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If I am ever asked to name my favorite cut of beef, my first answer will not be strip steak. I will probably offer up a beautifully marbled bone-in rib-eye as my cow part of preference.
I know that for many people in the United States, however, the strip steak, under its many different names, is the beef cut of choice, particularly when it comes to finding a perfect steak to place on the grill during the summer months.
Having seen the Iron Chef and his competitor turn their attention to strip steak, I am definitely willing to be convinced that I should give this popular cut another try.
What is strip steak?
A strip steak is a cut of beef taken from the short loin of the cow. This is at the top and the middle of the animal, before the rump. The short loin itself comprises two muscles: the tenderloin (from where you get filet mignon) and the top loin, which gives us the strip steak.
The top loin is a muscle in the cow that does not do a great deal of work, so the cuts produced from it are well-noted for their tenderness if not for being the most highly flavored cuts of beef.
The strip steak can be found under many different guises throughout the United States, with its name dependent upon the region in which it is sold. Some of the most familiar names would be: New York strip, Kansas strip, shell steak, Ambassador steak and hotel steak. Although the names vary, the cuts of meat are essentially the same.
If you were to imagine a T-bone steak, which is cut from the short loin of the cow, the strip steak would be the larger piece of meat to the left of the dividing bone, while the tenderloin would be the smaller cut to the right of the bone.
The strip steak is usually served as a boneless cut, but in recent years, more restaurants and retailers have been supplying it with the bone attached to create more flavor in the finished product.
What should I look for when I’m buying strip steak?
As with choosing any cut of beef, the first thing you should do is decide what grade of beef suits you and your budget. Beef is graded, amongst other things, by the maturity of the animal and the amount of marbling in the flesh. Although there are actually eight grades of beef, the only ones that really concern the consumer are:
USDA Prime – The very top grade, noted for its flavor and marbling, is usually found in good restaurants and high-end retailers.
USDA Choice – Usually found in most supermarkets and mid-range restaurants.
USDA Select – A grade that lacks much of the marbling and therefore the flavor of the two higher grades of beef, but it can still produce a great end result.
My advice is to buy the very best grade your budget will allow. I would much rather eat the very best beef less frequently than poor-quality steak all the time.
Once you have selected your grade of beef, the next thing to do is to decide how aged you would like your strip steak to be. Beef is aged, either by wet or dry aging, to intensify the natural flavors of the meat, and I usually look for cuts that have been dry aged for at least 28 days.
Finally, look for the amount of marbling in your steak. This marbling is, in fact, intramuscular fat that will break down during cooking, keeping your steak juicy and adding flavor to the meat. If the steak is too lean, it will dry out as you cook it and produce a tough end result.
How should I cook a strip steak?
I am sure that the Iron Chef and his challenger have given you lots of ideas, but for me there is no better way to cook any steak than to simply grill it, on an outside grill, if you are lucky enough to have space for one, or on a ridged cast-iron pan on the stove-top, if, like me, you have a tiny apartment.
Buy steaks that are at least 1 1/2 inches thick. Take them out from the fridge at least two hours before you plan to cook them and dry thoroughly with a kitchen towel, then season them liberally with salt. This salting process is, in effect, a kind of cure and removes excess liquid from the surface of the meat, allowing you to create a great crust on your finished steak.
When the grill has come up to temperature, rub the sides of the steaks with a little cooking oil and cook them for 4-5 minutes a side. With steaks of this thickness, you should get beautifully medium-rare steaks (with an internal temperature of 125 degrees F). Cook for a minute less if you like your steaks more rare and for a minute or so more if you like them closer to medium.
Finally, make sure to rest your steaks before serving. Although there are plenty of myths about why this is essential, the bottom line is: If you allow your steaks to rest in a warm place for 10 minutes after they have been cooked, they will be considerably juicier than if you cut straight into them as soon as they come off the grill.
Where can I buy strip steak?
Strip steak is an easy cut of meat to find. Great strip steak is, on the other hand, much harder to source.
While all supermarkets sell many cuts of beef, they are often sold in packaging that allows the meat to “sweat.” The packaging can also often carry deliberately misleading words such as “premium” as the supermarket tries to confuse the consumer as to what grade of beef is being sold.
If you are lucky enough to have a good independent butcher nearby, you can talk to him or her about what grade of beef is offered, and you can ask to have your steaks cut to your exact specification. Also, many of the gourmet markets will have butcher counters. Their products may well be more expensive, but usually of a high quality.
Finally, there are now many superb online retailers of steaks. Check them out, but be sure to read the fine print so you know exactly what you are buying.