In the United States, we eat a lot of steak (though, to be fair, not as much as we used to). Back in the 1970s, beef consumption peaked at 90 pounds per American, every year. It’s been trending downwards since. Still, the numbers are staggering. The average American consumed nearly 56 pounds of cow in 2016, and that includes the increasing number of vegetarians bringing the average down. For many of us, beef is still what’s for dinner.
With a food as precious as animal protein, it’s crucial to know what you’re eating and how to prepare it — so as to not waste a bit. After all, an animal gave its very life for your nourishment. Respect it. To help you do exactly that, we’ve created this guide to all things steak — what to look for in cuts, how to prepare it, how best to eat it, and what sauce you should be pairing it with.
Before we dive in, note that this guide assumes you are buying grass-fed, prime stock that lived outside the factory farming system. Remember, we all vote with every dollar we spend — so vote for humanely raised animals. If you have to eat less steak, in order to get the good stuff… well, that exactly what you should do!
When it comes to steaks, there’s a mess of options that are, plainly, confusing. There’s a strip, New York strip, contre-filet, top sirloin, top loin, Kansas City strip, and so forth. Spoiler alert, those are just different names for the exact same cut! So, yeah, you’re allowed to be a bit mystified.
It’s best to think of a side of beef by how’s it broken down. What we’re looking at is small cuts of meat from the mid-back to rib areas. That goes down along the steer towards the tail, then cascades down the animal’s body towards its belly. This is called the loin.
Broadly, the subsections of the loin are called the short loin, sirloin, tenderloin, top sirloin (which is technically in the middle), bottom sirloin, and flank below it all. From these sections, we pull the bulk of every kind of steak you’ll find in the butcher’s shop or your grocery store. There are a few other steaks that come from other parts of the cow, but the majority is going to be in or around the loin area.
The Tenderloin is also known as a Châteaubriand (a big enough cut for two or three people), Filet, Filet mignon, or Fillet. The tenderloin section of the steer starts by cutting into the short loin and running below the sirloin. Hence, a porterhouse is just a tenderloin with a short loin still attached. But more on that one later.
Tenderloin is very low in fat but still butter soft. That lack of fat does have the downside of stripping a lot of flavor from the steak. So, you’re trading nourishing fat and flavor for delicate texture. That being said, tenderloins benefit the most from high-fat saucing options.
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The Strip Steak is also known as a Contre-filet, New York Strip, Kansas City Strip, Top Sirloin, Top Loin, or Shell Steak (when on the bone). The name will depend on the genre and culture of the restaurant you’re at. Or if you’re in New York or Kansas City, evidently.
A Strip Steak comes from the short loin of the cow. And, just to make things that little bit more annoying, a strip has nothing to do with the sirloin section or the Sirloin Steak — which is an entirely different cut from the rump — even though a name for the steak is “top sirloin.” Then, of course, this all changes when you go to Britain and Australia. So, yeah, someone needs to gather all the beefeaters and make a final ruling on what to call this one.
To be as simple as possible: The short loin or strip is where the main section from the ribeye widens out and that fatty cap ends. The marbling is still there, but the lean is tighter and denser. Where a ribeye is light and almost airy, the strip is big and muscley with plenty of fat for flavor.