Red meat is famously high in saturated fat. The fat content contributes to the flavor and tenderness of the meat, but sometimes fatty meat isn’t what you want at all. The leanest steak cuts are a good way around this issue.
These cuts all keep the fat content low, giving you a delicious source of protein that’s going to keep you satisfied for hours.
Interestingly, according to the USDA’s current definitions, many steaks are now considered either lean or extra lean. However, even within these categories there’s plenty of variation.
If you’re buying steak in the store, look for products with low amounts of visible fat, which includes minimal marbling. The grade of the cut provides useful information too. The grades Choice and Select are your best bet, as Prime graded meat tends to be higher in fat.
Flank steak is a long, lean, and tough cut of steak that comes from the back of the cow. While it doesn’t sound particularly appealing, this cut is often used to make fajitas and similar meals.
It’s even starting to become very popular, which is driving the price up.
The steak should be soaked in an acidic marinade before you use it. This breaks down some muscle fibers to increase the tenderness. Then, the steak should be seared over high heat.
The steak is best if you don’t cook it past medium (it will end up too chewy and may be almost inedible). You’ll often need to cook it even less than this, like medium rare or even rare.
Also, the steak should always be cut against the grain. Otherwise, it will be far too chewy.
Skirt steak is similar to flank in many ways. Both cuts are lean, tough, and should be marinated before you use them. The main difference is that they come from different parts of the animal.
The similarities between flank and skirt steak means that you can use them interchangeably in the same meals.
Eye Of Round
Round steak comes from a cow’s rump, which is an area where the muscles get a decent amount of work. As such, round cuts tend to be on the chewy side. They’re also less expensive than many other cuts of steak, making them helpful for family meals.
Because of this toughness, eye of round is normally sold as a roast. Cooking it as a roast works well, as the edges of the meat become crisp while the interior meat stays fairly tender.
Nevertheless, you can find eye of round steaks as well. These are best when they’re tenderized before being used. Marinating them works well, although you could try mechanically tenderizing the meat as well.
You can also try pan frying the steak to sear it, then using the oven to finish cooking it. This gives you the perfect internal temperature, while reducing the risk of overcooking the steak.
Top round is another cut from the round section. Specifically, it comes from the top of the round (but you probably guessed that).
This is another lean piece of meat, one that’s also surprisingly flavorful. It’s most often prepared as part of a saucy or liquid-heavy dish, as this helps to stop it from drying out.
Top round steak is also fairly inexpensive, which makes it a great weeknight ingredient. And, despite the leanness, it can be tasty and not overly chewy when prepared well.
Continuing on our theme, we get to the bottom round. This is another lean and inexpensive cut.
It can work well in many recipes, but you’ll need to marinate it first and pay attention to the cooking time. Even just slightly overcooking it will give you a chewy and dry steak.
Filet mignon is an interesting case, as this steak cut is both lean and incredibly tender. The tenderness comes from how the muscle sees very little work.
It’s also a small cut of meat, making it an easy one to pan fry.
Filet mignon has a high price tag, so it’s easy to assume that you’re getting a tasty piece of meat. That’s not the case though. Instead, filet mignon has a subtle flavor. This is why it’s often wrapped in bacon or served with herb butter.
The filet mignon is cut from one end of the tenderloin. So, if the filet mignon is lean, it makes sense that the tenderloin is too, right?
Not surprisingly, the tenderloin isn’t just lean, it’s also tender. This means you don’t need to mess around with marinating it and there’s more flexibility when you cook it.
Tenderloin is particularly good on the grill. However, because the steaks are often cut quite thickly, you may need to use a combination of direct and indirect heat to reach the ideal internal temperature.
Sirloin steaks tend to be inexpensive and lean, making them excellent choices for everyday eating. There are two main types – top sirloin and bottom sirloin.
Top sirloin is the more expensive option. It’s also a more tender and arguably tastier cut. Bottom sirloin can still be delicious though, especially if you marinate it first.
Sirloin Tip Side Steak
While this is a relatively unusual cut, it’s perfect if you’re looking for a very lean piece of meat. Indeed, the steak has little to no marbling and any excess fat has been trimmed before sale.
Not surprisingly, you need to be very careful when cooking this cut. Marinating it first helps, but even then it’s best to only cook this cut to medium or medium rare. Trying to cook it more thoroughly than this risks giving you a dry and chewy piece of meat.
Hanger steak is interesting. The name comes from the way that the meat really does hang down. It’s sometimes known as butcher’s steak because for a long time only butchers recognized how delicious it can be.
In particular, hanger steak is a relatively lean cut, yet still manages to be surprisingly tender (some of the marbling in the image is inedible sinew). This is because the muscle is a supporting one, rather than being active.
There’s a decent amount of flavor as well, making hanger steak tasty when cooked well.
That said, it’s still best to marinate the steak first, then cook it on a high heat. This makes sure it remains tender. It’s also best to stick to medium rare or medium. The cut will be too chewy if it’s cooked to well done or even medium well.
Tri tip gets its name from the unusual triangular cut of the steak. Don’t let this put you off though, as it is also a delicious and fairly lean cut of steak that offers plenty of flavor.
It’s particularly popular as an alternative to brisket, as you can cook tri tip just like a steak on the grill or in a cast iron pan, then slice it like brisket.
Tri tip isn’t terribly expensive either. That said, the price has been creeping up as its popularity has increased.
New York Strip Steak
The New York strip isn’t quite as lean as some of the other steaks we’ve talked about, but it still keeps the fat content pretty low. It’s the perfect steak cut in some ways, as the fat it does contain helps to keep it tender.
As a result, you can easily cook this cut in a skillet or on the grill without it getting tough. You don’t need any marinade either. Simply cook the steak on its own and it should turn out perfectly.
You can even keep the seasoning to a minimum, as this is a flavorful cut of steak. What could be simpler?
The low fat content makes lean meat harder to cook than fatty meat. Thankfully, you’re not stuck with dry and chewy meat every time. Careful cooking can still give you delicious tender meat, even if you’re using a very lean cut.
Here are some important techniques for keeping your meat tender.
Wet cooking involves cooking meat slowly over a low temperature with liquid. You can do this by including liquid in the cooking pan or by brining your meat before you cook it.
Don’t forget about slow cookers either. They’re not just for larger hunks of meat – you can cook steaks in a slow cooker too.
Piercing your meat during cooking allows some of the juice to escape. This isn’t a big deal when you’re working with fatty cuts, but can cause serious issues for lean cuts of meat.
Using tongs instead of a fork when working with the meat makes a large difference. Searing the meat on all sides when you start cooking helps too, as you’re trapping all the moisture on the inside.
You can also tenderize your meat. This improves the flavor and reduces the risk that it will dry out. Tenderizing processes differ, but they all aim to break down some of the fibers inside your meat, making it easier to work with.
Mechanically tenderizing the meat is one option. This normally involves pounding it with a meat mallet. A rolling pin can be used too.
Marinades are another option, particularly those with acidic ingredients, like lemon juice. Some fruits also contain enzymes that can help the process, like pineapple and papaya.
You’ll need to check your steak regularly as it marinates to make sure the process doesn’t go too far. After all, you still want the steak to have an appealing texture.
Salt rubs are helpful too, especially as they improve the flavor of your steak as well. Some rubs include other herbs and spices as well.
The main reason for dry and chewy steak is simple – it was cooked for too long. Overcooking your steak is easy, particularly if it’s a thick piece of meat without much fat.
Avoiding this will take some trial and error. But, as a general rule, it’s better to stop cooking your steak too early rather than too late. After all, you can always put undercooked steak back in the pan, while overcooked steak can’t be salvaged.