If you're standing in front of the meat case and staring at what could be tonight's dinner, you may be confused at the different cuts of beef. Should you buy the well-marbled, oval rib-eye or the rectangular New York strip? Both carry hefty price tags, but what's the difference in taste? It takes a cursory knowledge of the steer's anatomy to understand the distinction between steak cuts.
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Commercial butchers don't usually receive a full carcass of beef from their supplier; instead, they get large pieces of the eight different primal sections of the steer. All steaks originate from these primal sections, and they are known as subprime cuts. From the subprime piece, individual portions and roasts are trimmed and placed in the meat case. The rib-eye and the New York strip steak, both extremely tasty and expensive, come from different primal sections, giving them specific textures and tastes.
Location, Location, Location
Like real estate, location determines value in the carcass of a steer. The chuck, or shoulder, situated just behind the neck, has fat and gristle, which makes for a tougher cut. Behind the chuck is the rib section, and this is the beginning of the two primal sections, which yield tender, mouthwatering steaks.
Primal Rib Yields Prime Rib
The primal rib section of a steer, located at the top of the carcass and comprising ribs numbered six through 12, is where the prime rib and rib-eye steaks originate. This part of the steer yields meat that is flavorful and extremely tender as there is little muscle weaving through the meat.
The seven-rib subprime section is usually cut into two pieces of prime rib, known as the first and second cuts. According to Cook's Illustrated, the first cut, from ribs 10–12, is preferred as it's closer to the most tender section of the steer, the loin. The second cut, from ribs six through nine, is closer to the front of the animal and has more connective tissue and fat. Some cooks prefer this cut as the fat turns into flavor during the cooking process.
A butcher will cut a prime rib to the size you need, giving you everything from a standing rib roast to individual prime rib steaks or rib-eye steaks. Some butchers sever the ribs from the eye when cutting a prime rib roast and then tie them back together. Ask if the ribs are attached because they are a vital contributor to the roast's taste. If not, have them cut you a new roast with the ribs left attached.
Classifying Prime Rib
Unlike other cuts of meat, the word "prime" when referring to prime rib means it's of the best quality, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which establishes the qualifications for grading meat. Young cattle produce the most tender of meats, and if the beef is grass fed, the steaks or roast will be more appetizing because of the extensive marbling threading through the cut. "Choice" is the next lower grade, followed by "select" and "store brand."
When a steak is cut from the prime rib, it's still a prime piece of meat. Ask your butcher to slice your selected piece of prime rib roast into the number of steaks you need. Tell your butcher to cut your steaks at least 1-inch thick. Leaving the bone on adds to both the weight and the cost, but it also adds flavor.
Cutting the Roast Into Steaks
An individual steak cut from the prime rib is known as a rib-eye steak, which, in some locations, is termed a Delmonico. Cut with the bone on yields what's known in many places as a "cowboy" steak. A flamboyant cut, featuring the full bone that's long and curved, the "tomahawk cut" has the bone frenched, which means the meat has been cut away from the bone and the bone is served clean.
Rib-eye steaks cut from the front end of the prime rib, or second cut, have a generous crescent of textured meat that wraps around their tips, known as the "spinalis." To some diners, this well-marbled and flavorful chunk is the piece de resistance, while some butchers just cut it away.
Either on or off the bone, rib-eye steaks are tender, well marbled, fatty (which gives them flavor) and expensive. Steaks cut from the first cut of the prime rib are more uniform in shape and less fatty.
Roasting the Prime Rib
Celebratory dinners often feature a sizzling, mouth-watering prime rib roast. The less time it spends in the oven, the more mouthwatering flavor ends up on the plate. Most chefs recommend simply salting a dry, room-temperature roast, putting it in the oven rib-side down; roasting it at a high temperature, such as 450 Fahrenheit for 15 minutes; then reducing the temperature to 325F and roasting it for 12 minutes per pound. Let the roast sit for at least 10 minutes before slicing and serving.
Sizzling the Steak
A rib-eye steak is best prepared by searing it in a skillet and then finishing it in the oven. Use a very hot skillet brushed with canola oil and sear for one minute on each side.
Don't pull the steak from the skillet if it seems to be sticking. It will release itself when it's fully seared.
