T-Bones and Porterhouses: What’s the Difference?
Above photos by Snake River Farms.
T-bones and porterhouses are a steak lover’s nirvana—a New York strip and a tenderloin, a.k.a. filet mignon, connected by a gnaw-worthy T-shaped bone.
But what’s the difference? a viewer asked after watching a video of me grilling Caveman T-Bones.
Are they different names for the same steak? A “tomato-tomahto” thing whereby Texans call it T-bone and Yankees name it porterhouse?
I understand the confusion. The steaks can look almost identical. Both are cut from the short loin. However, it is the size of the tenderloin section that determines the steak’s classification.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a tenderloin section that is at least 1.25 inches across at its widest point qualifies the steak as a porterhouse. Anything between 1.24 inches and 0.51 inches makes the steak a T-bone. Anything less than 0.5 inches is bone-in strip steak.
Thus all porterhouses are T-bones, but not all T-bones are porterhouses.
Confused yet? “Porters come from the sirloin end of the short loin (the end closest to the back of the steer),” explains Lori Dunn of Wisconsin-based Strauss Brands (purveyors of the fine grass-fed beef we used on the Project Smoke TV show). “T-bones come from the middle-to-rib end of the loin because the tenderloin narrows and tapers as it moves forward in the carcass towards the ribs.”
If you really want to impress your butcher, order the steaks by their IMPS (Institutional Meat Purchase Specification) numbers: 1174 is a T-bone; 1173 is a porterhouse. Then there should be no mistake.
Beef is the most common source of T-bone and porterhouse steaks, but you also find comparable cuts in veal, lamb, and pork (all are often referred to as loin chops).
There’s no mystery as to how T-bones were named. But what about the porterhouse?
In the early to mid-1800s, travelers could find respite from the road in establishments called “porter houses.” They often offered lodging. (Now that’s a B&B concept: bed and beefsteak!) Porter—a stout dark beer brewed from brown or charred malt—was a popular beverage at the time.
One story is that the great English writer Charles Dickens, having eaten an evidently memorable steak in Sandusky, Ohio, in 1842, followed the southern shoreline of Lake Erie to Buffalo, New York, where he asked a local hotelier for a steak like he’d eaten at “the porter house in Sandusky.” The shrewd proprietor of the Buffalo establishment quickly put “porterhouse steak—the one Charles Dickens likes” on his menu. The tale is somewhat credible as Charles Dickens’ signature was reportedly found in 1923 in an archived register of the Sandusky porter house. (A reference to “porter house steak” can also be found in The Career of Puffer Hopkins by Cornelius Mathews, and published in 1842.)
But the Oxford English Dictionary suggests the name could have come from a New York City porter house in operation in 1814, even though there is no contemporary evidence to support the legend. It also references the possibility that 19th century Cambridge, Massachusetts, restaurateur and hotelier Zachariah B. Porter could have named the steak.
My guess is the term evolved organically as wayfarers spread the word about porter house steaks.
The thickness of the steaks doesn’t influence their classification, although porterhouses are often cut thicker than steaks sold as T-bones. Sometimes astonishingly so, like the monster steak served at the Los Angeles temple of meat, Chi Spacca (“The Cleaver”). The restaurant’s monumental bistecca fiorentina weighs 50 ounces, so thick it can easily stand upright. Seasoned simply with salt and pepper, it is charred over an almond wood fire, carved in the kitchen (each slice is as large as a deck of playing cards), and served—blood rare—in a pool of olive oil and meat juices. When they say blood rare, they mean it: the kitchen cooks every porterhouse to 100 degrees F.
For grilling, I prefer a T-bone or porterhouse that is at least 1-1/2 to 2 inches thick and preferably grass-fed. Another great option is a prime T-bone or porterhouse that has been aged for at least 3 weeks.
Either option is expensive, but one steak will easily serve two people with leftovers. Follow my instructions for cooking so you don’t squander your investment, which given the price of beef, might be sizeable.
In our next blog post, I’ll tell you my fail-proof method for grilling a perfect T-bone or porterhouse—no matter how thick. (Hint: it involves standing the steak up like a flagpole.) And, yes, you grill the bone. In the meanwhile, here are three of my favorite T-bone and porterhouse recipes: