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Steak-ology 101

Meat is muscle tissue.  This muscle tissue is divided into “groups”.  On a cow, each group of muscle tissue yields a particular section or “cut” of meat.  A steak is a cut from these sections; either on its own or as the end product of being cut from a section of muscle such as a “roast” For instance, a rib eye steak (also familiarly called a Delmonico steak) is cut from a prime rib roast…a coulotte   steak is cut from a top butt sirloin roast—and on and on.

 

One of the confusing things about cuts of steak is that they all seem to have more than one name, based as much on geography as on the whim of local butchers.  Further confusing is assigning a name to a steak that is, in effect, a method of preparation and not the name of a steak.  London Broil is a method of preparation, not a type of steak.  It is traditionally prepared with a cut called flank steak, but I’ve seen cuts at my local grocery store labeled as “London Broil” that weren’t even flank steak.

 

Another point of confusion arises when one observes any of the thousands of meat charts that are available in books and on the Internet.  From one chart to the next there is an appreciable variance between what each muscle group is called, as well as a seeming arbitrary placement of these groups on the charts—making cow “geography” seem to be as much a result of whimsy rather than the end result of any thorough anatomical research.

 

To me the most befuddling thing that I discovered in my steak “research” was that all of my research sources seemed to think that it was important to give the Latin names of the beef muscle groups.  For whom and why?  Hungry veterinarians?  Latinphiles?   People who have a Smarty Pants Complex?  It certainly couldn’t be for the benefit of some butchers.  It’s doubtful that anyone who doesn’t know what London broil is either speaks or understands Latin.

 

There were two important aspects of steak-ology that I didn’t have to research.  First, all beef has what is known as a “grain.”  This grain is the fibers of the tissue that run along the length of the muscle.  A similar example in nature is the grain one notes in a piece of wood.  With beef, it is always important to cut against the grain of the steak.  Cutting with the grain will render an unpleasantly tough piece of meat.  You don’t have to worry about the grain if you’re grilling individually portioned steaks like ribeye or Porterhouse or T-bone—the butcher has already cut them in such a way as to make concerns about the grain a moot point.  Flatter, leaner cuts like flat-iron, tri-tip and flank steaks—all with a  perceptible grain—have to be cut against the grain…otherwise, you will have spent your money not on steak, but on beef-flavored chewing gum.

 

Secondly—and lastly—I didn’t have to do any research to know that I love steak, especially grilling it outdoors.  There is no need to wax poetic about it.  A well-grilled steak is poetry enough.

 

The following is a “tour” of steaks—from the front of the cow to the back of the cow.  I only briefly mention the muscle groups from which the steaks come.  There will be no Latin.  There will be no exact cooking instructions. Writing about steaks is not nearly as fun as actually grilling and eating them.

 

  • Flat Iron Steak—These steaks come from the front muscle group known as the chuck.  Everything from the chuck, though flavorful, is not very tender—except for the flatiron steak.  It is flat, grainy, flavorful and fairly lean.  It used to be very cheap until franchise steak houses began putting them on their menus, driving up the demand and, hence, inflating the cost.  Still, it’s a good buy, and easy to cook with only about a 3-minute cooking time per side for medium rare.  Indoors, you can broil it or cut it up raw—against the grain—and us it in a stir-fry.  It’s great in a sandwich, salad or fajitas.

 

