Wednesday, May 19, 2010

How Many Different Steaks Are There?

We love steak -- all kinds of steak. And we are always in the search for SteakPerfection. So here's a thought experiment.


Suppose that we want to compare all the different possible steaks in the world, in order to find the absolutely best tasting one. How many steaks would we have to taste in our blind taste test?


If you don't have time to study the following calculations, here is the bottom line:

The number of possible steaks, based upon all the possible breed, feed, marbling, aging, cooking and other options is 229,790,030,170,071,000,000,000,000,000,000. That is more than 229 nonillion possible steak options -- more than all the grains of sand on earth.

With so many possible steak options, our love for steak can never be quenched, nor can the perfect steak ever be found.

Each of us can argue that we have discovered the "PERFECT" steak, and we need never fear being proven wrong!


Different breeds of cattle produce steaks that have different tastes, even if everything else (like feed, age, etc.) is the same. So part of our Thought Experiment requires comparing all the cattle breeds that are used to produce steaks -- which are called "beef cattle".

In the United States, there are about 250 beef cattle breeds that are "recognized". Worldwide, there are about 950. About half of all beef cattle is purebred and half is hybrid. If we limit our calculation only to purebred and 50-50 hybrids, the number of possible beef cattle breeds equals 902,500 (= 950^2).

But that's not the end of the Thought Experiment, because we have to add other variables that affect the taste of a steak.


Steaks come from beef cattle that can be divided into four sexes: bulls, which are uncastrated male cattle; steers, which are castrated male cattle; cows, which are female cattle which have born a calf; and heiffers, which are female cattle which have not born a calf.

Most steak masters believe that the very best steak comes from steers, but our Thought Experiment requires us to chack all the possibilities. So we have to compare all four "sex" possibilities.


Steaks come from beef cattle that can be almost any age over 9 months.

Steak from beef cattle that is under the age of 9 months is called veal, which is so completely different from beef that we exclude them altogether from our Thought Experiment.

Most steak masters believe that the very best steak comes from beef cattle that is between 9 and 29 months old, but our Thought Experiment requires us to chack all the possibilities -- or at least all the possibilities that are likely to result in significantly different steaks.

We begin by dividing the age of beef cattle into the following five major categories, in comformity with the USDA categories:
  • A: 9 thru 29 months old;
  • B: 30 thru 41 months old;
  • C: 42 thru 5 years old;
  • D: 6 or 7 years old; and
  • E: 8 years and older.

Then we subdivide the first category into each of the ages of the first category, because many steak masters believe that a steak from a steer that is, for example, 16 months old will taste significantly different, when all other variables are equals, from a steak from a setter that is, for example, 29 months old.

Accordingly, we subdivide the A category in to each of the months: A-9, A-10, A-11, A-12, etc. through A-28 and A-29. This totals 21 subcateries, plus the remaining four categoreis, for a total of 25 different ages to test in our Thought Experiment.


From the time they are born until they are weaned at about the age of 9 months, all calves are fed a cows milk. What the mother cow eats will affect the taste, texture and juiciness of the steak that the calf eventually produces. However, for this Thought Experiment, we ignore this variable.

Feed then includes the following options:
  • 27 grass options;
  • 19 legume options;
  • 5 silage options;
  • 46 hay options; and
  • 7 grain options.

None of these feed options is exclusive, and we assume that there may be two feed options for beef cattle. Accordingly, there are over 600 billion possible combinations (exactly 682,160,364,900, which equals (27*19*5*46*7)^2.


Marbling is a measure of the fine specks and streaks of fat inside a steak. It does not include the often-thick layer of fat outside the steak.

Marbling is divided into ten major categories, from Very Abundant Marbling (Vab) down to Practically Devoid Marbling (PD). In addition, we add two "extremely abundant" categories, to conform with the Japanese Kobe Beef marbling categories. Each of these twelve categories is divided into 100 degrees but, in practice, the categories are divided into 10 subcategories, from 00 through 90.

Thus, there are 108 (= 9*12) degress of marbling.


Today, there are three major aging methods: dry aging, wet aging and hybrid (which combines dry and wet, in succession) aging. Aging periods run from no extra time to 10 weeks. In dry aging, the beef is aged in a special room or locker at a temperature of about 34°, at a relative humidity of about 80%, at an air-flow of about 20 linear feet per minute, and with ultraviolet or comparable bacterial control.

