A cow is a very large animal. A typical cow yields more than 500 pounds (226.8 kg) of meat in various cuts [source: Gourmet Sleuth].
The fat content and tenderness of a cut depend on which part of the cow's body it comes from. Here are some of the most popular cuts:
- A T-bone steak is named for the T-shaped bone -- a cross-section of a vertebra -- that runs through it. The cut comes from the back, between the cow's ribs. A Porterhouse is a very large T-bone.
- Sirloin and short loin steak comes from below the cow's ribs -- what would be just under the waist, if the cow were to stand up. Depending on the cut, it contains no bones, or parts of the hip or backbones. Loin steaks tend to be lean; cows, unlike people, don't carry a lot of fat on their hips.
- Filet mignon, a very tender, boneless cut of beef, is a short loin steak. It comes from the tenderloin. It is sometimes called tournedos or Chateaubriand, after a popular cooking method involving bacon.
- Round steak comes from the top of the cow's hind leg. Like most cuts that come from the legs, it tends to be stringier -- the cow uses these muscles more.
- Chuck steak comes from the neck and shoulder area. It sometimes contains a cross-section of rib bone.
- Rib-eye steak comes from the end of the rib.
- Flank steak comes from the flank of the cow -- the side-belly area. It is unusual in that the muscle grain runs parallel to the cut. It usually requires some extra tenderizing [sources: The Nibble, UNL].
After butchering, a cut is left to age, a natural process in which enzymes deteriorate in the meat, increasing tenderness. The best cuts are usually aged "dry" in controlled open-air environments. Dry aging results in smaller steaks with more intense flavor. Other cuts are "wet aged" or "vacuum aged" -- sealed into an airless plastic pouch [source: The Nibble].
After the steak has aged, it's time for the most exciting -- and most contentious -- part. Whether you like your steak charred to perfection or "so bloody it moos," head to the next page to learn about the different ways to cook a steak.