Grilling Guide

How to Buy the Best Steak

Truth be told, finding the “best’ steak to buy is a matter of personal preference. Perhaps your favorite steak is one with a good bit of fat content throughout, or maybe you prefer a leaner cut of meat. Either way, there’s a perfect steak out there for you, just waiting to be tossed on the grill. Finding out exactly what that is might take some trial and error — oh no, the tragedy of having to eat steak! Our friends at BBQGuys lend a hand in your juicy journey by showing you what to look for when picking the best steak cuts.

Know the USDA Grades

The easiest way to assess steak at a glance is through the USDA’s beef grades, which reflect a cut’s overall quality in terms of flavor, tenderness, and juiciness in conjunction with a cattle carcass’ yield. Among other factors, a steak’s grade is based largely on marbling, or the amount of intramuscular fat throughout the beef. We aren’t talking about the thick chunks of fat running along the edge of a steak, the fat content that matters is dispersed in the flesh and looks like white flecks or clumps. Marbling is crucial for flavor and juiciness because the fat not only melts down into deliciousness when cooked, but also helps distribute juices when finished.

Steaks found in markets and retail scores come from the top three USDA beef grades: Prime, Choice, and Select. Prime sits atop the others with moderately abundant or slightly abundant marbling; Choice marbling can be moderate, modest, or small; and Select beef features only slight marbling. The five lesser grades are incredibly lean, which is why such beef is typically used for ground meat or advertised as store-brand steak. With this in mind, determine your ideal marbling ratio and use beef grades to point you toward the appropriate steaks.

Consider the Cut

We don’t expect you to memorize the anatomy of cattle — trust us, it’s not easy — but you’ll be a smarter shopper and more satisfied feaster if you’re familiar with the different cuts of beef. That way, you can identify whether a ribeye or a skirt steak better fits your preferences, and which types of steak should marinate overnight before hitting the grill grates. There are nine primal cuts from every cattle, so don’t assume that every piece of steak brings the same tenderness and flavor.

Look for Aged Steaks

Scientifically speaking, an aged steak is a more tender and delicious steak. Aging beef allows the natural enzymes to break down muscle tissues within the meat, a process that tenderizes steaks to their fullest potential. Whether a steak is dry-aged or wet-aged has a negligible impact on its quality; the aging process is almost entirely about time. Best results come from steaks that age at least 21 days, though they can pick up additional flavor and tenderness if aged for longer.

Unfortunately, most retail stores don’t advertise how long their steaks are aged; even so, it’s generally for a week or less because of limited storage and inventory turnover. Your local butcher or market will probably be more forthcoming about their aging practices, which should be closer to the optimal 21-day threshold anyway.