Steak is a national pastime. From the established and renowned steak houses of NYC to the backyard bbq’s across the country, from restaurants that serve steak strips on salads to the Tex-Mex fajitas that serve them in tortillas, steak is consumed everywhere. However, of late much has been said of studies linking the high consumption of red meat to the development of cancer, leaving people in the lurch–should they continue to consume steaks? Given the maxim ‘everything in moderation’, perhaps we should consume less steak, but of higher quality. But how to know what to look for? Price isn’t a sufficient indicator, nor is the fact that it’s served in a fancy steak house. Read on to learn what to ask for, and how to tell if what you’re putting inside you is the perfect steak, or some expensive imitation rip-off.

The first thing you need to know is that the best beef steaks are graded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The three categories you need to know about are Prime, Choice, and Select, with Prime being the most exclusive and delectable, and Select being the poorest. The steaks are graded depending on the amount of fat marbling in the flesh and the age of the cow; the more fat, the tastier the meat, and the younger the animal, the finer the texture and lighter red the color. Thus, when ordering beef at a fine steakhouse, feel free to ask what category their beef falls into. If it’s not Prime, it’s not the best. Further, even in the Prime category there are gradations in quality–the truly superior cuts are within the upper third of Prime. Due to the relaxed standards of today, only the upper third of Prime are where Prime used to be. If you want the best, that’s what you need to get.

The quality of the cut is only half of the equation; you also need to inquire as to how the beef was aged. A truly excellent steak is dry aged for eight weeks, which means that the animal carcass was hung in near freezing temperatures for that duration of time, allowing the enzymes to break down the muscle fiber and make the meat more tender. Dry aging is the best; wet aging is when the process is doing in a vacuum, and while it works on the tenderness, it does not improve the flavor.

So that’s what you have to keep an eye out for. The best steak, the perfect steak, is graded within the upper third of Prime, and has been dry-aged for 8 weeks. Any deviation from that? You’re simply not going to be served the perfect steak.