Thus, there are 90 (=3^2 * 10) different, major, aging options.


There are 16 major cuts of steak, which include the following:
  • anterior boneless top loin steak;
  • other boneless top loin steak;
  • bone-in top loin steak;
  • anterior boneless rib steak;
  • other boneless rib steak;
  • bone-in rib steak;
  • tenderloin steak;
  • top sirloin cap (culotte) steak;
  • pin bone sirloin steak;
  • flat (or double) bone sirloin steak;
  • round bone sirloin steak;
  • wedge bone sirloin steak;
  • hanging tender (or hanger) steak;
  • flank steak;
  • flap (or bavette)steak; and
  • top blade (or flat iron) steak.

We have not included the porterhouse or t-bone steak, since these are combinations of the top loin and tenderloin. Nor have we included the rib-eye steak, since it is derived from the rib steak. We have not included the five boneless sirloin steaks, wince their bone-in counterparts are included. Finally, we have not include other non-prime steaks, such as the round steak.

Thus, there are 16 different, primary cuts of steak.


There are many different thickness options for steak, which range from one-half inch (or even less) to two-inch thickness. For purposes of this Thought Experiment, we will divide thicknesses in half-inch increments:
  • 1/2" thick;
  • 1" thick;
  • 1 1/2" thick;
  • 2" thick; and
  • 2 1/2" thick.

Thus, in this Thought Experiment, there are five different thicknesses that will be considered.


There are three different trimming methods before cooking a steak.

First is the close removal of all visible fat. Second is the removal of most visible fat. Third is cooking the steak with the normal amount of fat.


There are several major pre-seasoning options. These include no pre-seasoning whatsoever, or pre-seasoning with some of the following: salt, pepper, one of the common herbs, butter or oil.

Thus, in this Thought Experiment, we will consider 20 different pre-seasoning options.


There are three major, basic cooking methods for steak: grilling, infrared, pan frying, pan broiling, pan roasting (moving to the oven after searing), roasting and braising.

In the case of grilling (including broiling) and in addition to gas, there are at least twenty major fuels, including hardwoods and lump charcoal from alder, apple, apricot, birch, cherry, hackberry, hickory, lemon, lime, maple, mesquite, mulberry, peach, pear, pecan, orange, red oak, walnut and white oak.

We will not include, in this Thought Experiment, other methods of cooking steak, such as stir fry and sauté, which require cutting the meat into thin slices before cooking.

Thus, in this Thought Experiment, we will consider 25 different cooking methods.


There are three major resting options: none, five minutes and ten minutes.

Thus, in this Thought Experiment, we will consider three different pre-seasoning options.


There are ten temperature levels for cooking steak:
  • 125° to 212° (sous vide)
  • 212° to 250°;
  • 250° to 350°;
  • 350° to 450°;
  • 450° to 550°;
  • 550° to 650°;
  • 650° to 750°;
  • 750° to 900°;
  • 900° to 1200°; and
  • 1200° to 1600°,

Thus, in this Thought Experiment, we will consider 10 different cooking temperature intervals.


There are eight major time increments for cooking the steak. These include the following total cooking times:
  • 5 to 8 minutes;
  • 8 to 10 minutes;
  • 10 to 12 minutes;
  • 12 to 15 minutes°;
  • 15 to 20 minutes;
  • 20 to 30 minutes;
  • 30 to 60 minutes; and
  • one hour or more.

Thus, in this Thought Experiment, we will consider eight different cooking time intervals.


There are several major post-seasoning options. These include no post-seasoning whatsoever, or post-seasoning with some of the following: salt, pepper, one of the common herbs, butter or oil.

Thus, in this Thought Experiment, we will consider 20 different pre-seasoning options.


Based upon the foregoing options, there are 239 nonillion possible steaks. 239 nonillion is 229 followed by 30 zeroes, or 229,790,030,170,071,000,000,000,000,000,000. Even without all of the feed options -- all of the grass and grains -- there are 337 quintillion possible steaks -- which is 337 followed by 18 zeroes.

Finally, even without all the cattle breed and feed options, there are 373 billion steak options.


The obvious conclusion from this calculation is that our love for steak can never be quenched, nor can the perfect steak ever be identified. Each of us can argue that our personal favorite is the "PERFECT" steak without any fear that we can ever be proven wrong!

So enjoy the wide diversity of steak.

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