OK, so you’re hosting a socially distanced backyard dinner party for a group of friends and debating what kind of steaks to grill up. You want something that’s going to look good over the flame, something substantial. You consider a Porterhouse, or maybe a T-Bone.
You go to your local butcher. The Porterhouse costs 17% more per ounce. You think, OK well the T-Bone looks pretty dang similar, I’ll just go with that.
But then you wonder what you’re potentially missing out on. Is the Porterhouse 17% more delicious? What is that markup hiding? The secrets of the carnivorous elite?
You buy the T-Bone AND the Porterhouse.
A Cut Above (Main Differences)
Let’s further clarify the hierarchy here for all of us who need more structure in our lives right now: a Porterhouse is a T-Bone but a T-Bone is not a Porterhouse. That’s right, T-Bone: know your place.
But why this snobbery? Both steaks are cut from the short loin and feature the signature “T-shaped” bone framed by two different kinds of beef in the shape of a lopsided heart (the Emoji kind, not the organ). And one side of that heart is always more tender (and smaller) than the other.
Porterhouse steaks are cut from the rear end of the short loin, which is where the tenderloin running through this section of the cow is thickest. T-Bones are cut from the front end of the short loin, where the tenderloin section is tapering out. So, the T-Bone’s heart shape will, in theory and usually in practice, look even more lopsided than its more substantial cousin’s due to a smaller fillet.
To get technical (and to slow my roll on the tender heart allegory), the United States Department of Agriculture classifies a “T-shaped” bone steak as a Porterhouse when it has a tenderloin that is at least 1.25 inches wide at its widest. Anything under that (but over 0.5 inches wide) is a T-Bone.
This emphasis on tenderloin is not to diminish the meat on the other side of that bone. Here, making up the larger “half” of the heart, we have the strip steak. Removed from the bone it’s the New York strip, considered one of the highest quality beef cuts.
So, you can’t really go wrong. With both a Porterhouse or a T-Bone, you’re getting a beautiful thick striploin along with a tender fillet. It’s a 2-for-1.
What’s in a Name?
You’ve added a salt and pepper rub to the meat and you’re letting it rest for about an hour. Your dinner guests are arriving and you need to start entertaining them while also whetting their appetites.
Perhaps a light peppering of historical anecdotes to set the stage for dinner?
While the true origins of the T-Bone steak are understandably murky (an Age without food bloggers is truly Dark), we start to see documentation of it as a culinary staple around the end of the 13th century. In Florence, the Medici family were still the top dogs, and on the 10th of August they would host the feast of Saint Lawrence.
Florence was a travelers’ city at this time, a hub of trade and cultural exchange. The story goes that, one year, some English knights present at the Saint Lawrence festival were served some roasted meat from the open cookfires. They called it, in English, “beef steak”, which in Italian became “bistecca”.
Today, bistecca alla fiorentina is very similar to America’s T-Bone. The notable distinction is that it is cut from the sirloin instead of the short loin. It is traditionally cooked on a charcoal grill and is served with minimal accompaniment – a true ode to the simple charred beauty of a T-Boned steak.
The Porterhouse would of course have evolved out of similar grilling lore and it’s impossible to know when it first became a true “cut” in its own right. But every classic needs its own origin story.
The name likely derived, not shockingly, from “porter-house”, which described a “restaurant or chophouse where porter is served.” The Oxford English Dictionary surmises that most likely the moniker can be traced to 1814, when a porter-house on Manhattan’s Pearl Street began serving his patrons very large T-Bones.
Of course, like with many culinary classics’ origin stories, there is contention here: Washington, D.C., Boston, Flowery Branch (Georgia), and Sandusky (Ohio) also posit claims to Porterhouse fame. According to todayifoundout.com, Sandusky’s story even features Charles Dickens. In 1842, Dickens apparently enjoyed his steak in Ohio so very much that he ordered it upon arriving in Buffalo, where he asked his hotel for “a steak like you get at the Porter house in Sandusky.”
How to Grill
Alright, your guests are getting antsy. Enough with the knights and the Dickens, where is the beef?
While there is no one “right” way to cook a T-Bone or Porterhouse, the following general tips are fairly consistent among sources:
- Trim steaks of extra fat if you don’t want drippings that will cause a flare-up. Keep it on if you enjoy a bit of fat and char.
- Rub with salt and pepper, keep it simple. Oil is optional.
- Let rest for an hour.
