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What is a Tomahawk Ribeye Steak? Cut Explained

A Tomahawk Steak is essentially a bone-in ribeye that's been "frenched."

Frenching is the process of cutting away fat and meat from the bone (mainly for aesthetic reasons). In the case of a Tomahawk steak, the meat and fat are cut away from the long short rib bone with the ribeye still attached.

The size of the tomahawk is dictated by the thickness of the rib bone. Separation occurs between the bones and as a result the meat portion is typically 2-3" thick and weighs 2-3 lbs.

Why is it Called a Tomhawk Steak?

tomahawk ribeye steak

In terms of etymology, the word "Tomahawk" originates from Powhatan for tamahaac which means "ax."

The word steak is from the Old Norse for "steik." This word translates to "meat roasted on a spit."

However, the origin story of the Tomahawk steak isn't explicitly outlined. It's not hard to assume that the name stems from the resemblance to a Native American Tomahawk/tamahaac or ax.

What Beef Primal Does the Tomahawk Come From?

The tomahawk steak is sourced from the Rib Primal, pictured below.

Rib Primal

The beef rib primal comes from the beef forequarter. It is separated from the beef chuck at the 5th and 6th ribs and from the loin between the 12th and 13th ribs. The rib primal includes meat from the 6th to the 12th rib.

Muscles Found in a Tomahawk Steak

There are three major muscles found in a Tomahawk/ribeye steak. They are the Longissimus Dorsi (eye of ribeye), the Spinalis Dorsi (ribeye cap), and the Complexus.

The muscles of the ribeye are held together by a tender sinew membrane and large swaths of fat; Both of which contribute to flavor as they render.

Longissimus Dorsi or Eye of Ribeye

longissimus dorsi muscle
Longissimus Dorsi in Blue

The Longissimus Dorsi or the Eye of Ribeye is the meatiest portion of the rib subprimal. All ribeyes have an eye - it's the eye/center of the cut.

The rib primal naturally collects more intramuscular fat, also known as "marbling." Most of this marbling is found in the Longissimus Dorsi.

The longissimus dorsi is surrounded by two kernels of fat called the spinalis dorsi and the complexus.

Spinalis Dorsi or Ribeye Cap or Deckle

spinalis dorsi muscle
Spinalis Dorsi in Blue

The spinalis dorsi is the cap of the ribeye; It is also referred to as the rib crown. The cap sits above the eye of the primal and is separated by the longissimus dorsi by a kernel of fat.

Of the three muscles found on the ribeye, the Spinalis has superior intramuscular fat. Apart from the visual appeal, marbling has a direct affect on flavor, tenderness, and juiciness of the meat.

Due to these characteristics, the spinalis is the most desirable portion of the ribeye.

Complexus

complexus muscle
Complexus in Blue

The complexus is the smallest muscle of the ribeye and in some cases may not even be present. Its presence is dictated by where the steak was cut from.

If the tomahawk was cut from the front of the primal, you will get a small piece of complexus muscle (quite literally a bite or two).

The complexus muscle is similar to that of the spinalis dorsi, however you get significantly less of it.

Tomahawk vs Ribeye vs Prime Rib

prime rib roast
Prime Rib Roast

This comparison is quite popular and the reason for why the Tomahawk is "controversial."

Is a Ribeye the same as Prime rib? In short, yes and no.

The tomahawk steak, ribeye steak, and prime rib are all sourced from the same primal, the rib primal discussed above. However, the way in which these portions are cut is different and so is how they're cooked.

A prime rib is a large cut of beef. As the name suggests, it contains only the best part of the animal's rib (cut between rib bones 7 and 11). This portion of the rib features a thick fat cap and lots of intramuscular fat.

A ribeye is cut from the rib roast prior to being cooked, where-as prime rib is sliced from the rib roast after being cooked.

Ribeye steak is typically cooked at high heat (process similar to the one outlined below). Where-as a prime rib roast is cooked at a lower temperature in a thermostatically controlled environment, like your oven.

How to Cook a Tomhawk Steak

Cooking a Tomahawk ribeye is a bit different from cooking a standard ribeye steak, however, not by much. The main thing being adjusted are the times to perform certain tasks, like searing and resting.

Note: This is how I personally chose to cook the steak. How you choose to cook it will change based on your equipment and taste preferences. If anything, use this as inspiration for your own.

Equipment:

Ingredients:

  • Tomahawk Steak
  • Salt and Pepper (Kosher salt and McCormick black pepper)
  • Butter
  • Onions

There are a number of other ingredients we could of used, including "fancy" salts and peppercorns, as well as garlic and rosemary. However, due to the quality of the meat, they aren't needed. The fat that renders is more than enough flavor to tickle your taste-buds.

1. Dry Brining the Steak

dry brining tomahawk steak

The first thing I did was salt and peppered the steak on both sides and allowed it to stand for roughly 40-50 minutes. The purpose of this is to allow the salt to act as a dry brine.

Dry-brining works through osmosis. When you add salt to the meat, the meat juices are drawn out. Since salt is soluble, it dissolves in the meat juices and creates its own concentrated brine.

This process also causes muscle proteins to be broken down/unmind or denature. Salt is comprised of sodium and chloride ions that carry electrical charges; these ions attack proteins. Loosened muscle fibers then allow the brine solution to be reabsorbed.

Technically you could also salt the steak and leave it in the fridge over-night. This will allow the proteins to unwind and also result in a dry surface which can achieve a better crust.

