For many, there are few things as mouthwateringly delicious as a juicy steak.
A big steer or cow makes for a lot of beef — and a whole lot of steaks! So, cattle wins the size award for the biggest domesticated meat-producing animals.
But what about the taste and tenderness?
Taste is a bit easier to explain. A well-prepared steak is a delicious piece of meat, plain and simple. There are procedures and recipes for that.
Tenderness is a different story. While all beef steaks come from cattle, different parts of the animal’s body render different cuts of steak.
What Types of Steaks Are Tender?
Now that you’ve got a primer on beef cuts, it’s time to look at the most tender steaks you can indulge in and savor at your next steak dinner.
By referring to the next section on primal and subprimal cuts, it will be easier to deduce the ‘where’ and ‘why’ of steak cuts — where the particular type of steak comes from on the cattle and why it is more or less tender (you’ll see a lot of rib and loin cuts here).
Here’s the list of the most tender steak cuts:
- Filet Mignon
- Ribeye (and Ribeye Roast)
- Porterhouse (why it’s special)
- Strip Steak (think New York Strip or Kansas City Strip)
- Hanger Steak
- Top Sirloin
- Bottom Sirloin (also called Tri-Tip)
- Skirt Steak
- Flat Iron Steak
- Tomahawk / Cowboy (cuts of ribeye)
Just as a reminder, steaks that are more tender are traditionally more expensive at restaurants and in stores.
Usually, you’ll have the option of bone-in or boneless steak. Bone-in takes longer to cook, but may impart more taste to the steak if it’s cooked or served well done because the bone will insulate the flavor.
Whether you pick boneless or bone-in, look for marbling (white streaks of fat throughout the meat). That will infuse steaks with even more flavor.
Otherwise, it’s really a matter of preference.
So, how do you know what steak is the most tender?
The Anatomy of A Steak
The general rule of thumb about beef is that the most tender cuts are furthest away from bone and cartilage.
So, beef cuts that are based near the legs and shoulders will be tougher than beef that comes from the center of the cow.
Like any mammal, cows work their leg and shoulder muscles when they move around. These areas have more connective tissue, creating tougher meat.
The center isn’t as muscular and, therefore, the meat is naturally more tender.
There are 8 different parts of the cattle that are used for commonplace market beef. These sections are also known as primal cuts because specific cuts of beef (including steak) come from these areas.
Subprimal cuts are the smaller parts that come from the main primal cuts.
The main primal cuts include:
This is the hind, or back end, of the cattle. It is the largest muscle that beef comes from and is typically used for braising, slow roasting, and broiling.
Subprimal cuts include eye of round, top round, and bottom round.
This cut comes from the top-middle of the cattle, around the rib cage, and between the shoulder and loin. These cuts are typically cooked by grilling or slow roasting.
Subprimal cuts include rib eye and prime rib (also known as rib roast). There’s a lot you can do with a ribeye for meals and flavor.
You’ve probably heard of loin but in the various prefix forms of the primal cut. Loin has several subprimal cuts. Those include:
- Strip Loin
- Short Loin
While the loin area isn’t particularly muscular, due to its location on cattle, the loin comprises some of the choicest cuts of tender steak that exist.
This is also the reason that beef from the loin area tends to be more expensive than other steak and beef cuts, but it’s also very versatile for meals.
The plate is a primal cut from the stomach area of the cow. These cuts are built for quick frying or grilling.
Short ribs, skirt steak, and hanger steak are subprimal cuts from the cattle’s plate.
Chuck comes from the cattle’s shoulder area. Therefore, there is a lot of connective tissue and it is a relatively tough cut of beef.
You have probably seen portion cuts of the chuck in the form of pot roasts, ground chuck, stew meat, and tender medallions among others.
Chuck is typically cooked as a roast or stewed. It can also be braised.
Subprimal cuts include shoulder clod, chuck tender, chuck roll, and square-cut chuck.
Flank meat comes from the abdomen area.
Although meat from the flank is boneless, it still has enough connective tissue to place it on the tougher side of beef cuts.
Flank steak and skirt steak are popular cuts from the flank. Both steak cuts are usually flash-fried on very high heat.
Brisket comes from the cattle’s breast region and is one of the larger cuts of beef.
Brisket is popular for barbecuing or holiday feasts because it requires slow cooking to make it tender.
Brisket flat and brisket point are the best known subprimal cuts.
Shank meat comes from the upper leg of cattle. As a cow’s leg is one of the most muscular areas of its body, shank meat is tough.
This cut is generally recommended for use in soups, stews, or ground beef.
