How to Cut or Slice a Ribeye Steak Optimally? Muscle Anatomy Explained

By Dylan Clay
Last Updated 
November 3, 2022

With Ribeye Steak, something that I think is greatly overlooked is how to properly slice or cut it.

You can do everything right in the cooking process only to slice in the wrong direction and render a piece of meat chewy. On a ribeye steak there are really only two parts that matter - the spinalis and the eye.

Mouth feel has a lot to do with the eating experience and slicing correctly is an important part of that.

"Anatomy" of a Ribeye Steak

There are four different muscles that make up a ribeye steak.

  1. Eye of Ribeye
  2. Ribeye Cap or Deckle
  3. Complexus
  4. Lip or nose

It should be noted that all of these muscles can be minimized and maximized depending on where the ribeye steak is cut from the rib primal.

For example, if the ribeye steak comes from the front of the primal, the complexus may not even be present.

The lip may also be removed during the butchering process - typically it's left on with bone-in ribeyes like cowboy steaks or tomahawks.

1. Eye of Ribeye or Longissimus Dorsi 

The longissimus dorsi or the "Eye" of Ribeye is the meatiest portion of the rib sub-primal. All ribeye steaks have an eye - it's quite literally the center or "eye" of the cut.

latissimus doris rib muscle highlighted

The rib primal is specifically used when assessing the quality of beef. Grades like Prime, Choice, and Select are based on marbling in the ribeye. Most of this marbling happens in the Longissimus dorsi.

Surrounding this muscle is the spinalis dorsi, complexus, and Longissimus Costarum.

2. Ribeye Cap, Deckle, or Spinalis Dorsi

In my opinion, the spinalis dorsi - commonly called the ribeye cap - is the single best muscle on the entire cow. Which is a shame because on a singular steak, you get very little of it.

spinalis dorsi rib muscle highlighted

If you're someone who likes ribeye, or you have a family member who likes ribeye - pay attention to his muscle when picking your steak.

Grocery stores pack meat in store wrap/overwrap meat trays which allow you to see the muscle. Even in steak competitions (like Steak Cookoff Association - SCA), the main muscle these folks pay attention to is the Spinalis dorsi.

This concept is in a very similar vein to the money muscle on a pork butt - it quite literally gets contestants in the "money."

The biggest reason this muscle is so prized is because it's heavily marbled and is supremely tender/juicy.

This muscle wraps around the eye - hence why it's called the ribeye cap.

The Multifidus dorsi sits next to the spinalis (separated by a layer of fat) and is a super small, tender piece of meat. This muscle is usually trimmed simply because it's next to a large piece of exterior hard fat.

3. Complexus

The complexus muscle is the smallest muscle on the ribeye and in some cases may not even be on the steak; It's size is dictated by where it's cut from on the rib primal.

complexus rib muscle highlighted

For instance, if the ribeye came from the front the steer, the complexus would be smaller than if it came from the middle - like with a chuck eye steak.

Either way, at most get 1-2 bites from this muscle.

To note: The same exact thing can be said for the Spinalis dorsi, the further you are from the front, the bigger the ribeye cap.

No matter how you slice this muscle, it will be tender, it's super small and is marbled well. It has a strong beefy flavor that's comparable to the spinalis dorsi.

4. Lip, Nose, or Longissimus Costarum

In a lot of cases, the Longissimus Costarum muscle is removed when sold as a de-boned ribeye steak. However, if you can get the ribeye bone-in, there is a good chance that this muscle is attached to the bone.

longissimus costarum highlighted in yellow

Some folks who eat ribeye actually say that this part is their favorite simply because it has an incredible beefy flavor - mainly due to fat.

Butchers tend to strike a balance between external hard fat and lean meat as consumers don't like paying for fat.

How to Cut a Ribeye Steak

The biggest reason I outlined the above is because I wanted to express the fact that the "ribeye steak' is in-fact separate muscles.

All of these muscles have varying grain structures and should be sliced accordingly.

Keep in mind too, these muscles are also minimized and maximized depending on which rib the ribeye was taken from; In some cases, some of these muscles may not even be present like the complexus.

For this article specifically, I used a different Ribeye steak to demonstrate the cutting/slicing process because the one pictured above isn't typical.

Based on visual inspection, I'd say the steak above is roughly Rib steak 6, towards the front of the rib primal.

Where-as the ribeye below is roughly Rib steak 9, which features no complexus muscle.

rib steak number 9
Rib Steak 9-ish - Notice the lack of complexus muscle

The second ribeye is more so what you can expect to find in your grocery store in terms of musculature and thickness (1 - 1.25 inches thick).

All you need to cut a ribeye steak is:

  • Plastic cutting board or disposable work surface
  • Sharp knife

This process quite literally takes a minute to do once you figure out how.

1. To Start, Separate the Muscles

First start by cooking your ribeye steak.

After cooking the steak, the first thing I like to do is separate the various muscles. After cooking the steak, the fat has likely somewhat melted and the protein has shrunk.

separating ribeye muscles
Ribeye Muscles easily separated along the dotted yellow line

The fat seams that separate the various muscles are readily apparent - especially between the eye of the ribeye and the cap; As well as the complexus if that's present.

Simply take your sharp knife and guide it through this seam - it will literally glide through like butter.

The other muscles should be readily apparent. For instance, if your steak has the lip, it should be "dangling" on the end of the eye by a seam of fat (left side of the above photo).

ribeye muscle separated

The complexus size can vary; When this muscle is in the ribeye it will always be separated from the others by swaths of fat.

Here's a picture of the 2" ribeye with the muscles articulated due to the fat melting:

muscle articulation

2. Slice the Muscles Against their Grain

Put simply - the grain of meat is the way in which the muscle fibers grow. Slicing against the grain shortens these fiber lengths which makes it easier for your teeth to chew.

The following image illustrates the slice direction:

ribeye muscle slice direction
Slice direction in dotted yellow line

Conversely, slicing with this grain results in a chewy mouthfeel. Meaning, your mouth has to work harder resulting in a markedly less tender piece of meat.

You can learn more about slicing meat against the grain in this article.

The grain structure of meat is more apparent on beef that is raw as apposed to cooked.

Meaning, if you're a beginner, make note of the grain on the raw meat and slice against that grain when it's cooked - even taking a photo with your phone beforehand can be useful.

When the spinalis is separated, it will generally lay horizontal. The grain typically runs horizontal, so you'll slice with your knife vertically against this grain.

The grain of the ribeye tends to run horizontal too. Again, simply slice perpendicular to this grain.

Here's a picture of the ribeye steak sliced up:

ribeye steak sliced up

To verify, we can look at these three muscles and look at their orientation on the individual slice:

steak portions cut
Pictured left to right: Nose, Ribeye, Cap

Based on those photos, we did a good job! The muscle fibers on all slices are running vertically - meaning they were cut against the grain.

Again, you don't need to be super anal in regards to exact cutting angle. For instance, my ribeye slice could of been more optimal. Generally though, they're oriented vertically.

What About Tomahawk and Cowboy Steaks?

Just to quickly outline terms:

  • A Cowboy steak is a bone-in ribeye steak with a bone that may or may not have been frenched - learn more here.
  • A Tomahawk steak is a bone-in ribeye steak with a frenched bone that's 5" or more in length - learn more here.

There is no difference in method of slicing between these bone-in ribeye variations and the bone-less ribeye in this article.

In every single case, the frenched bone of a Tomahawk or Cowboy steak is removed. When removing the bone, the goal is to minimize the amount of meat left on the bone.

Then the exact same process is followed above.

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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