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What Is A Cowboy Steak?

If you’ve ever been scrolling through social media or visited a steakhouse, you might have stumbled across the term “cowboy steak.” Most people agree that a cowboy steak is a variation on a bone-in ribeye, though there will be some who might say that it’s a catch-all term for any steak cut from …

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By Jeremy Pike

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What is a Cowboy Steak?

If you’ve ever been scrolling through social media or visited a steakhouse, you might have stumbled across the term “cowboy steak.” Most people agree that a cowboy steak is a variation on a bone-in ribeye, though there will be some who might say that it’s a catch-all term for any steak cut from the short loin primal, or maybe they’ll say it’s any thick steak cooked over an open fire, usually wood or charcoal.

So what in tarnation is a cowboy steak? Is it different from other large steaks like the Tomahawk? Read on you big Galoots and we will explain.

What Is A Cowboy Steak?

Beef with cuts of meat brisket

The most conventional explanation is that a cowboy steak is a thick bone-in ribeye steak  where the bone has been “frenched,” or had all the meat and fat removed,  and cut short, almost like a small handle. Some places call it a cowboy ribeye, further signifying that it’s simply a variation on a bone-in ribeye. Some places may or may not serve it with the bone trimmed clean, instead just opting to serve it as a big, thick ribeye.

Ribeye steaks, no matter the style, size, or bone-in or boneless, come from the same area on the cow, the ribcage. The ribeye steaks are cut from in-between the ribs, typically the sixth through 12th ribs. These steaks have plenty of marbling that will render through the cooking process, resulting in moist, tender steak with plenty of beef flavor.

How Thick Is A Cowboy Steak?

As for how thick a cowboy steak is, it’s usually somewhere between two and three inches of meat. That means you can find these hefty cuts of meat ranging from around one to three pounds. 

Measuring thickness of Cowboy Steak 2.5"
Mikes Cowboys measure in at 2.5″ thick


Cowboy Steak Vs Ribeye

Wagyu Ribeye
Wagyu Ribeye
Raw Cowboy Steak
Cowboy Steak

So what distinguishes a cowboy steak from a ribeye? You can find ribeye steaks boneless or bone-in and in varying thicknesses. However, most ribeyes you’ll find are boneless and are between one and two inches thick. They’ll weigh in somewhere around a pound up to 20 ounces. A boneless ribeye might also be known as a Delmonico steak. 

If you are looking for the best ribeye experience you can find, check out our review of the Meatery’s Australian and American Wagyu ribeyes.

Cowboy Steaks Vs Tomahawk

Tomahawk Steak On Griddle

You might find yourself asking, hey wait, isn’t what you’re describing just a tomahawk steak? You wouldn’t be completely wrong, but there are even differences between a cowboy steak and a tomahawk steak. The major difference is the length of the bone. On a cowboy steak, the bone is fairly short while the long bone of a tomahawk steak is arguably its defining feature. Both steaks are thick and hefty. If you want more information about tomahawk steaks, we’ve got you covered.

If you’re interested in getting a tomahawk steak, our friends at the Meatery have a selection of Wagyu and prime beef Tomahawks.

Why Is It Called A Cowboy Steak?

Cowboy holding a Cowboy Steak

While you’d be hard-pressed to find the actual original reference to a cowboy steak, there does seem to be some consensus on how the cut got its name. Cowboys would typically  butcher their own meat and cook it, so it makes sense that any steak a cowboy would cook  would be a big steak that even has a built-in handle for easy eating.

While different people and even different restaurants may have different opinions on what exactly is a cowboy steak, the consensus is that a cowboy steak is a big steak for someone with a big appetite, just like a cowboy.

How Do You Cook A Cowboy Steak

Perfectly cooked reverse seared cowboy steak
Perfect Reverse Seared Cowboy Steak

Cooking a good quality steak is usually pretty simple: season with salt and pepper, cook hot and fast to get a good sear or grill marks. However, when you have a three-inch thick piece of meat, hot and fast may not be the most appropriate method (unless you’re a fan of blue steak.

When it comes to any steaks that are over an inch thick, we recommend using the reverse sear method for cooking them. What’s reverse searing? Glad you asked.

Reverse Searing a Cowboy Steak

Reverse searing is a method where you cook a steak over indirect heat (at a lower temp like 200-225F) until it gets within 5°F of your target temperature, then let it rest for about 10 minutes before finishing it over direct flame or on a hot surface like a skillet, grill or griddle. This method works whether you have a pellet smoker, a charcoal or gas grill, or are currently stuck cooking inside for whatever reason. 

What you do want to have is a way to monitor the internal temperature of the cowboy steak through the process. I recommend using a wireless meat thermometer for tracking temps during the indirect heat process. If you’re cooking steaks for you and that special someone in your life, the new ThermoPro Twin TempSpikes work extremely well. You can then use an instant-read thermometer to make sure you don’t overcook the steaks while searing them.

