There are three factors to consider when looking for the best beef steak cuts: grade, cut, and breed of cattle. The grade tells you about the quality of the meat, while the most tender cuts generally come from the tenderloin area. Meat from certain breeds of cattle is considered better than others and is priced accordingly.
The United States Department of Agriculture separates beef into eight grades: prime, choice, select, standard, commercial, utility, cutter and canner. Only 2 per cent of beef graded by the USDA qualifies as prime, the highest grade.
Grades are based on the amount of marbling in the meat and the age of the animal. Marbling refers to the streaks of white fat in the meat. The higher the degree of marbling, the more tender the meat will be. Age is also taken into account. Beef is best in flavour and texture when cattle is between 18 and 24 months old. The higher the grade, the greater the cost.
Prime is undoubtedly the best grade, so it is also expensive. Choice-grade beef is the next-best alternative and the grade most likely to be found on supermarket shelves.
The various cuts of steak come from different parts of cattle. There are 12 areas where beef is usually cut from. They are:
Chuck: Comes from the shoulder and neck.
Rib: Tends to be tender and well marbled with the fat that makes steaks particularly juicy and highly flavoured.
Short loin: Located on the top of the cow between the rib and the sirloin areas. A tender cut of beef, it forms a small part of the loin and is usually more expensive than other cuts.
Tenderloin: Tenderloin is, as its name suggests, part of the loin area. It is the most tender part of the cow and comes from a relatively small area, which makes it pricey.
Sirloin: Another subsection of the loin, sirloin is generally the cheapest prime cut. It is nowhere near as tender as the tenderloin because it comes from a more muscly area of the cow, but still has a good flavour.
Top sirloin: This the most tender and most prized cut of the sirloin.
Bottom sirloin: The largest area of the sirloin, this cut is far less tender than the other loin subsections.
Round: Round cuts are taken from the rear end of cattle. This is a well-worked area, so cuts tend to be a lot tougher than those taken from the loin.
The brisket: Muscles in the brisket area include the superficial and deep pectorals. These muscles support about 60 per cent of the animal's body weight and, as a result, the meat in this area tends to be tough and requires lengthy cooking to tenderise it.
Plate: Often referred to as "skirt steak," this area is typically tougher and fattier than other areas, but nonetheless flavourful.
Flank: Flank steak is cut from the abdomen and is tough. Because of that, it is primarily used for braising.
Shank: Shank steak is cut from the leg, or "steer." This is the hardest-working part of the animal and tends to be tough as a result. Often used in soups and stocks, shank is not eaten as a steak.
Steak cuts from the loin area tend to be considered the best because they are the most tender, if not the most flavourful. The fillet mignon steak is the most tender of the steak cuts that come from this area. Sometimes referred to as the "King of Steaks," it costs more than other cuts and is prized for its "melt-in-the-mouth" texture.
Yet, there are steaks which, while not as tender as fillet mignon, are more flavourful. The Porterhouse, for example, combines meat from the short and tenderloin. Because it is on the bone it provides a rich, meaty flavour which is sometimes missing in the more delicate fillet mignon.
When looking for the best beef steak, it pays to take breed into account. Certified Angus meat, for example, costs a good deal more than regular beef, while Kobe Wagyu beef, which is produced in Kobe, Japan, and parts of the United States, is hand-fed on high-end grain and hand-massaged for tenderness and fat content. The Artisan Cattle Company, which specialises in Wagyu steaks, charges £97 for a 397gr. ribeye and £78 for an 227gr. fillet mignon. You would pay considerably more for one of these steaks in a restaurant.