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I'm talking about what makes a good piece of meat for a steak.

not how to cook it.

What type of cut? Thickness? dry aged? to marinate or not? seasoning?

I've always been partial to a Ribeye (high fat content), cut to a minimum of 1.5 inches to achieve a nice crispy (more brown then grey) outside with a red interior.

lots of pepper, little salt.

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5  
So much of this is a preference thing. –  ceejayoz Jul 13 '10 at 17:56
    
@ceejayoz: while there's of course some personal preferences, there is also a centuries-old popular wise about what makes good in a steak. –  Lorenzo Jul 14 '10 at 12:19
    
Maybe your title could be edited to say "Properties of a good cut of meat for steaks?" –  nicorellius Jul 15 '10 at 22:54

2 Answers 2

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I've come across two great, and very different, types of steak. The first is typical in Argentina and is not aged at all, but from a young calf (6-10 months old), free ranging and grass fed (hence not like classic veal). This is really juicy, tender, and with a very "bright" taste. Good high-end Argentine restaurants usually serve meat like this, and in the UK you can order it from pampasplains.com, which I think is great.

The second is from an older cow and dry aged to tenderize, but the aging also gives it a deeper, more bone marrow-like flavour. The best I've had of this type was a cow from Limousin in France, served in Paris at a small restaurant called Le Sèvero (8 rue des Plantes, 14th Arrondissment, reviewed in the NY Times a while ago). It was amazing! In London, 32 Great Queen St's "Hereford beef" is a similar style and also excellent. They get it from a Hereford farmer called Tom Jones (seriously), who serves several restaurants.

Good steak should never be marinated in anything - all it needs before cooking is salt, maybe pepper if you like (though I sometimes eat it with Coleman's English mustard).

I'm fairly sure that grass-only feed is important to good meat, i.e. no cereal-based fattening-up, though it's hard to separately test this one variable. Breed also clearly matters (all Argentine beef seems to be Aberdeen Angus or Hereford). I love a nicely marbled, fatty steak like the ribeye, but my (Argentine) wife prefers leaner cuts like sirloin and filet - clearly a matter of taste.

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When dealing with grass-only feed, the aging process makes all the difference. Make sure your butcher knows their stuff, otherwise you'll be eating steaks that are inconsistent. –  s_hewitt Jul 15 '10 at 23:28
    
The good Argentine meat I described is generally grass-only fed and not aged, but as I wrote it is still tender because it is so young. –  PaulS Nov 5 '10 at 19:02

Jeffery Steingarten wrote a lot about this in his book The Man Who Ate Everything.

While there is a lot of "preference" here, there are some things that just make steaks better.

Dry aged beef, ideally 5 to 6 weeks intensifies the flavour, though it also reduces the amount of usable meat, which is why it's more expensive. Additionally, dry aging increases the "gaminess" of the taste. Wet aging provides some of the benefits without as much loss, but it isn't as effective.

The more marbled it is, the better it is. The flavour and moisture of the beef comes from the fat, so the more lines of fat through the raw meat the better the flavour and texture will be once it's cooked.

Thickness is going to depend a lot on personal preference. You can cook a thinner steak to a perfect medium rare or a thick steak to well done, depending on the temperature and style of the heat source.

Me, I like a thicker cut 36-day dry-aged sirloin steak, liberally salted and peppered served medium rare, with a slice of brie cheese on it.

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Anthony Bourdain mentions several times in the Les Halles Cookbook that he doesn't like sirloin because it doesn't have enough flavor. Personally, I haven't done enough comparisons to be able to agree or disagree. –  tobiw Jul 14 '10 at 2:56
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Anthony Bourdain smokes too much to notice subtle flavours. :-) –  Tim Sullivan Jul 14 '10 at 3:15
    
Marbled beef and regular muscular beef are so different in taste and texture it isn't fair to compare them. I enjoy both. One thing that makes Kobe beef popular is that you can overcook it and it will still be tender, and that's why the 'gosh blood' people dig it. –  jbcreix Jul 14 '10 at 8:22

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