fewer than 14 days. “It’s like, what is the point?” she says. Nor is she down for the epic 90-, 180-, or 300-day age (from master butchers like Pat LaFrieda). “It’s a fun project, but from an economic and flavor standpoint, it’s not worth it. We all have bills to pay,” she says. “You hit the sweet spot in the 21- to 40-day range where you can get the most robust flavor and tenderness without it becoming stupid expensive.”
Since dry-aged steaks have less water content, Cauthen cautions that they will cook about one to two minutes faster. “You can always cook it another minute, but you can’t uncook it,” she says. Her trick is to take the steak off the grill a minute or two early, plate it, and top it with a pot lid to capture that heat. “That can be enough to take it from rare to medium-rare and you won’t ruin the steak by keeping it on the heat for too long,” she says.
The 16 Best Cuts for Cooking
Denver steak: If you start at the top of the animal, at the shoulder, you begin with the Denver steak, which Turley describes as “a well-marbled cut that tends to have a bit more tooth, but has beautiful buttery flavor and is great at medium-rare.”
Flatiron steak: The flatiron is a single grainy muscle piece found on the shoulder blade. It is a flavorful, juicy, well-marbled steak beloved by chefs and home cooks for its affordability. “Add a little salt and it’s good, how matter how you cook it,” says Turley. “You can do it black and blue, or it would be just as tender as medium-rare or rare. It’s cheaper, and you will never be disappointed in texture.”
Hanger steak: Cut from the plate section of the cow (the front of the belly), it “hangs” off of the cow’s diaphragm, hence the name. The hanger steak is about half the price of traditional steak because of one drawback: It’s ideal for “younger people who don’t mind a bit more chew,” says Cauthen, who is quick to remind fans of tender steak that “humans have incisors.” The payoff, though, is that like other secondary cuts, such as flank, skirt, and tri-tip, hanger steaks are big on beefy flavor. She advises that you cook it to medium-rare or medium—no more, no less—because of its coarse texture and grain. Make sure to cut against the grain to serve. She recommends using these cuts for marinades and stir-fries because they are relatively thin.
Flank steak: This steak, also known as London broil, comes from the loin and is uniform around one-inch thickness. Since it is cut from the abdominal area of the cow, it contains a lot of hardworking muscles and is fairly lean. It has nice, intense beefy flavor but can be a little tough, so it’s nice to use it for marinades like fajitas or carne asada, and it should be sliced thin and against the grain.
Brisket: Located on the steer’s lower breast area, brisket is cloaked in a nice layer of fat, which makes it great for a slow-cooker and ideal for one of Grandma’s recipes on the Jewish holidays. You might want to trim the fat before cooking, but don’t be too aggressive; fat is flavor. Brown your brisket first, before you start to braise it. This step is crucial because it adds that depth of flavor to the meat and the braising liquid.
Tri-tip: This steak, which is located right above the flank, is a bit tricky because it’s not uniform in shape or thickness. It’s a fairly lean cut that doesn’t have too much beefy flavor or fat, so you’ll want to season it generously and serve it with robust condiments. Don’t cook it past medium-rare. You can also use it for a stew or a batch of chili.
Skirt steak: Known as fajitas—“little belts”—in Mexican Spanish, skirts are the diaphragm muscle of the cow and are rich and buttery and do well grilled over a high heat. Because it’s a thin steak, you’ll want to sear it over high heat the entire time, otherwise it’ll be overcooked before you get a chance to develop a good sear on the exterior. Cut against the grain and grill them up for—you guessed it—fajitas.
Rib eye: Also known as Beauty steak, Delmonico steak, Spencer steak, Scotch fillet, and entrecôte, the rib eye is king of the steaks for a reason. Cut from the rib section of the cow, it has ribbons of rich marbling and fat that deliver impressively beefy flavor with exceptional tenderness. Seared in a hot pan, this steak is chewy, robust, and hearty and exactly what you dream of when you hear the word “steak.”
Porterhouse/T-bone: The Porterhouse is a big old steak that’s actually made up of two steaks: On one side of the T-shaped bone you’ll find the New York strip, and on the other is the Tenderloin, also known as the filet mignon, which is tender and lean and quite mild in flavor. With a steak this thick, you need to season liberally. You can sear the steak on the stove top in a hot pan, about 4 minutes per side, then finish it in hot 425°F oven.
Bavette: Also called a flap steak, the bavette is cut from the bottom sirloin butt—the same general region where the tri-tip comes from. This steak has the look of a skirt steak, but it’s twice as thick. When grilled right, which means stay clear of rare and make sure to make it up to medium, you’ll get a tender, juicy steak that Turley says takes to marinades extremely well. Sprinkle it with salt and pepper and grill it.
Merlot: The merlot steak is one from the leg, says Turley, who explains that he had to go to France to learn about it. “It’s a small single muscle that comes off the rear shank bones, which normally just gets braised,” he says. “But if you take apart the muscles you get this deep red muscle that is fantastic.” Turley recommends you cook it rare.
Short ribs: Short ribs come from the ribs, but unlike the rib eye, they are cut a bit further down toward the belly. They can be cut into long slabs with bone sections about six to eight inches in length, knows as “English cut,” or sliced across the bones so that each slice receives four to five short sections of bone, for what is called flanken. This beefy, highly marbled cut is ideal for long, slow braises on a chilly winter weekend, but they are also great on the grill.
Round steak: This steak also comes from the leg. Because it is lean cut and moderately tough, it dries out when roasted or grilled. It’s great candidate for slow moist-heat methods including braising, to tenderize the meat and maintain moisture.
Shank: The shank bones, which are the shin muscles, are best for stewing. Because the muscle is in constant use, it tends to be tough, dry, and sinewy, so it’s best when cooked for a long time in moist heat. Use shank for beef bourguignon. It’s also a candidate for ground beef.
Chuck: The chuck meat comes from the shoulder, right behind the neck, and is also great for stews because of its sinew, gristle, and fat, which tend to work well in low-and-slow stews and braises.
Paleron: French for “blade bone” or “blade steak,” the paleron is a cut that Cauthen says she often offers to people looking to make a pot roast. It’s part of the chuck that sits between the shoulder blade and the neck. Cauthen swears by it for braising and says it gets tender and unctuous and because of the gristle and fat on the connective tissue. “I only sell that to chefs because they get it, but if a customer comes and talks to me and I can explain it to them, they can have it, too.”
Rib eye and beef shank photos by Liz Barclay.