4 Best Cuts of Steak For Grilling, According to a Pitmaster
Hamburgers and hot dogs are perhaps more commonly associated with summer grilling, but steak is actually America's most favorite grilled food, according to Statista. Roughly one-third of Americans favored a nice thick, juicy slab of beef over other popular grilled items in a 2020 survey.
"There's just something so primal about steak," says Raichlen, during a recent phone interview with Eat This, Not That! "It's barbecue at its essence. It's just meat, salt, and fire."
Human hunger for red meat has historic roots, according to Raichlen: "Raw hunks of meat are what our prehistoric ancestors ate to give them the evolutionary leap forward to develop big brains and complex societies."
More contemporarily, Raichlen says there's a certain "nobility" to eating steak that other forms of meat simply can't match: "When you want to celebrate a birthday or a graduation or a promotion, you don't go out for a hot dog or hamburger, you go out for a steak dinner."
Steaks are also incredibly versatile, he adds. "You can serve them simply, you can serve them with sauce, you can cut 'em up and stir fry 'em."
Not every cut of steak is well-suited to outdoor grilling, however. Lay down a chunky slice of chuck roast on a piping hot grate, and isn't going to turn out very good, Raichlen notes. "It would just be too tough."
When the renowned grill master gets his own fire going, he prefers to put on a softer, more succulent cut. Here are the very best cuts for grilling, according to a pitmaster.
New York Strip
"The more tender the steak, in a sense, the better suited it is for grilling," says Raichlen. But there are limits to that rule. "I don't particularly like filet mignons because they don't have a lot of flavor—they're too tender," he points out. The classic New York strip, however, is among Raichlen's personal favorites.
One of the so-called "noble" family of steaks, it's cut from the cow's strip loin and comes from a muscle that doesn't get too much exercise, giving it just the right amount of tenderness for a quick turn on a hot grill. Says Raichlen, "It's really meaty and beefy—I mean, you can't ask for better than that."
Another "noble" cut, the ribeye is also tailor-made for fast, hot grilling. Cut from the cow's rib section, it includes three well-exercised muscles connected by thick seams of fat, making it rich in flavor, if a bit chewier than the strip steak. "I like the ribeye because it's more generously marbled and it's really luscious," says Raichlen.
For a little extra oomph, opt for the bone-in rib steak, he adds. It's essentially the same cut, with the added bonus of big honking bone to gnaw on. "It's impressive to look at, and you get different flavors from the meat right next to the bone."
With both the strip and ribeye, Raichlen is a big fan of cuts that are dry-aged for at least 30 days. (He speaks highly of the aging program at Whole Foods, in particular.) During the aging process, enzymes work to tenderize the meat and give it a "funky, umami flavor" that he likens to a well-aged cheese.
Beyond the "noble" steaks, which often come at a premium price, Raichlen recommends cuts from the cow's belly section, such as skirt steaks, flank steaks, and hanger steaks. These are typically more affordable, yet equally grillable and flavorful, but must be "cooked quickly and sliced very thinly across the grain to make them palatable," he notes.
Among the belly cuts, Raichlen especially likes the skirt steak, which is long, flat, and ideal for marinading.
Flat Iron Steak
If you're looking for something more modern or less common, Raichlen points to the "new school" of steaks, which he defines as innovative, cost-efficient alternatives to the noble cuts. "They come from very specific muscles in parts of the animal that are not necessarily well-suited to grilling," Raichlen explains, but they've been cut in a way to maximize their potential.
His favorite example is the flat iron steak, a relatively new style of cut from the cow's shoulder (also known as the chuck). The flat iron is tender, flavorful, and takes well to marinades, but can get a little tough if you overcook it. "Those are steaks I would cook medium to medium rare," he says. "I wouldn't cook them more."