“To see the butcher slap the steak before he laid it on the block, and give his knife a sharpening, was to forget breakfast instantly. It was agreeable too – it really was – to see him cut it off so smooth and juicy. There was nothing savage in the act, although the knife was large and keen; it was a piece of art, high art; there was delicacy of touch, clearness of tone, skillful handling of the subject, fine shading. It was the triumph of mind over matter; quite.“
– Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit (1812-1870)
Finally, barbeque season has arrived. This issue and the next of Live to Eat will be a two-part series focusing on one of our favourite summertime pastimes – grilling. This month’s issue will no doubt be amongst the most popular of all issues – our guide to steaks. A guide with a twist of course! We’re fairly confident our list will be the world’s first steak guide to exclude the three most popular and most expensive steaks – tenderloin, striploin, and rib steaks. Next month we will attempt to achieve the “Perfect Grilled Steak”. We will explain what happens in the process of grilling, should you use high heat or low heat, to sear or not to sear, to marinade or not to marinade… all answered next issue.
Prior to reading our rankings below, we strongly urge you to refresh your memory on the anatomy of beef – read our one-page “Breaking Down the Beef” guide, available by clicking here.
The World’s first guide to exclude Tenderloins, Striploins and Rib steaks.
A steak guide without the coveted New York Striploins, Rib Steaks, and Filet Mignon? Ludicrous! Well, not from our standpoint… “our” meaning any self-respecting butcher shop that has the availability, ney we say pleasure, of buying whole animals – not just boxed muscles. Let’s clear the air right off the top… we have excluded the three most expensive steaks from our list, the bread and butter for most butcher shops, for the following three reasons:
To celebrate meat. Since industrialization in the meat industry kicked in – roughly fifty or so years ago – and the mass-production of cheap boxed meat became commonplace, omnivores have become creatures of habit. To see these same three cuts on every restaurant and steak house menu, and to see these steaks take up the majority of display space in virtually every grocery store and butcher shop is, frankly, appalling and boring. We hate to break the news to anyone who thinks otherwise – a cow is not a walking loin. We owe it to our local farmers, the farmers that have a passion for what they do and how they do it, to explore their products in their entirety. Appreciation and exploration of whole animals is the sustainable way to eat meat;
Although a Certified Organic, locally raised, well-marbled, and dry-aged New York or Rib Eye is pretty much a piece of heaven (we’re not going to say otherwise), there is lot to be said about the flavour in tougher cuts of meat that is not present in the more tender cuts. Many argue that fat content is the sole factor in the determination of flavour, but chefs and food scientists alike have known for decades that there is an inverse relationship between flavour and tenderness, i.e. tougher cuts, regardless of fat content, are more flavourful. To this day, it is still a mystery – scientifically speaking – as to why tougher cuts tend to have more flavour – our theory is that the increased flow of blood to a well used muscle develops it’s meaty taste (or beefiness in the case of beef). In any case, tougher cuts benefit from a fullness of flavour that are simply not present in the more tender cuts; and
The value, meaning bang-for-your-buck, is higher for any steak on our list than for a Striploin, Rib Steak or Tenderloin. In fact, we could have just as easily named our list a “Value Steak Guide”… we thought the term “Sustainable” more accurately links your buying decisions to the farmers’ reality.
The best way to treat our list of steaks is to print a copy, stick it to your fridge, and systematically over the course of the summer try each cut. You may very well rank the steaks differently; truth be told, and despite our repeated recommendations, number 9 and 10 on our list consistently out-sell number 1.
How we rated the steaks.
We used four factors to come up with our top ten list: flavour, tenderness, price, and personal opinion. If Einstein taught us anything, it’s that we needed some markers for the objective categories to which all cuts are judged relative. So this is what we came up with:
Flavour: Rated from zero to ten, with zero being the least flavourful cut of beef – which we deemed to be the Eye of Round, and ten being the most flavourful cut of beef – which we deemed to be the Beef Shank. There are several cuts we could have chosen to be the least and most flavourful – the point is, the least flavourful is one that is very low in fat, not on the bone, and is a muscle that does little work; conversely, the most flavourful cut is one that has ample fat content, benefits from being on the bone (especially marrow bones), and benefits from being a muscle that is used often.
Tenderness: Rated from zero to ten, with zero being the toughest cut of beef which we chose to be the Beef Shank (assuming it was cooked with dry heat like the other steaks it is being compared to), and ten being the most tender cut of beef, the Tenderloin.