This steak was a gift and doing so the night before wasn't possible.

At this point you can also wrap the bone in tin foil. Wrapping the bone in tin foil is done for presentation purposes and is entirely optional. You could even further protect the bone by wrapping it with a moistened paper towel and then with tin foil.

2. Getting the Grill Up to Temperature

Half way through this waiting process I turned my Grilla Grills Silverbac on to 400 degrees Fahrenheit (in PID mode). I also placed my GrillGrate searing grates on the grill grates and allowed those to build in temperature.

I oriented the searing grates to the right and left enough space for regular grilling to the left.

Note: GrillGrate searing grates can achieve surface temperatures +200 degrees Fahrenheit on Pellet Grills. Meaning 400 degrees Fahrenheit is actually 600 degrees F.

This process takes roughly 15-20 minutes. It was also winter in New England at the time with an outdoor temperature of 0-15 degrees F with wind-chill.

At this point I also pre-heated my oven to 350 degrees F.

3. Searing the Steak

Once the salt has denatured the meat (the surface of the meat will appear shiny/wet) and grill is at the correct temperature (400 degrees F), you can begin the process of searing the meat.

I knew before-hand that I was going to finish the steak off in the oven in my family's cast iron skillet, so I opted to sear on the pellet grill first as apposed to reverse searing.

With the duck fat (also optional), spray the surface of the GrillGrates and get your timer ready to start.

Pick the Tomahawk up by the tin foil wrapped bone and place at a 45 degree angle on the grates. Push into the meat with a spatula or your hand to ensure adequate contact with the searing grates. Since the Tomahawk is a larger piece of meat, I allowed the timer to run for 2 minutes and 30 seconds.

searing tomahawk first turn

Once the timer hits 2 minutes and 30 seconds, use your spatula or in my case, the GrateTool to quarter turn the steak (clockwise or counter-clockwise, whichever is easiest).

Press into the steak again and allow the steak to stand for another 2 minutes and 30 seconds; This creates the desirable cross-hatched pattern that people are after.

Once the steak has cooked for 5 minutes on one side, pick it up, re-spray duck fat and flip the steak over and repeat the process; Sear at a 45 degree angle for 2 minutes and 30 seconds, then quarter turn and sear for another 2 minutes and 30 seconds.

tomahawk steak sear

At this point I also added onions and allowed those to sear/develop char on the GrillGrates.

After searing the steak, I moved it off the sear grates and onto the regular Grilla Grills grates (in the center, to the left, away from hot zones). This allows the steak to come up in internal temperature; At this point the internal temperature was 115 degrees F and the outside of the steak had definitive sear marks.

searing onions

I allowed the steak to sit on the Grilla Grill's grates for another 5 minutes before bringing it inside to finish off in the oven.

To sum up at this point: The steak has spent 10 minutes searing (5 minutes on each side) and 5 minutes on the regular grill grates.

4. Finishing the Tomahawk in the Oven

At this point the oven should be ready as you pre-heated it to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

When bringing the steak inside, I put it on a plate and wrapped it in tin-foil. This prevents heat from escaping and continues to cook the steak.

I grabbed my cast iron skillet, added a half stick of butter to the pan and put it in the oven to allow the butter to melt. As the butter melted (roughly 60 seconds), I took the steak out of the tin-foil and placed it on the cast-iron skillet and closed the oven for 2 minutes.

Once 2 minutes had elapsed I used a spoon and carefully tilted the pan and proceeded to baste the steak in the butter for 10 seconds. I then closed the oven and waited another 2 minutes and then basted again for 10 seconds. I repeated this process 3 more times (10 minutes total).

At this point the internal temperature was roughly 130 degrees F.

5. Resting the Steak

resting tomahawk steak

After the above process, I took the steak off the cast-iron and placed back on the plate and re-wrapped in the same tin-foil.

I allowed the steak to rest for 10 minutes in order for the juices to reabsorb and redistribute. The steak will also continue to cook and reach somewhere between 131 - 140 degrees F internal (medium rare/medium).

Resting is important; If you were to cut into the meat immediately the internal juices would pool out of meat which would cause it to become dry and tough. This essentially defeats the purpose of everything you've done to this point.

After waiting 10 minutes, unwrap the steak. Slice perpendicular or against the grain, serve with the grilled onions, and enjoy.

plated tomahawk steak

Final Thoughts

A number of people will note that the tomhawk steak is a gimmick and overpriced. While I can understand their basis for the argument, it is also flawed.

The major reason I disagree is that a "tomahawk" cut isn't sold in a grocery store. Not all regions have a local butcher either (at least not where I'm from in New England).

Note: The industry ID is 1103B (NAMP).

The majority of people that are after a Tomahawk steak are apt to buy online and in doing so, the meat is also of a higher quality than you would have available to you in a grocery store (American Waygu in comparison to the USDA grading system).

Does the steak make for a great photo? Yes, the smile on my Dad's face shows that.

Christmas Morning 2020 at My Parents House (No, I didn't know I was in the Photo)

Is it sourced from the same primal as a standard ribeye? Yes.

Are you paying extra for the labor involved to french the bone? Yes.

Is American Waygu of better quality than USDA Prime? In my opinion, Yes.

Again, if the best argument that people have for not buying a Tomahawk steak is that it's from the same primal as a standard ribeye, I'd urge you to buy one for a Family member that likes steak. Let me know if their happiness changes your mind.

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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