  • Ribeye/Delmonico Steak—Located in the rib section behind the Chuck section.  This is my favorite steak to grill.  It is challenging because the abundant fat in it melts into the coals and causes spires of flame and smoke to shoot up from the bottom of the grill in a meaty conflagration.  It smells of summertime.  Because of all of this melting fat, it is incredibly flavorful and tender.  Two to three minutes a side for an inch-thick steak is all you need for medium-rare…more on a cooler-coaled grill with a steak that’s over an inch thick.  Ribeye can be broiled indoors, about three minutes a side on the highest rack in your oven; or you can pan-sear it in a little olive oil in a stainless steel pan, three minutes on one side, four minutes on the flip-side for medium-rare.  Make sure your oil is very hot but not smoking for this.
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  • T-Bone, Porterhouse, Fillet Mignon & New York Strip Steaks—Located in the muscle group known as the Short Loin.  These steaks are, arguably, the most tender, flavorful cuts.  They are, with the exception of New York strip, the most expensive too.  T-bone and Porterhouse are basically the same steak.  They’re a two-in-one deal: On one side of a t-shaped bone you get a cut of tenderloin (from which fillet mignon comes)—on the other side of the bone you get a larger piece of meat that is, essentially, New York Strip.  The only difference between the steaks is that the cut of tenderloin on a Porterhouse is larger than that on a T-bone.  Admittedly, I seldom buy these steaks.  They’re very expensive and I like paying just for meat, not meat that—though very flavorful—is attached to an inedible piece of calcium.  Also, I suck at cooking meats with bones on a charcoal grill.  I don’t buy fillet mignon either—at least not for grilling.  Its texture is amazing—you can cut it with a fork.  But, in my opinion, its taste is too delicate.  To me, it almost tastes like nothing.   A charcoal grill doesn’t improve its flavor, either.  It is also very expensive.  New York strip steak from this muscle group is the only steak I buy and grill with any regularity.  It has a wonderful, unique flavor and is very easy to grill—for a one-inch thick steak, I usually grill them a little longer and on a lower heat than I would a Ribeye. New York strips are denser than Ribeyes and have far less fat…rest them well after cooking.

 

  • Top Sirloin, New York Sirloin & Coulotte Steaks—These steaks are all part of the sirloin muscle group (imagine that!), behind the short loin.  They are all steak cut from what is known as the Top Butt Sirloin Roast.  All of these cuts are very reasonably priced.  Top sirloin steaks are cut from the bottom section of this roast, usually denuded of all fat.  At first glance, they resemble a misshapen fillet mignon.  Although they are more flavorful than a fillet mignon, their texture is much chewier.  I don’t grill them as often as I do other steaks, particularly not as often as the New York sirloin steak or Coulotte steak, mostly because they tend to become dry when they are grilled.  New York sirloin is a steak that is crosscut from the Top Butt Sirloin Roast.  It usually weighs between 1 ½ to 3 pounds when cut an inch thick or more.  It’s a great steak to grill for larger groups because of its size.  Over medium-hot coals cook it for about four minutes per side–maybe more– for medium-rare…indoors, in the broiler, it takes almost exactly four minutes per side on the highest shelf in your oven.  The Coulotte steak—or Top Sirloin Cap steak—is a very delicious, fun steak to cook.  It’s the “cap” of the sirloin roast that is “peeled” from the bottom the roast.  It’s a diamond-shaped piece of meat that usually has a considerable amount of fat on it.  Usually, I trim all but about 1/8 inch of the fat from it, leaving this fat as a means of giving it a fuller flavor & preventing it from drying out.  I grill it differently than I do most steaks.  I leave half of my grill empty of coals, leaving the other half high with coals and high with heat.  I sear the fat side first for about three minutes over the hot coals, flip it and sear the side with no fat for about two minutes.  Then, I move the steak to the side of the grill with no coals—fat side down again—cover the grill with its air-tight lid, slightly open the vent, and cook both sides for about twelve minutes each for medium-rare.  It has a very defined grain, so make sure after it has rested that you cut against the grain to serve what I think is an awesome—but lesser known—steak.
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  • Flank Steak—This steak comes from—strangely enough—the flank muscle of the cow that—oddly enough—is located below the sirloin and short loin muscles near the stomach and not on the flank or rear end of the animal.  Flank steak was the one steak that was consistently scorned by my research sources as being “tough” or “best braised” to tenderize it.  Those research authorities obviously knew nothing about the grain in meat, and probably much less about cooking flank steak.  It’s easy, for a full three-pound flap of flank steak: season with soy and pepper, slap on the medium-hot grill for two minutes, give it a quarter turn on the grill, cook it for two minutes more, flip it, and cook it another three more minutes, pull it off of the grill, let it rest for a good ten minutes to reach medium-rare and then begin slicing—slice it thinly, against the grain at about a 35 degree angle…top it with, say, a Bordelaise sauce and you’ve just made London Broil.  I’ve probably cooked tons of flank steak in my career and I love it!  It’s also another one of those steaks that is great in a stir-fry, in a sandwich, salad or wrap.

 

I hope some of this information is helpful.  If you have any questions, tips of your own or just want to criticize my shoddy research, you can post a comment anywhere on this blog www.joeplumstead.com or e-mail me at joeplumstead@gmail.com.  I’ll try to respond.  Really.

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  1. Brian Boulet

    August 1, 2012 at 7:05 pm

    Very informative and diffidently a re-read when I have more time .

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