When you're trying to save money on meat, Sam's Club and Costco are a safe bet — but only if you want to buy in bulk. To get the best price on rib-eye steaks from a warehouse store, for example, you have to buy the whole prime rib, which can weigh as much as 12 to 16 pounds. Add in the cost of preparation or the time it takes to fabricate portions, and the convenience of the supermarket might just outweigh your savings.
So before you cook your next steak, learn about common cuts of meat, how to prepare them and what they'll cost you. Here's everything you need to know to make a perfect steak that's worth your money.
Prime rib might come with tableside carved-to-order service, but "prime" doesn't have anything to do with the meat's USDA grade. Most steakhouses sell USDA choice prime rib, unless otherwise noted.
When it comes down to it, prime refers to the best cut from the rib subprimal — the larger "mother" cut the prime rib roast comes from — and includes ribs six through 12. Rib-eye steaks come from the prime section. So, whenever you see smaller three- and four-bone prime rib roasts in the market, you can rest assured they come from the prime as well.
But what makes the prime area so special in the rib subprimal? It comes down to the meat's tenderness and marbling, or fat. The muscles in the region undergo less stress than well-exercised muscles, such as the chuck shoulder or rump.
On a price-per-pound basis, if you want to save on rib-eye steaks, you get the best deal when you buy a whole prime rib or three- or four-bone prime and slice it yourself. The market price for a 16-ounce rib-eye can range from $7 to $15, and cutting your own doesn't take much effort — just a sharp meat-slicing knife or chef's scimitar.
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Wholesale Price: $6.10 per pound
Bulk Price: $6.47 per pound
Second only to rib-eye in marbling, strip steaks — also called New York strips or shell steaks (bone-in) — have a balance of tenderness and meatiness. Strips have a tighter grain than rib-eyes and a bit more chew to them, but rank as one of the top steakhouse choices — and are especially great when you're sipping on a good beer.
Supermarket strips range from $14 to $18 per 16-ounce steak, making purchasing a whole loin the economical choice. You can break down strip loins into steaks more easily than a rib roast — a tighter grain makes for an easier cut.
Strips respond well to most cooking methods — grilling, roasting and broiling all work here. Try to avoid cooking strips past medium doneness, or an internal temperature between 135 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Strips tend to toughen when cooked past medium, diminishing the natural tenderness of the cut.
Wholesale Price: $3.22 per pound
Bulk Price: $4.88 per pound
Top sirloin sits just below the tenderloin, and although it doesn't share any of the tenderloin's trademark tenderness, it does have comparable leanness. Top sirloin has a robust, beefy flavor, a bit more than you taste in a rib-eye or strip — one of the effects of muscle usage.
Leanness and toughness, except in tenderloins, go hand in hand, as does the amount of connective tissue. Well-exercised portions of the cow have more connective tissue and hence more toughness. That's one reason why slow, moist-heat cooking, like braising, is the method of choice for top sirloin.
Top sirloin works both as a roast and steak. In supermarkets, top sirloin steaks cost around $5.99 per pound, though you can find good deals at Costco on grass-fed, antibiotic-free top sirloin steaks.
Slicing steaks from a whole top sirloin is a bit more complicated than slicing strips and rib-eyes. Whole top sirloins have a triangular, secondary muscle called a cap attached to the top of it. Remove the cap by slicing along the seam connecting it to the main muscle and use it for stew meat, kabobs or thinly sliced steaks. After removing the cap, slice the top sirloin across the grain into steaks or roasts.
Wholesale Price: $10.16 per pound
Bulk Price: $10.98 per pound
The tenderloin has a mystique of luxury surrounding it. Dishes like filet mignon, tournedos Rossini and beef Wellington help tenderloin command a higher price.
Tenderloin costs as much as $25 per pound in the supermarket. Many chefs consider tenderloin filet overrated, mainly for reasons related to its tenderness, lack of fat and flavor.
The tenderloin muscle doesn't get any exercise, which makes it tender, but at the cost of having little of the beefy flavor found in well-exercised cuts of beef. On the other hand, the cow only has two tenderloins, making it a relatively small percentage of the total available meat, which partly justifies its higher price.
That said, if natural tenderness is what you're looking for, you can't do better than the tenderloin — but only if you cook it to rare or medium-rare. When you cook a filet too long, you're left with a tough, relatively tasteless, overpriced steak.
When cooking a whole tenderloin (weighing 3 to 4 pounds), sear it on the stove in a roasting pan, using two burners if needed. Then, transfer it to a 475-degree Fahrenheit oven and cook it 16 to 20 minutes for rare and 20 to 26 minutes for medium-rare.
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Wholesale Price: $5.09 per pound
Bulk Price: $5.58 per pound
Just as the tenderloin might hold the top spot for overrated cuts of meat, the flank might lead the pack among underrated cuts. You commonly find flank steaks in fajita and stir-fry recipes. It's inexpensive, versatile and readily takes to marinades and dry rubs.
Sourced from the belly of the cow just under the loin subprimal, the flank steak has an innate toughness. You can get around this toughness by quickly cooking it to medium-rare using high heat and slicing it thinly across the grain.
Flank typically costs $7 to $9 a pound at the supermarket, but its low cost doesn't indicate low quality. It means you're getting a great deal at the store. You can cook a whole flank without trimming it. But, if your flank has a bit too much fat on the narrow end for your tastes, simply slice it off.
Marinate flank steak in your favorite marinade for 12 to 24 hours before cooking. Alternatively, salt the flank steak liberally and let it rest — loosely covered with plastic wrap — on a rack in the refrigerator for up to two days. Early salting allows for deeper seasoning and increased tenderness. You can also substitute your favorite dry rub for salt.
Wholesale Price: $2.49 per pound
Bulk Price: $3.98 per pound
You won't get much tougher cuts of meat than those fabricated from the chuck, or shoulder and neck region of the cow. Under constant tension, these muscles have tightly wound fibers and a lot of connective tissue — two commonalities among most tough cuts of meat.
You find the chuck eye nestled in the mass of muscles that make up the chuck roll, just before the rib sub-primal starts (at rib bone five). Chuck eye steaks and roasts range from $4 to $8 per pound at the market, making them a bit more expensive than buying a whole chuck roll. But, depending on your meat-cutting experience, you might want to pay the few extra dollars and buy the chuck already broken down into roasts. The chuck has a lot of separate muscles in it, making it easy to make a mistake if you're not familiar with its anatomy.
Wholesale: $4.17 per pound
Bulk Price: $4.77 per pound
Once considered far less elegant than other beef cuts, short ribs gained popularity when restaurants like Tom Colicchio's Craft and Bryce Shuman's Betony showed what you can do when you add a little finesse to a tough, neglected cut of meat.
Short ribs come from the rib subprimal, and although they have none of the tenderness you find in the rib-eye, they more than compensate for it with marbling and flavor. Short ribs epitomize "beefiness."
The market price for short ribs typically averages around $5 per pound, putting them right in the bulk-price range. All the better for the home cook, as you need a band saw to break them down into portions.
Braise short ribs in red wine, stock and aromatics for best results. After braising, strain and reduce the cooking liquid until thickened for a complementary sauce.