A heated 450F oven finishes the steak, and 7 minutes of cooking time should work to get a medium-rare piece of meat. A dab of butter placed on top of the steak when it's nearly finished adds remarkable flavor. Let the steak sit for several minutes; then sprinkle it with a finishing salt such as Halen Mon or Maldon sea salt before slicing and serving.
One Steak, Many Aliases
No, the New York steak cut doesn't come from cows raised in New York. It got its name when Delmonico's restaurant in New York City started featuring it on its menu in the 1800s. But Delmonico's wasn't very particular about the cut they served when a diner ordered a "New York steak."
Ambassador steak, club steak — the name confusion continues today, but all the names refer to a cut of meat that originates in the short loin, that section of the cow that is just at the top right of center in its anatomy and behind the ribs. This cut features meat that does very little work, builds little muscle, and simply goes along for the ride during the life of the cow.
Hotel steak is another name for strip steak, as is the term Manhattan steak. But to keep your steak shopping simple when you're looking for a tender, juicy, flavorful piece of meat, the strip steak package should feature a piece of meat at least 1-inch thick, well marbled, boneless and at the higher end of steak prices.
Cut from the center of the short loin, the best New York strip steak has very little side fat and a flavor profile that is commensurate with its high price. Muscle tissue on the steak means it was cut from the back of the short loin toward the rear, where the muscles get a workout by propelling the steer forward. These New York strip steaks have a tendency to get tough when overcooked due to the tightening of the muscles when heated.
When sold as a solid piece of meat without the bone, it's known as a New York strip steak. Some steak purists believe the bone-in version has more flavor due to the presence of the bone. Bones are vital to the steak's preparation: Their heat accelerates the cooking process, and they lock in the juices that contribute to taste.
Expanding the New York Strip Steak
Another configuration of the New York strip is the T-bone steak, which is cut close to the loin and has a strip steak on one side of the bone and a filet on the other side. The little morsel tucked against the bone is the filet, sometimes incorrectly referred to as "filet mignon," a term actually used to define a pork tenderloin. Whatever you call it, the filet is one of the most delicate cuts of meat the steer produces.
This tenderloin is what distinguishes a T-bone steak from a Porterhouse steak. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the tenderloin in a Porterhouse must be 1 1/4 inches wide to qualify for the designation. The T-bone's filet is smaller, up to 1/2 inch wide.
Preparing a New York Strip
As with most steaks, simplicity is the key to preparation. Be sure the steak is at room temperature and dry before broiling or grilling. A dash of salt on both sides is all you need to bring out the flavor of the meat. Since both pepper and garlic burn when seared, eliminate them until just before serving. And be sure to let the steak sit for at least 10 minutes before serving.
Medium-rare is the industry standard for cooking a steak, while some diners prefer "blue" or "Pittsburgh," which means it's almost raw. Rare is when the steak is seared on the exterior and red in the center. But to bring out the taste of the meat and savor a steak that is crispy on the outside and pink in the middle, allowing the interior juices to add their flavor, order or prepare yours medium-rare. Remove it from the heat when it reaches an interior temperature of 135 degrees Fahrenheit.
Roasting a New York Strip Steak
If you're cooking for a crowd and the prime rib choices aren't overwhelming, consider asking the butcher to prepare a New York strip steak roast. Essentially, several New York strips that are uncut comprise this roast, and it benefits from its extensive marbling, which add flavor. You are also not paying for fat but for quality meat that goes a long way.
Preparation of the New York strip roast is simple. Rub the top with olive oil, sprinkle it with some salt and pepper, and place it in a hot, 450F oven for 15 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 325F and continue cooking until the internal temperature reaches 135F. Cover with foil and let the roast sit for 10 minutes before carving.
Impress Your Butcher
Whether you're purchasing a rib-eye steak or a New York strip, don't be afraid to be specific when speaking with the meat cutter, butcher or packager; request the cut that best suits your tastes. Since both are on the expensive side, use your taste buds to guide your selection. For a tender steak, go for the rib-eye. For a chewier, more robust steak, ask for a New York cut that comes from the center cut of the short loin. You'll impress your butcher — and your dinner guests.
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