Summer is barbecue season, and there are few things more delectable than a perfectly grilled steak. From silky filet mignon to juicy rib-eye, premium cuts of steak are among the most highly coveted entrees on Earth, with the best of the best commanding triple-digit prices at high-end steak houses.
Fortunately, there are ways to serve this delicious dish at your next cookout without busting your budget. In honor of National Filet Mignon Day on Aug. 13, check out these tips for choosing the perfect cut of steak while making the most of your grocery budget.
Remember That Size Matters
Always choose a cut of beef that’s thick enough to tolerate high heat. “Anything less than 1.25 inches will have a higher risk of being overdone and might not eat as well from a tenderness perspective,” said Hannah Raudsepp, founder and CEO of the Honest Beef Company. “Look for 1.25 to 1.75 inches.”
It’s also important to note that steaks shrink from cooking. The lower the quality of meat, the more you lose.
“There is less shrinkage for the higher-quality, less-fatty cuts of meats, which means you get more for your money,” said Toby Amidor, nutrition expert and author of “The Greek Yogurt Kitchen.” “Higher fat cuts actually shrink about one-quarter of the size.”
A Cost Breakdown: How to Pick the Best Cut of Meat
Pay Attention to Color
You can tell a lot about the quality of steak cuts just by looking at them.
“When choosing your beef… look at the color of the meat,” said Nate Singer, chef and head butcher at Blackbelly Butcher in Boulder, Colo. “If there is a microfilm or slime on it, pass. If the fat is solid, not so good. The color should be bright red if it’s fresh. If it’s dry aged, it will have a little gray to the color.”
Trust Your Instincts
Choosing the best steak has a lot to do with following your gut and simply picking the cut that jumps out at you. Filet mignon might come to mind when you think of great steak, but it’s only great if you love delicate and tender meat. If you like the bolder flavors — or simply the classic look — of a bone-in cut, then a T-bone might be right for you.
“There is no such thing as the best steak,” said Kim Brauer, culinary concierge at Marx Foods in Seattle. “Just the best steak for you.”
Know the Age
It’s important to know what factors affect a steak brand’s selection of origin animals. By researching the brand, and investigating the methods that the company uses to acquire, sort and select animals, a novice foodie can gain valuable insight into how the steak is likely to taste.
“Choose a branded program that selects out the older animals and less-desirable breeds,” Raudsepp said. “Angus is one of the best breeds for marbling and tenderness, and older animals provide tougher meat.”
Get to Know Your Butcher
It might be a bit intimidating to strike up a conversation with a guy wearing a bloody apron and holding a meat cleaver, but getting to know your local butcher is often the first step on the journey toward finding the perfect steak.
Ask questions. Tell the butcher what you like, and he or she will be able to guide you toward options that you hadn’t thought of or didn’t know existed. Plus, butchers can special order just about anything when given notice. If they know you, they might also tip you off when there are good deals or price reductions.
Perform a Bovine Background Check
The cow’s background and history directly affect the flavor and quality of the steak. Ask specifically about the diet of the origin animal. While cows that were strictly grass fed in free-range pastures produce steak that has a more rustic flavor, cows that were fed grain produce steaks with excellent marbling and fat cover, said Rob Levitt, co-owner of The Butcher & Larder in Chicago, in an interview with GQ.
Buy in Bulk
You can also save money by buying more than you can eat in one sitting and ask the butcher to wrap the surplus in freezer paper, Levitt told GQ. A step up from basic butcher paper, freezer paper has a special plastic lining that serves as a barrier to moisture. Keep your steak fresh by sealing the paper-wrapped meat in a zip-top bag, squeezing out the air and freezing immediately.
If you follow your instincts and do a little research, you’ll be able to get a premium steak that you and your family will truly enjoy.
About the Author
Andrew Lisa has been writing professionally since 2001. An award-winning writer, Andrew was formerly one of the youngest nationally distributed columnists for the largest newspaper syndicate in the country, the Gannett News Service. He worked as the business section editor for amNewYork, the most widely distributed newspaper in Manhattan, and worked as a copy editor for TheStreet.com, a financial publication in the heart of Wall Street’s investment community in New York City.