- Get your grill very hot, around 500 F.
- If you didn’t use oil in the rub, brush grill with standard vegetable oil (olive oil has a lower smoke point).
- Grill first side of the steak for 2 minutes, flip and grill other side for 2 minutes.
- If you have a good sear at this point, transfer to lower heat, around 350 F.
- Cook for the remaining time, flipping halfway.
- Total grill time for a 1.25 inch steak is about 9 minutes for rare, 10 minutes for medium-rare, and 11-12 minutes for medium.
- Variables include thickness of steak, grill temperature, and starting temperature of meat. Check internal temperature to get desired results.
- Wrap loosely in tin foil and let rest for 10 minutes before serving.
During my own Porterhouse vs T-Bone cookout, we used the bottom section of the Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker Smoker. It essentially became a fire pit, with the grill positioned right above the charcoal and wood chips. And those coals got HOT. Like, around 650 F.
After about 4 minutes over the fire, we transferred to a propane grill at 350 F, wrapped the steaks in foil to seal in their juices, and then let them hang out inside the BBQ – another 5 minutes for the T-bone and 6 minutes for the Porterhouse.
There is not much difference to how you grill a Porterhouse vs a T-Bone. The main thing to keep in mind is the thickness of the cut. And if you want the tenderloin on the rarer side to maximize its tenderness, position that portion of the steak away from your grill or pellet smoker’s highest heat and let the strip take the flame.
Which is ‘Tastier’?
It’s time to sit down and feast. Your guests are eying the platters of carved carnivorous delight set before them. The steak’s juices have created little oily halos around the perfectly pink slices of meat.
You covered your bases and grilled both the Porterhouse and the T-Bone. You wonder which your guests will prefer but really, it’s a misleading question. What it comes down to, really, is: tenderloin or striploin?
The tenderloin is as billed: it melts in your mouth. It is comfort during challenging times.
The striploin is not as tender but it is more flavorful. There’s more complexity. It is challenge during comfortable times.
Typically, strip steaks have less marbling than a rib-eye, but they still have a comparatively high fat content. Tenderloin is leaner, but it’s almost creamy texture makes it feel more indulgent.
Which is tastier is really all relative, and totally subjective. But in the interest of snobbery and coming full circle with the hierarchy introduced earlier in this article, the tenderloin (and thus the Porterhouse) is generally considered the superior cut. Hence the (typically) higher price point per ounce.
It’s great to take advantage of the variety that a T-bone or Porterhouse steak offers. But keep in mind that, as good as your striploin is, if most people prefer the fillet (and that tends to happen), the striploin might feel diminished in comparison. You know, if steaks had feelings.
Back to the Backyard
In the age of COVID-19, backyard cookouts are even more essential, providing a safer way for us to enjoy a meal together with family and friends. And, as cooler temperatures arrive, the grill – the fire – becomes a symbol of warmth and light for us to gather around and find cheer.
Thus, with your grill a showpiece now more than ever, you’ve got to consider adorning it with some big-boned beauty. A Porterhouse or T-Bone sizzling over the flames just looks good.
If you or your guests (or, let’s be real, that one guest you’re actually trying to impress) prefer tenderloin, go for the Porterhouse. If they’re striploin lovers (or just not picky), save a little bit of money and get some T-Bones.
And, if you’ve just scrolled to the bottom of this article because your meat-instincts have informed you that there’s no way 1700 words are necessary to describe the difference between these two very similar steak cuts, here is a summary of what you missed:
|Width of Tenderloin||Location on Cattle||Price per ounce||Distinction in Layman’s Terms|
|Porterhouse||1.25” +||Rear end of short loin||Typically higher. $79.95 at Lobel’s (20 oz., Natural Prime Dry-Aged)||More tenderloin|
|T-Bone||0.5”-1.25”||Front end of short loin||Typically lower. $74.95 at Lobel’s (20 oz., Natural Prime Dry-Aged)||Less tenderloin|
You did it. You grilled up both a T-Bone and a Porterhouse because you didn’t know what the difference was and bought both. You still don’t really know what the difference is, but you’ve carved up the tenderloin and served it to that friend who needs a juicy slice of comfort right now. And the striploin has been passed to that friend who could probably use some tasty challenge in their life.
For you? You’re going both sides of the bone.
Let me know in the comments if there are any differences I missed! Is Porterhouse or T-bone a trick question, or worthy of debate for interested “steak-holders”?