Price: Ahh… for price we had to kick up our creativity a notch. The percentages shown in the price columns below are the percentage savings from a New York or Rib Eye steak calculated by the following formula:
(Price of New York / Rib Eye per kg) minus (Price of cut we are comparing per kg)
(Price of New York / Rib Eye per kg)
So, for example, there is a 57% savings over a NY Striploin by purchasing a boneless blade steak. The percentage was then divided by 10 to yield a number between 0-and-10 to be consistent with the 10-point scale for the other categories.
Just like rating a wine, you need to know the price prior to rating it – ultimately is it worth the price – or more accurately, is it high in value? But, unlike wine that ranges in price from $5 to $5000 per bottle, it wouldn’t be obvious to a reader of the list, relatively speaking, if we just plopped in $2.20/100g in one line, and $3.31/100g in another line – the differences seem almost negligible. We decided to measure value as the percentage savings over the pinnacles of steaks – the New York Striploin and Rib Eye. In our store we price these two steaks equivalently… we’re not quite sure why these steaks are differently priced in grocery stores, to us they’re worth the same – give up a little tenderness for the sake of more flavour in a rib steak, or give up a little flavour for the sake of more tenderness in a New York.
Personal Rating: For the only subjective category, our Head Butcher Ryan Donovan and our Head Chef Jonathan Abrahams were each asked to rate the cuts from 0-to-5 on purely a personal preference. The two values added together yield a 0-to-10 point rating consistent with the other categories.
|CUT||BONELESS BLADE STEAK|
|OTHER NAMES||Book Steak, Butler Steak, Lifter Steak, Petite Steak, Paleron (French), Copertina di Spalla (Italian), Paletilla, Planchuela, or Parte Superior de la Paleta (Spanish)|
|AVERAGE SIZE||Our average Blade Steaks are 340g (0.75lb), but any size thickness can be cut on request.|
|DESCRIPTION||The Blade is truly an overlooked gem. The Blade steak is located in the chuck (or shoulder) of a beef, which is the primary weight-bearing muscle group. More specifically, it is located in the Bottom Blade section; we point this out simply to differentiate it from the Flat Iron steak (another steak in this list) that is cut from the Top Blade section in the chuck, which is a little less tender. As a rule, meat from the chuck primal, although always flavourful, is usually tough and best for braising or stewing. The Blade is an exception to the rule and is surprisingly quite tender; in fact, the Boneless Blade Steak is cut from the exact same muscle as the premium Rib Eye steak that is over twice the price. The only catch to this phenomenal steak is that there’s a seam of cartilage running through the centre – but for a 57% savings off a New York, we’ll gladly take the extra step of slicing the cartilage out before serving.|
|COOKING METHOD||Braised blade is absolutely to die for, but phenomenal results can be achieved on a grill by seasoning, searing over high heat, then lowering the heat slightly until the steak is cooked medium-rare. Tent with foil and let sit for 5 minutes before carving. Don’t forget to cut along the centre cartilage and remove it before serving.|
|OTHER NAMES||Thin Flank, Vacio (Argentina), Bavette (France), Costine di Pancia (Italy). Because of the popularity of this cut in Argentina, we have adopted the Argentinian name in our store to differentiate it from the Flank steak everyone is familiar with.|
|AVERAGE SIZE||One Vacio is roughly 1.2kg (2.75lb), but we cut and sell smaller pieces if asked.|
|DESCRIPTION||Vacio is one of The Healthy Butcher’s signature cuts. It is situated in the Flank primal, but it is a very different cut from the “Flank” that everyone knows (just look at the photos of the two cuts to see the obvious differences). Essentially, it’s a cow’s tummy muscle.|
|COOKING METHOD||In Argentina, a Vacio would be thrown on a grill once the wood has burned down and left to cook for a long time… South Americans are champion slow grillers! Our dry-aged Vacio can be grilled simply by seasoning, searing, then slow grilling over medium heat to a medium-rare. Let it sit for at least 5 minutes, then slice it thin and across the grain. Because of its large size, this is a phenomenal party steak; you can feed a lot of people with one Vacio!|
|CUT||TRI-TIP STEAK (OR ROAST)|
|OTHER NAMES||Triangle Steak or Roast, Punta en Triángulo (Spanish)|
|AVERAGE SIZE||790g (1.75lb)|
