- Any steak can be great on the grill, but certain cuts need a bit more care than others.
- Filet mignon is tender but can dry out if overcooked, while ribeyes are well-marbled and stay juicy.
- Underrated cuts like picanha and tri-tip are both cost-effective and flavorful, making them worth exploring.
- Visit Insider’s Home & Kitchen Reference library for more stories.
Choosing the right cut of steak for the right purpose is everything. New York City-based beef purveyor Pat LaFrieda and Barbecue University TV host Steven Raichlen say you can grill any cut of meat on the grill, but there are some that take a little more work than others.
To get the outcome you want, it’s a good idea to know what you’re getting into with each cut of beef you choose.
What makes a good cut of steak?
- Marbling: Marbling is the presence of intramuscular fat, and it creates a yin to the yang of muscle. This fat adds immense flavor, tenderness, and moisture. The more marbled the steak, the higher the fat content.
- Bone-in vs. boneless: Bone-in meat takes longer to cook, but the bone helps seal in moisture and adds a lot of flavor. The saying, “the closer to the bone, the sweeter the meat” didn’t come from nowhere.
- USDA grading: The national meat grading scale in the United States, developed by the United States Department of Agriculture, is based on the meat’s level of maturity and marbling. There are eight grades, and from highest grade to lowest, they are Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter, and Canner. Read more about USDA grading on the agency’s website.
- Dry aging: Dry-aging is the process of aging beef (or anything) in a controlled, open-air environment. This removes moisture from the surface of the meat, which causes the enzymes in the beef to slowly break down and form a crust to which bacteria and mold attach (just like cheese). The inside stays bright red and moist, and the resulting flavor is as rich, full-bodied, and nutty-tasting as beef gets.
- Tenderness: The presence of soft muscle tissue (like that found in the tenderloin) and fat (see marbling) are what create tenderness. While tenderness is coveted, it is by no means necessary, and a tougher cut of meat can be compensated for with a proper cooking method (see flank steak, for example).
For quick and easy grilling, look for cuts with either tender muscle meat, thorough fat marbling, or a combination of the two. Tenderloin cuts (e.g. filet mignon), ribeye, T-bone, strip, and sirloin are some of the more popular steaks for grilling, but lesser-known cuts like the picanha, tri-tip, and hanger, go every bit as well on the grill with just a little extra care.
There are some technically objective ways to determine what makes a “good” steak – USDA grading being one of them. But the best steak will vary from person to person based on how much marbling you like, what level of tenderness you prefer, and the temperature you want your steak cooked to.
Below are the steak cuts more often favored for their different levels of marbling, fattiness, leanness, or some combination thereof. Which one you pick comes down to what you value in a great steak.
The tenderloin, or filet mignon, is among the most coveted steaks for its soft muscle and low fat content. While this steak, when cooked just right, will melt in your mouth, it has none of the flavor that rich marbling offers. It’s a matter of tenderness versus flavor, but if tenderness is what you’re after, a filet, served rare, is hard to beat.
Boneless ribeye, or Scotch fillet, comes from the rib section and has a lot of flavor thanks to its heavy marbling. On top of the high fat content, the soft muscle found in this cut keeps it exceptionally tender.
The sirloin is a cut out of the hindquarter. It’s leaner than the ribeye but juicier and more flavorful than the filet mignon. Apart from being easy to overcook (because it lacks fat), it’s a happy middle ground in the world of steak.
New York strip
Also known as striploin, this cut is taken from the top of the sirloin and tends to be a more tender cut of the greater sirloin.
T-bones are cut with the sirloin on one side of the bone and the ribeye on the other, so you get two different cuts in one neat package. Because of the differing grains and consistencies of the meat on either side of the bone, these can be tricky to cook evenly.
A porterhouse is similar to a T-bone in that it has two different cuts on either side of the bone, but in this case, it’s the filet on one side and the sirloin on the other.
