Best Thickness for Steak: Why it Matters

By Dylan Clay
Last Updated 
December 20, 2022

The ideal thickness for a steak is between 1 - 2 inches; With 1.5 inches being the most common "best" thickness you'll see quoted.

However, something that some people fail to understand is that some cuts of "steak" can't get this thick - it's just not genetically possible; Good examples include skirt steak or flat iron steak.

Steak thickness is based on the beef primal you're working with and consumer preference; Simply put, Butcher's cut what sells and that often includes the thickness of beef steaks.

Why Thickness Matters with Steak

A lot of resources will boldly state: "Thicker steak is better."

2 inch thick steak
2 Inch Thick Ribeye Steak

I'd wager to say that's true, to a point.

The reason I say this is because as you make a steak thicker, you need to employ different methods of cooking in order to cook it optimally; This is primarily due to internal temperature and crust formation.

This is also why 1.5 inches is what most folks deem the sweet spot.

You can build a thick crust - that's not too thick - and you can dial in your internal temperature quite easily.

Steak Thickness and Internal Temperature

To help understand what I mean by the above in regards to thickness and internal temperature, we can look at the ribeye steak and the prime rib roast.

what is prime rib
Prime Rib Roast

Some quick bullet-points:

  • Ribeye is a steak that's cut from the Prime Rib roast.
  • A whole bone-in prime rib roast is the width of 7 bones; These are typically divided into two, 3-4 bone roasts - a first cut (ribs 10, 11, 12) and second cut (ribs 6, 7, 8, 9).
  • A typical ribeye steak is 1-2 inches thick; A prime rib roast is the width of 3-4 ribeye steaks.
  • Prime rib is slow roasted over the course of several hours; Ribeye steak is cooked in 5-10 minutes.

Even though these cuts come from the same location, they're typically cooked much differently as a result of their thickness.

How Prime Rib Roast is Cooked

how is prime rib cooked
My Mom's Prime Rib from Christmas 2019

With prime rib, People will use one of two methods:

  • Sear first and then slow roast (180-250F) until medium-rare.
  • Roast first and then sear when the meat hits medium-rare.

In this case, when the prime rib is served you'll have a slice with uniform doneness across the entire cut - usually in the spectrum of rare to medium-rare.

This slow roasting period can take several hours until the desired internal temperature is reached.

How Ribeye Steaks are Typically Cooked

With Ribeye steak, it's possible to achieve the Prime-rib style of doneness (wall-to-wall color) via methods like Sous vide or the Reverse sear. However, in my opinion, you miss out on creating a superior crust.

I prefer to sear my steaks in my cast iron skillet.

how to get crust on steak
Pan Seared Ribeye Steak

Steak that's pan seared achieves a superior exterior crust, followed by a pronounced gradient of finishing temperatures, and juiciness in the steak.

By "gradient" I'm referring to the fact that pan searing creates an exterior, crunchy, dehydrated crust, followed by a small band of well-done meat, that slowly grades into a measured internal temperature - like medium-rare.

Pictured below.

gradient of doneness
Gradient of Doneness

However, as you get thicker - say 3+ inches - the issue is, how do you maintain your crust while still reaching your target internal temperature?

Here's the crust on a 2 inch steak:

steak crust

The 2 inch thick steak has a thicker, more dehydrated crust - notice the intermuscular fat is also rendered better.

Steaks thicker than 2 inches will also have larger gradients of doneness, which is less appetizing.

Likely the layers will be:

  1. If you didn't burn it, the crust is likely quite thick.
  2. Immediately following the crust is a thicker band of well-done meat.
  3. Followed by this is a gradient of doneness that may even be raw in the thermal center.

Truth be told, the goal when forming crust on steak is to get the steak as dark/brown as possible without burning the oil or the meat.

When oils reach their smoke point they'll release free radicals as well as a substance called acrolein - which gives burnt food an acrid flavor and aroma.

Meaning, you're better off slow roasting "steaks" this thick.

The reason I keep putting the word steak in bold, or italics, or in quotes is because these larger/thicker cuts would more optimally be called roasts. Hence why I brought up Prime Rib Roast and Ribeye Steak in the first place.

Similarly, if the steak is cut too thin, it can be hard to create crust without overcooking the meat (more on this below).

Some Steaks are Genetically Thin

The word "steak" is sort of a catch-all term that people use to refer to any number of cuts from a cow.

what is skirt steak
Skirt Steak is a thin cut of meat

For example, when fabricating rib steaks, a butcher has complete control over how thick the steaks can be simply because the rib primal is a huge muscle; They can be thick, thin, bone-in, boneless, etc.

Pictured above I showed a 2 inch ribeye, here's a 1 inch ribeye:

1 inch thick ribeye
1 Inch Thick Ribeye Steak

However, some muscles like skirt steak or flank steak, can't get thicker than 1/2 - 1 inch thick; It's just not genetically possible. The same could be said for a few other cuts of steak.

Thin cuts of steak include:

Due to being thin, these cuts of steak work better when you take a different approach to cooking.

To illustrate:

In most cases cuts like skirt, flank, and bavette are marinated for 24-48 hours because their loose grain structure takes well to marinades.

After marinating 24-48 hours, these steaks are typically cooked over high heat for short periods of time. The goal being to create a sear/crust while maintaining juiciness or free moisture (cooking to rare or medium-rare).

reverse searing hanger steak
Reverse Searing Hanger Steak

These thin cuts of steak are then sliced against the grain to tenderize the individual slices. Doing so shortens these fiber lengths making it easier for your mouth to chew.

In this case, the marinade adds tremendous flavor, we're also cooking to rare/medium rare to maintain juiciness, and we're then cutting against the grain to further tenderize the cut for eating.

Due to what we talked about above, the crust on these steaks is less substantial simply because the steak is thin.

Meaning, we lose out on developing the extent of flavor and texture that you can on thick cuts of steak simply because we're restricted by the smaller thermal center.

Dylan Clay
I've grilled and smoked meat for roughly half my life. While i'm not a professional Pitmaster, I've worked with nearly every cut of meat. Not everyone has a hands on guide to teach them BBQ. It's my hope that Barbecue FAQ can be that helping hand.

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