|DESCRIPTION||The Tri Tip comes from the bottom section of the sirloin (versus the #8 Top Sirloin comes from the top section of the sirloin). It is uncommon to find this cut in our neck of the woods or for that matter, any part of the Eastern U.S., because it is such a popular cut in the west (especially California) and many meat packers still ship their tri tip their. (Don’t forget, most butchers and grocers deal strictly with pre-cut “boxed” meat so their choice of cuts may be limited depending on the distributor.)|
|COOKING METHOD||If the Tri Tip you see in your butcher’s window has been trimmed of all fat, ask to have another one cut for you leaving the fat cap (in the photo above, the fat cap is on the bottom side not shown). Season, sear both sides, then cook on lower heat with the fat side up until the centre of the steak is medium rare. The Tri Tip is a perfect party steak because: (a) it’s fairly large; and (b) the steak will vary in thickness from fairly thin to very thick – by cooking the steak to a medium rare in the centre, you will make everyone happy… people who enjoy their meat more on the medium-well side can pick at one end, while the rare lovers can pick on the other end. The grain is fairly obvious in this muscle so be sure to cut against the grain… ask your butcher to show you the grain if it is not obvious to you.|
|OTHER NAMES||Philadelphia Steak, Bavette Aloyau or Hampe (French), Falda, Entrãna (Chile)|
|AVERAGE SIZE||Outer Skirt 300g
Inner Skirt 475g
|DESCRIPTION||Skirt is one of the most flavourful of all steaks. It is situated in the short plate section of the beef, which is the inside of the rib on the chest. There are two types of skirt: inside and outside. It’s a coin toss as to which is better; inside skirt is great because it doesn’t have as much membrane to be removed, but outside skirt is a little thicker and a bit less stringy. Skirt is the meat originally used for both fajitas (which means “belt” in Spanish and reflects the shape of the skirt) and Philadelphia cheese steak sandwiches.|
|COOKING METHOD||Season and cook quickly over high heat. Skirt has a very pronounced grain (just look at the photos). If cooked to a rare, sliced thin and against the grain, you will end up with as fine a piece of beef as you will find.|
|OTHER NAMES||Poitrine Gros Bout (France), Petto (Italy), Pecho (Argentina)|
|AVERAGE SIZE||A whole brisket, point and ¼” fat cap left on weighs between 4.5-5.5kg (10-12lbs). Of course, any size smaller piece can be cut. Allow about ¾ lb per person to allow for trimming and shrinkage.|
|DESCRIPTION||The brisket is the front portion of the beef breast that lies between the front legs. Brisket is the cut of choice for Texas slow-smoked pit-cooked barbeque. The only reason the brisket is not #1 on our list is (a) it’s not really a steak; and (b) it takes a long long time to grill – we’re talking on the order of 15 hours. When it comes down to it, a properly slow-smoked brisket is as good as it gets in the beef world.|
|COOKING METHOD||Brisket can be braised (like a pot roast), poached (like for corned beef), or hot-smoked (like for southern-style barbeque, the reason this cut is on our list). There are more opinions and debates about how to properly smoke a brisket than any other cut; in our opinion, best results come from brining for 24 or more hours (the brine being a salt-based mixture that is best applied if injected into the brisket with a needle), dry rubbing with a nice mixture of spices, then slow grilling for 10 to 15 hours at around 180-200F. The brisket is ready when it is falling apart or “fork tender”.|
|CUT||FLAT IRON STEAK|
|OTHER NAMES||Flat Iron is often confused with the Boneless Blade Steak above even though they are two distinct steaks.|
|AVERAGE SIZE||220g-320g (0.5-0.7lbs), perfect one steak per person|
|DESCRIPTION||The flat iron sits in the Top Blade section of the chuck, on the other side of the shoulder blade from where our #1 Boneless Blade Steak is located (which is in the Bottom Blade). As compared to the Boneless Blade Steak, the flat iron is also very flavourful, slightly tougher, has no cartilage running through it, and is a little more expensive.|
|COOKING METHOD||Same as Boneless Blade Steak. Flat Iron’s are usually thinner than Blades, so less cooking time will be required. This steak will likely be finished after a good sear. Slice across the grain and serve.|
|OTHER NAMES||London Broil, Bavette Flanchet (France), Pancia or Bavetta (Italy), Bife de Vacio (Argentina), Bife do Vazio (Brazil), Palanca (Chile), Dunne (Germany)|