Flank steak, also known as bavette or London broil, comes from the underbelly, and comprises some of the hardest-working muscles on the cow. Such being the case, this is a tough, but boldly flavored cut of meat. It can handle all levels of doneness and is a great affordable cut for beginners to use to get acclimated to cooking steak.
The terms “skirt steak” and “flank steak” are often interchangeably used, but they are, in fact, different cuts. Skirt comes from the diaphragm section and is skinnier and even stronger in flavor. It almost has to be cooked medium-rare or it’s too tough, so if you are looking for a leaner piece of meat and prefer your steak well-done, consider choosing a flank steak instead.
The most underrated cuts of steak
Like with any animal, there tend to be some beef cuts that are more popular within certain cultures. In the United States, we tend to favor large, tender cuts for grilling, which almost always means a soft filet from the tenderloin, a fat-rich ribeye, or a sirloin, which is a mix of soft muscle tissue and marbly fat.
That doesn’t mean we have to overlook other cuts for grilling, though. Knowing the consistency of the cut you’re cooking with is everything, and you’ll adjust your preparation accordingly, but tougher and bolder cuts can come out every bit as well as that filet mignon with the right attention.
- Picanha: Picanha, also known as coulotte, or sirloin cap, is a tender top cut taken from the rump with a large fat cap, and is extremely flavorful and affordable. About two-to-three pounds in weight, you can cook it whole by searing and finishing it off in the oven (or vice versa) or you can slice it into individual steaks and cook it hot and fast as you would a sirloin.
- Hanger steak: Also known as butcher’s steak and onglet, hanger comes from between the loin and ribs, and while it’s covered in tough sinew and silverskin, it is tender and juicy as can be when trimmed and cooked right – hot and fast.
- Tri-tip: The tri-tip comes from the bottom of the sirloin and is sometimes called the poor man’s brisket. It has the grain of brisket, but cooks up quickly like steak. There are two perpendicular grain patterns in a tri-tip, and you’ll have a much easier time cutting the steak in two where the differing grains meet and cooking them separately.
- Merlot steak: Merlot steak is the heel muscle from below the shank. It consists of long, stringy muscle strands much like a flank steak, but it cooks a lot more like a fillet and ends up being very tender when served rare. High-heat searing is ideal for merlot steaks.
More tips for grilling steak
After spending some time cooking steak with LaFreida and talking shop with Raichlen, your correspondent has garnered a few of the finer points in beef preparation and cooking.
- Don’t overdo it with seasonings. A good steak, as any cook worth their salt might contest, is already so rich in flavor that very little needs to be done in the way of preparation and seasoning. Pull it out of the fridge, let it come to room temperature, and season with salt. But don’t overdo it with heavy, preservative-infused seasonings. Also, save the pepper for after cooking, especially when cooking at high heat. Peppercorns have a low burning point and burn over an open flame, leaving behind a bitter flavor that hardly resembles fresh-cracked pepper.
- Temperature is key. Unless you spend your workdays slinging steaks, there’s no real trick to checking the doneness of the steak. Use a good meat thermometer to determine when your steak is done to your liking. Even LaFrieda uses one.
- Use a cooling rack. When it comes time to pull your steak, get it on a resting rack. Letting a steak sit in all of its juices after you’ve worked so hard to build a nice crust is a tragedy.
- Let it rest. LaFrieda recommends pulling a steak and letting it sit for about two minutes before cutting it to allow it the chance to reabsorb its juices. (Other chefs might call for 10 minutes, but that’s all up to you.) The bottom line is that once you cut into a steak, it stops cooking, so use your best judgment considering your target temperature.
Being from such a large mammal, there are more cuts of beef than most of us care to count. Learning the balance of fat to muscle that you like will help you learn your favorite cuts, and practice makes perfect, which brings us to the most important point of all: Have fun and enjoy the learning process. In the end, how you want your steak is how you want it, and everything else is meant to be a helpful signpost along the way.