How to Choose the Best Steak At the Grocery Store or Butcher

how to choose steak

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I’ve seen it a hundred times.

You’re excited to fire up the grill.  You get your burners or charcoal burning hot.  You invest time seasoning, cooking, and plating a delicious steak dinner.

The problem?  Your end result just doesn’t quite leave you satisfied.  Maybe the steak ends up too chewy.  Or maybe the flavor just isn’t quite there like it is when you go to the steakhouse.

There’s some potential good news if you’ve found yourself in this situation.  Often times, poor steak results on the grill have nothing to do with your cooking skill.  It has everything to do with the cuts of beef you select at the store though.

We’ve created this guide to help you solve that problem.  In this article, we’ve created a quick reference guide to help you select the perfect steaks every time you go to the grocery store or butcher.  Read on to find out what you need to know.

A Quick Note About Beef

It can be helpful to have a background understanding of steak before getting into the finer nuances of selecting the perfect cut.

Beef is inherently flavorful, but where it really gets it’s delicious flavor is from fat.  Specifically, fat melts during the cooking process to flavor and moisturize the muscle fibers in each cut.  It’s what gives a proper steak that delicious buttery flavor profile.

On top of that, each cut of beef comes from a different part of a steer.  Those famously delicious steak cuts you’re used to having like ribeye, NY strip, porterhouse, and filet are great for a reason.

They all are cut from portions of the steer that are underutilized muscles and therefore more tender than other parts of the animal.  We’ll go over which cuts are more ideal than others in a moment!

Things You Should Look For When Choosing a Steak

Fat Marbling

When it comes to picking a steak, most experts would agree that generally you want to have the maximum amount of fat marbling possible and you want the marbling to be uniform across the steak.

What is marbling exactly?  It’s intramuscular fat that is distributed throughout the muscle fibers of the steak.  As mentioned above, this fat renders and helps to tenderize and flavor your beef while it cooks.

You want it to be plentiful and uniform so that your beef has the best possible qualities to turn out delicious and evenly cooked.

You might have heard of Wagyu or Kobe beef before – these types of beef are the best of the best and one of the main reasons is that they have world class fat marbling throughout them.

One other note about fat, you want the color to be white and translucent.  If the fat has a yellow hue, odds are it’s harder and it will not break down as easily as softer white fat.

There are exceptions to this rule though, but you should be careful to make sure you are buying high quality lean beef (like Certified Piedmontese) if you want to cook a leaner cut of steak.

Thickness

Another aspect of choosing a steak that is important but easy to overlook is the thickness of your beef.  If you buy something too thin, it can be really easy to overcook if you aren’t careful.

The thicker the steak, the more tender your end result is going to be too.  Most steaks are cooked with a scorching hot sear on the outside, then the inside finishes on a lower temperature.  The more meat you have to work with in the middle, the easier it is to achieve a consistent, tender outcome.

It really comes down to precision.  The thicker the steak, the more predictable your results will be.  Plus it’s just nice to have that extra mass of beef on your plate!

Choosing the Right Cut of Beef

I want to be super clear about this part – there are a lot of different cuts of beef out there, and even the ones that are tough and lean can make a great meal if you have marbling, thickness, and the know-how to cook them.

But the fact of the matter is, working with certain cuts of steak is a lot easier than working with others.  It has to do with the inherent tenderness of the muscle fibers in each cut.

Generally speaking, the “best” cuts of steak come from muscles or areas of the cow that aren’t worked much, if at all, throughout the life of the animal.  On the other end, muscles that are overworked and strong tend to be tougher and require low and slow cooking on a smoker to achieve acceptable tenderness (see: brisket).

So with that in mind, you’ll probably have an easier time making a delicious steak if you choose one of the following cuts:

And on the other hand, the following cuts are a little more difficult to work with.  You either need to cook them for longer periods of time on lower temperatures or really do an excellent job on the grill to get restaurant like results on these:

  • Sirloin steak
  • Flank steak
  • Skirt steak
  • Tri-tip
  • Hanger steak

Again, I want to emphasize that this second list isn’t “bad” at all.  I love all of these cuts and they are perfect for certain recipes!  But if we are talking about a traditional steak dinner, I’d steer clear of these.  You’ll just have an easier time with the first list.

Beef Grade

In the U.S., the United States Department of Agriculture has a rating system that is used to indicate quality of beef.  The different levels are select, choice, and prime.

  • Select is the lowest grade, although it is definitely edible.  Generally it will be on the tougher end and with less marbling, therefore it might lack in the tenderness and flavor department.
  • Choice is higher quality than select, and a very nice medium.  It has more marbling, flavor, and tenderness than select but it’s not quite on the level of Prime.
  • Prime is the top of the line in the US rating system.  Marbling should be abundant and flavor should be plentiful in any prime labeled steak.

If we are talking Wagyu, the beef is graded on an entirely different scale.  The crazy thing is, some of the lowest grades on the Wagyu scale would qualify as Prime under the USDA rating system.  The Japanese Wagyu grading system is rated on a scale of C1 to A5.

Price

As you can imagine, the better the piece of beef comes out on the marbling, thickness, cut, and grade discussion, the more expensive it is.

Price is a consideration when it comes to any purchase.  The old adage “you get what you pay for” definitely applies to steak as well.  Unfortunately that means it’s probably not practical have a big ol’ porterhouse every night of the week.

But if you’re cooking for a special occasion, or trying to impress some friends, my two cents is that the extra dollar or two per pound to upgrade from a sirloin to a NY strip is well worth the price.

Final Thoughts

I hope this guide to choosing steak at the grocery store has been helpful to you!  Choosing a steak at the store is one of my favorite things to do, so I hope this article has helped to shine some light on the things you should look for next time you are buying.

Have any tips I missed out on or forgot to mention?  I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below!