|AVERAGE SIZE||790g (1.75lb) – One large Flank will serve about four people.|
|DESCRIPTION||The Flank steak is easily distinguishable by its longitudinal grain (see the photo). Marinade can penetrate flank steak without the meat losing its firm texture because it is relatively thin and porous (we will discuss marinating in more detail in next month’s newsletter). Flank has a moderate amount of fat, a great beefy flavour, and no connective tissue.|
|COOKING METHOD||Similar to the Vacio, season, sear, then cook at medium or perhaps medium-high heat until medium-rare. Tent with foil and let sit for 5-to-10 min., then slice thin across the grain.|
|CUT||TOP SIRLOIN STEAK|
|OTHER NAMES||Coulotte, Bifteck (French), Bife (Argentina), Bistek (Chile), American retail butchers often call this steak Chateaubriand, but we feel that French name should be reserved for the large butt end section of the Tenderloin.|
|AVERAGE SIZE||Range from 454g to 790g (1lb to 1.75lb), depending on what side it is cut (i.e. from the loin side or the round side). Generally, one Top Sirloin can feed 2-3 people.|
|DESCRIPTION||The Top Sirloin comes from the Sirloin section of the beef, which falls between the lean and tough Round and the luxuriously tender Loin primals. Don’t be fooled by the 8th place ranking, the Top Sirloin is a phenomenal steak; the only reason it didn’t top our list is because its higher price pushed it down. That being said, at a 26% savings from NY’s, this is a magnificent steak, both tender and flavourful.|
|COOKING METHOD||Season, sear and cook at medium-high heat until medium rare. Also note that a top sirloin roast makes for a great barbeque roast.|
|OTHER NAMES||Knuckle Steak, Breakfast Steak, Tranche Grasse (France), Rabadilha (Portugal), Bola de Lomo (Argentina), Patinho (Brazil), Posta Rosada (Chile)|
|AVERAGE SIZE||450g (1lb) each steak.|
|DESCRIPTION||The Sirloin Tip is the continuation of the sirloin muscle that is the source of Top Sirloin steaks (see #8 above). However, because the tip is situated in the Round primal, it is tougher and leaner. As far as extra-lean steaks go, this is the best it gets.|
|COOKING METHOD||Season, sear, and cook to medium-rare over medium-high heat. Do not overcook!|
|CUT||EYE OF ROUND STEAK|
|OTHER NAMES||Tranche ou Piece Ronde or Roti de Boeuf (French), Girello or Magatello (Italian), Peceto (Argentina)|
|AVERAGE SIZE||Average 220g (0.5lb) per steak, but can be cut thinner or thicker to preference. Shown in the diagram is our 3-peppercorn encrusted Eye.|
|DESCRIPTION||Rounding out our Top Ten list is the Eye of Round. The Eye is the leanest muscle in a beef which probably explains its popularity among our health-conscious customers. It comes from the round primal, and because it is a well used muscle, it is a bit chewy. If you’re looking for a lean, small steak, that is unbelievably economical, this is a good choice.|
|COOKING METHOD||Since the Eye of Round has so little fat, it is best not to cook it past rare or medium-rare. Season, sear, and cook to medium-rare over medium-high heat.|
What have we learned from the rankings?
Price was obviously a significant factor that tipped the scales. The least expensive steak, the Boneless Blade Steak, took the top rank. And the most expensive steak on the list, the Top Sirloin, placed only eighth. Using the wine analogy again, it became obvious that for a $10 bottle, the Blade was as good as it gets, but more was expected from the Top Sirloin being a $20 bottle.
The rankings also show the importance of fat. Is it a surprise that the three leanest cuts in our Top 10 are numbers eight, nine, and ten? Fat plays multiple roles in meat. First, it improves tenderness by acting as a lubricant between meat fibers making the fibers easier to pull apart. Second, fat carries flavour compounds; in fact, if all fat was removed from meat, it would be difficult to differentiate between several types of red meat because they would taste so similar. And third, fat stimulates the flow of saliva which has the effect of further stimulating taste and further increasing tenderness.
Most important to understand with our Top 10 list is that all of these steaks are sustainable steaks. These cuts represent a whole animal, excluding the oversold and premium-priced loin and rib sections. No matter which cut you choose from the above list, you can feel comfortable that not only are you being frugal, you are also supporting sustainable farming. The results of sustainable eating trickle down to everything from helping the farmers’ livelihood to improving local groundwater.