Tender Steak

As much as steak is revered in American cookery, it seems that real men and women will literally "tough it out" before they will eat their steak rare or buy tender cuts that may have more fat on them than the tough lean cuts.


The common complaint is "my steak is tough".

The common question is "how do I make my steaks taste like the ones we had at [fill in the name of a decent steak house]. 

The remedies are simple, but are not what people seem to want to hear. Buy prime beef, cook it at very high temperatures, and serve it medium rare.

OK, I know. It's nearly impossible to buy prime, except for mail order. The high temperatures are difficult to attain at home. It is indisputable, however, that the people who are unhappy with their steaks are buying tough meat and overcooking it at temperatures that do not enhance the steak flavors. 

Here is some straight talk about good steaks. 

Do not buy "select" beef. It used to be called "USDA GOOD", but was renamed "Select" to confuse consumers. Let's face it, Select and Choice really mean the same thing, but Choice is the higher grade.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary: 

Select: adjective


1.Singled out in preference; chosen: a select few.

  1. Of special quality or value; choice: select peaches.
  2. Of or relating to a lean grade of beef. 
Choice: adjective
choic·er, choic·est

1.a. Of very fine quality. b. Appealing to refined taste.

2.Selected with care.

3.Of the U.S. Government grade of meat higher than good and lower than prime.

The proper name for USDA select steaks is pot roast.  It should have been called  USDA Tough.  In much of the mid-west these USDA Tough steaks are the only ones you will find on the weekly specials, and some chains don't even carry USDA choice anymore, except for their lamb. It's been promoted as "healthy food" and the promotion has worked. Which is why your steak is tough!

I do not speak to range or grass finished cattle because such meat is not generally available, but rumor has it that it can be very tender and tasty. That doesn't mean that you should try to `steak' USDA Select, but keep an open mind on grass finished cattle. 

In the meantime purchase choice or branded choice (certified Angus as in the photo, for example), look for good marbling (not the big chunks of fat, but the fine network of fat), and pick out a good, tender cut. Some tender cuts are filet, sirloin, T-bone, porterhouse, and rib eye. Filet is tenderloin. The sirloin is the large strip to one side of a T-bone. A t-bone is like a porterhouse, except that it is mostly sirloin and has little tenderloin. The porterhouse has a large tenderloin, placing the bone nearly in the middle. A rib steak is an untrimmed rib eye. So is a Delmonico.Rib or rib-eye steaks are usually good if they are USDA Choice or better. These steak cuts are all different, and each has a following. I'm a rib-eye person, but my wife likes filets when we eat out. Sirloin people are very loyal. A porterhouse is a fine thing, but tends to get sliced too thin because of its size.A big thick porterhouse could run two pounds or more and prime steak houses serve them for 2 people. 

Avoid round steak, because it is too lean for `steaking' and tends to cook up dry.Certain cuts called "Rump" can be good, but there is no real standard as to what cut rump is. 

Less tender cuts can be sliced thinly across the grain, like flank or sliced thin and pounded, like minute steaks. Tender cuts should be sliced thickly, cooked at very high temperature, and left (at least) medium rare. 

One does not cook a steak to make it tender, but to make it taste better.Any good set of tableware with a serrated knife should cut your steak, so sharp steak knives are a dead give-away that the meat is going to be tough (or they were a wedding present). 

Try using a knife and fork on the raw steak. If you are brave and can manage it, eat a bite. Tender?Then your job as a cook is to sear the surface and cook it enough to develop maximum flavor without making it tougher. Tough?Try grinding it or making pot roast, because broiling or grilling it is not going to help. 

Some cooking tips. 

A good gas grille, like the three burner Weber, is not designed to get hot enough to do justice to a steak. It will do a decent job if the steak is thick, the gas bottle is full, there is no breeze, and you preheat it to the maximum before throwing on the steaks. It also helps if you obtain a Weber cast iron griddle for it. Home Depot has them. Give the steaks about three minutes before turning. The cooked side should have good grill marks and be crusty. If it's gray, get a new grill. 

Some of the `estate' grills for thousands of dollars may be better, but who knows? For a pair of steaks it's hard to beat an old cast iron hibachi type grill filled with hot natural wood charcoal. The Lodge cast-iron people make a nifty little model, called the Sportsman's Grill, that is worth keeping around just for steaks and chops. Use a stovepipe style charcoal starter to get the coals really going before filling the hibachi. Be patient to get the hottest possible fire, then put on the steaks. 

A grill pan or griddle will do a great job if you can get it hot enough, which is difficult to do on a domestic gas range. The technique is to use the grill pan to sear and crust the meat, then finish on a rack in a hot oven for another few minutes. 

Let any steak rest 3 to 5 minutes before serving. 

Keep notes of times and temperatures, so you can make slight corrections next time. 

Enjoy your tender steak!