Red meat has taken a beating from just about every low-fat diet that's ever come down the pike, and some of that criticism is unjustified. Go to a steakhouse and order the traditional 12- or 16-ounce ribeye and you're getting well over 1,000 calories and 30 grams of fat, a lot of that in saturated form.
(The government considers a 2,000 calorie diet when figuring nutritional guidelines.)
However, there's also nothing quite like the taste of a piece of steak flame-broiled just right with just a bit of kosher salt and cracked pepper to season it.
But there are lots of cuts of beef out there that don't carry the same caloric mass-load as the beloved ribeye. Some of them are still great on the grill, while some need a bit more specialized handling to yield their true beefy goodness.
There are those in the beef marketing business who would have you believe that, unless you are cooking USDA prime steak, you're somehow shortchanging yourself and your guests. Those people quite likely wouldn't be able to tell a prime ribeye from stew meat.
The simple fact is that prime beef comprises only a tiny percentage of the total yearly harvest. And you will pay dearly for it. When I used to splurge on prime, the price was routinely $21.99/lb. or more, whereas the USDA choice would come in at $13.99/lb. You'll also have real trouble finding prime beef outside a bona fide butcher shop. Most beef sold as steaks in supermarkets is choice grade, although you'll be hard-pressed to find it identified as such. Most markets emphasize things such as "genuine Angus" or "certified Hereford" instead.
Does prime taste better? Personally, I think if you treat a choice-grade steak properly it tastes just as good. Proper cooking is the key.
Ribeye: 222 calories, 15 grams fat, 105 mg cholesterol, 21 grams protein
Ribeye is the king of grill steaks for a good reason. With its fat marbling, all a good ribeye needs is a little kosher salt and pepper. If you must, a blend like Penzey's Chicago-style steak seasoning is fairly nifty. If you marinate a ribeye, the Beef Police will come and take your grill away from you.
Filet Mignon: 175 calories, 8.3 grams fat, 71 mg cholesterol, 24 grams protein
The filet is commonly regarded as the Cadillac of steaks, so why is it so often sold wrapped in bacon? The simple reason is that while it is buttery-rich and tender, it just doesn't have much character. Yes, it's the purest expression of steak, but most steak aficionados honestly prefer a ribeye or strip steak with a bit of marbling.
New York Strip: 174 calories, 8 grams fat, 59 mg cholesterol, 24 grams protein
Also called a Kansas City strip when cut a bit thicker, this is the classic steakhouse favorite. It doesn't have quite the fat of the ribeye, and thus welcomes steak rubs, herbed butter and peppercorn sauces. Do yourself a favor, though, and try one treated like a ribeye. It's serious beef.
T-bone: 219 calories, 15 grams fat, 59 mg cholesterol, 20 grams protein
For many steak purists, the T-bone is the ultimate steak. In one hot, juicy package you have a piece of filet and a chunk of New York strip, separated by a bone just made for gnawing. It's not something one generally eats in polite company, but when the better half is out of town and you're craving steak, go for it. (Note that I didn't specify a gender. Women get a steak jones occasionally just like men do.)
Top Sirloin: 183 calories, 9 grams fat, 66 mg cholesterol, 24 grams protein
Sirloin is one of your best values in the steak universe. It has enough fat to make it tasty and it won't drain your wallet. Make sure you get top sirloin, as the bottom sirloin tends toward dry and chewy. You can sear it like a ribeye, but it also takes very well to marinades. One great use is to slice it thinly -- do it when the steak is partially frozen for thinnest slices -- and make stir-fry.
Chuck: 196 calories, 10 grams fat, 76 mg cholesterol, 24 grams protein
Chuck has a fair amount of connective tissue, and doesn't take well to fast, hot cooking like grilling. Braise it, use it in stews or cut it in chunks and marinate it for use in kabobs. I also like to make my own ground beef at home using half chuck and half sirloin, cut in chunks and pulsed in the food processor.
Round: 169 calories, 5 grams fat, 77 mg cholesterol, 30 grams protein
The higher protein and lower fat on this cut tells you all you need to know about cooking it: go slowly. Cook a bottom round steak too quickly and you'll end up with beef-flavored vulcanized rubber. A thick-cut top round makes a great pot roast, braised slowly with your choice of flavorful liquids and/or vegetables.
Of course, there are other cuts of steak out there. Porterhouse, the big brother of the T-bone, flank steak, skirt steak and hanger steak are just a few. However, you'll find that once you've mastered the big seven, you'll find that no cut of beef will be able to intimidate you.
All nutritional values are for a 3-ounce serving.