Which Steak Is More Tender: Ribeye or Sirloin?
As everyone’s preferences and tastes for steak are unique, there will always be debate about what type of steak is best.
However, there isn’t much debate about whether ribeye or sirloin is more tender.
Ribeye is, hands down, the more tender steak of the two cuts.
Both steaks are absolutely divine and delicious. However, ribeye gets the edge on tenderness because ribeye is well-marbled, allowing fat to seep in during cooking, keeping the cut juicy, moist, and flavorful until it hits your plate.
Sirloin is still one of the most tender steak cuts but has more connective tissue and less marbling than ribeye.
A Little Taste Before Tenderness
Does tenderness affect the taste of steak? Is that part of what makes it taste so good? Why is steak so delicious, especially when it has a great sear on it?
That scrumptious crust on a steak cut is all due to a little something called the Maillard reaction.
When cooking a steak, sugars reduce and combine with amino acids as the steak browns. That’s when the tantalizing aroma starts tickling your nose and making your tummy grumble. It’s also what gives a nicely seared cut that slightly umami flavor that is unmistakably steak.
However, while cooking techniques will enhance a steak’s flavor, tenderness is a different story.
Tender meat appeals to people because of its texture. It doesn’t take as much effort to chew, so there’s less work involved in eating.
Still, the tenderness quality is different than the actual taste. In fact, some feel that tougher cuts of steak have more flavor, even if they are harder to chew and swallow.
Regardless, toughness takes away from the satisfaction quotient that tender cuts of steak often give the person eating it.
So, does steak tenderness influence the taste?
It truly is a matter of preference, but most people do prefer tender steak cuts over tougher meat.
What happens before the steak gets on the market has a big effect on taste and tenderness.
To determine the most tender steak cuts, it helps to have some background about the anatomy of a steer.
When a steer is being prepared to be broken down for beef, it has to be “dressed” first.
Dressing beef involves the complete process of preparing the cow for distribution and sale.
Preharvesting, stripping hide, removing organs, and sectioning parts for beef cuts are all part of preparing the animal for restaurants and other markets.
It’s an extremely regulated and technical process that involves various steps and techniques.
However, all of that careful preparation is necessary in order to provide beef to consumers that is safe and delicious to eat.
It’s also a massive industry.
In 2020, there were more than 27 billion pounds of beef produced in the U.S. alone, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
While all 50 states produce beef cattle, a handful of states are top producers of steak-producing cattle.
According to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, these states (ranked in order) include:
- Texas (13.1 million)
- Nebraska (6.85 million)
- Kansas (6.5 million)
- Oklahoma (5.3 million)
- California (5.15 million)
So, if you’ve ever heard of eponymous companies like Omaha Steak and Texas Roadhouse, both are based in states that have earned some major bragging rights about tender steak cuts.
Calm Cattle Provide More Tender Steak
Did you know that calm cattle provide the most tender steaks?
Before slaughter, handlers that aspire to offer consumers tender beef pay special attention to the cattle’s stress levels.
When a cow is stressed, it can fall and sustain bruises that negatively impact the quality of meat.
Fear and stress also raise adrenaline levels in cattle, inducing muscle contractions that can make beef much tougher than it should be.
Constant exposure to stress hormones can cause muscle tissue to degrade, resulting in beef that has a subpar flavor or completely losing its taste.
So, if you’re on the hunt for tender steak cuts, you might want to source them from a ranch that practices humane animal husbandry.
Make sure those succulent cuts of steak are coming from some chill and relaxed cattle.
Is Steak Still Worth Buying If It’s Less Tender?
If you’re on a budget and can’t splurge on expensive steak cuts, there’s good news for you! Almost any steak cut can become tender with adequate preparation and time.
Steak with more connective tissue will be tougher, of course. However, you can take measures to break down connective tissue and turn those tough cuts into tender portions of succulent steak.
Some tricks you can use include:
Use Acidic Marinades
You can use liquids like vinegar or lemon juice to break down connective tissue and make tough steak much more tender.
Slow Cook Meat
Break out the slow cooker or preheat the oven to a low temperature. Letting tough cuts cook on the “slow-and-low” method for a few hours is a sure way to yield tender steak meat.
Salt and Let It Sit
Salting is another way to break down tough tissue and a perfect way to flavor those steak cuts.
Break Out the Mallet
If you have a meat mallet, use it to pound the cut. Not only will it help reduce toughness, but it can also thin meat and allow for extra servings.
If you don’t have a mallet, you can use a rolling pin or something else solid that’s easy to clean.