A simple steak dinner can get complicated in a hurry. Navigating the myriad and ever-evolving names for cuts of meat, weighing the politics of whether your menu is made of sustainable products and considering endless options for how to cook your beef is complicated. Here’s a look at some basics you need to know about where your steak comes from and how to find the best cuts for dinner.
Butcher nomenclature is a warren of confusion for the consumer. For example, butchers give multiple names to various cuts. French names for cuts of beef are popular with American chefs, but trying to match French or Italian cuts with American cuts becomes an exercise in frustration because European butchers tend to cut beef down more thoroughly and with more precision. The names also can vary from region to region. In naming beef cuts, butchers start with general categories that refer to the cow. So a particular steak such as hanger steak, flap steak and skirt steak come from, respectively, the plate, the flank and the plate and flank. Flank steak, obviously, comes from the flank as well.
Hanger steak or hanging steak comes from the hanging tender that is the portion of the diaphragm muscle attached to the back section of the last rib. Found between the 12th and 13th ribs of the carcass, it’s a soft, grainy, elliptical-shaped muscle about 7 inches long. The plate area indicates the diaphragm, which anatomically is one muscle. The cut gets its name from the fact that it “hangs” off the plate from the diaphragm near the kidney. The butcher cuts this into two sections: the “hanger steak,” considered more flavorful due to its being close to the kidneys; and the outer skirt steak, which is composed of tougher muscle within the diaphragm. Hanger steak, sometimes called onglet from the French, has a long, inedible membrane down the middle. It’s also called a butcher’s steak because before it became popular in restaurants (it’s rarely sold elsewhere) butchers would keep it for themselves.
Flap steak or flap meat is often confused with hanger steak and often mislabeled as skirt steak (which it is not) or sirloin tips (not that either) although correctly as ranchera steak. This fan-shaped cut is an extension of the T-bone and porterhouse on the short loin coming from a smaller loin muscle on the flank. This cut is used for Mexican-style ranchera steaks and fajita strips. It is a thin steak and sometimes called by its French name bavette.
Skirt steak is a long, flat muscle cut from the beef flank and the plate area. It is a long, thin, flavorful and slightly tough cut of meat that portions well when cooked and cut along the grain. There are two types of skirt steak: the inner skirt, cut from the interior portion of the flank in the hindquarter; and the outer skirt, cut from the interior surface of the short plate in the beef forequarter.
Finding the best
The best beef will be found on the Internet rather than your supermarket. For example — and for a real treat, albeit expensive — visit NYPrimeMeats.com or Lobel’s of New York. For beef that will be stewed, your supermarket will be adequate.
In many parts of the United States, beef elicits an almost religious devotion. Here’s all you need to know about selecting good beef: The best-tasting beef comes from cows raised without hormones and fed a natural diet, meaning grass. Corn isn’t a natural part of their diet, so beef proudly proclaimed as corn-fed is not necessarily something you should seek out. On the other hand, much beef is finished (before slaughter) on a corn diet, and the meat will be delicious.
In the United States, beef is graded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The agency uses eight grades, depending on the amount of intramuscular fat and physiological maturity: prime, choice, select, standard, commercial, utility, cutter and canner. Prime is best for human consumption; you’ll find choice and select in a supermarket. Only 2 percent of beef in America is graded prime, which makes it hard to find, expensive, and used mostly by restaurants and hotels. When you are in a supermarket and you see beef sold without a USDA grade, it is probably standard or commercial grade, an inferior beef product.
Given the varieties of cuts you see in the display case, how do you know what to choose? The parts of the cow that don’t get much exercise, such as the meat around the ribs or flank, require brief cooking over high heat. They are cuts ideal for grilling, broiling, or pan-searing. These cuts include rib eye, top loin, T-bone, porterhouse, skirt steak, filet mignon, sirloin, New York strip, and tri-tip.
Steaks come and go in popularity. For instance, filet mignon was the most popular cut in the 1950s and ’60s, New York strip in the ’70s. Today, hanger steak and flatiron steak are popular among restaurant chefs. Flatiron steak is a shoulder-top blade steak cut from the chuck in such a way that the connective tissue that runs through the center is eliminated. Hanger steak, as I said above, is part of the diaphragm muscle and very flavorful and chewy. For the fullest flavor, never cook these cuts past medium rare. If you prefer meat well-cooked, choose cuts that benefit from long cooking such as short ribs, brisket, shank, bottom round and shoulder steak. The best beef for stewing will be labeled beef stew meat that are from a variety of cuts from the fore shank, or chuck, which are various cuts from the shoulder. Cuts from the hindquarter, called round steak, can also be braised or stewed.
Now that you have all this wonderful information, you can head for your supermarket and, lo and behold, they won’t have any of these cuts. Yep, it’s frustrating and confusing.
Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.