Reverse Searing On A Pellet Grill

Pellet grills of any kind are perfect for at least the first phase of reverse searing. All you need to do is start your pellet smoker and set it to 200°-225°F, then put your cowboy steak on and let it smoke until it’s within 5°F of your target temperature. This adds a nice wood flavor to your steak, further enhancing the experience.

reverse sear smoking cowboy steaks
Mike using his Yoder Pellet Smoker to smoke and cook the cowboy steaks to 125F.

Unfortunately, pellet grills are not the best type of grill for searing. If your pellet smoker only reaches 450°-500°F like a number of models on the market, you can finish your steaks with your smoker set to high. Unfortunately, you won’t get that great sear finish. If you have a charcoal or gas grill, you can always preheat it to searing temperatures.

There are pellet grills that are able to reveal the firepot for direct flame access which have improved searing capabilities, but it’s still not the same as over a hot charcoal fire or gas burners. There are also combination grills that have separate cooking chambers for the pellet side and gas side which would be effective for reverse searing a cowboy steak.

The Camp Chef Apex pellet grill that came out in 2022 aims to completely change the searing capability of a pellet smoker. It’s the first combination grill that has the gas burners in the same cooking chamber as the firebox. It delivers better searing capabilities than a standard pellet smoker while also having Camp Chef’s Sidekick with an included griddle top so you can choose between grill marks and a full seared crust on whatever steak you’re cooking.

Reverse Searing On A Charcoal Grill

Searing on Charcoal Grill
Mike doing the final sear on his Yoder 24×48 Charcoal Grill.

While the setup on a charcoal grill might be a little harder than on a pellet grill, it’s still pretty easy. You want your charcoal set up for indirect heat. That can be done simply by piling charcoal on one side of your grill or by using a charcoal basket like the SNS Grills Slow ‘n’ Sear (like in the above picture). 

Reverse Seared Cowboy Steak
Doesn’t that look amazing? Nice char on the outside.

Regardless of how you create the two-zone effect, you want to start your cowboy steak over indirect heat. Then just like on a pellet smoker, you’ll want to rest your steaks for around 10 minutes before transferring them over the hot charcoal for searing. Once both sides are seared properly, the cowboy steaks are ready to serve!

If you want to get some wood flavor like the pellet smokers, you can toss some wood chunks of your preferred flavor onto the charcoal. For most cuts of beef, I prefer a stronger wood like oak. We’ve got a chart to help you with making wood flavor decisions, but always feel free to experiment to find what meets your personal preferences.

Smoking Wood Chart


Reverse Searing On A Gas (Propane Or Natural) Grill

Much like the charcoal grill, you want to set your gas grill up for two-zone cooking. That means turning either your far right or far left burner to high while leaving the rest of the burners off. If you’ve got a particularly large one, you might need to turn two burners to high to properly heat the cooking chamber.

You can add wood flavor even when cooking with propane or natural gas for this part of the cooking process. Wood chips are the easiest way to do this, and you can use them in multiple ways. You can purchase a smoke box or a smoking tube and load them with wood chips. If you don’t have either and you aren’t sure you want to invest in a tool that you won’t use all that often, you can simply make a packet out of aluminum foil. For more information on all these methods plus step-by-step instructions for making that foil packet, check out our article on using wood chips for smoking.

Wood chip tube on gas grill.
Easy way to add more smoke flavor when reverse searing on a gas grill.

Once the cowboy steaks are at the proper temperature, let them rest for 10 minutes before putting them over the gas burners and searing them.

What Temperature Should I Be Cooking Cowboy Steaks To?

This is completely a matter of preference. As cowboy steaks are thick-cut ribeyes, you’ll want to target similar temperatures and levels of doneness as you would on any ribeye. Most people would target a nice medium-rare with an internal temperature somewhere between 130°-135°F. If you want more information on the different stages of doneness, check out this handy chart below.

Steak Doneness Chart


Angry BBQ’s Guide To Cooking A Cowboy Steak

Ingredients

  • Cowboy steaks (2-3” thick bone-in ribeyes, your preference on whether the bones are frenched or not)
  • Coarse Salt (either kosher salt or coarse sea salt)
  • Black Pepper

Gear

  • Pellet, charcoal, or gas grill and related fuel sources (wood chunks or chips if you’re using something other than a pellet smoker)
  • Wireless Thermometer
  • Instant-read thermometer
  • Tongs
  • Aluminum foil
  • Paper towels
  • Serving tray

Reverse Sear Cowboy Steak Instructions

  1. Take steaks out of the refrigerator approximately an hour before you start cooking.
  2. Salt all sides of the cowboy steaks generously and return them to the fridge to sit for half an hour.
  3. Remove steaks from the fridge and let them rest for half an hour. Pat dry with paper towels to remove excess moisture.
  4. Pre-heat your pellet smoker to 200°-225°F or set up your gas or charcoal grill for indirect cooking with desired wood.
  5. Insert the wireless thermometers into the steaks, sprinkle the steaks with black pepper, and place the steaks in the indirect heat of the grill.
  6. Cook steaks until they are within 5°F of your target internal temperature per the chart above. Remove from the grill and rest on a serving tray under aluminum foil for 10 minutes.
  7. Return the steaks to direct heat for searing. Sear approximately 2-3 minutes per side. Make sure you get the edges of the steaks since these cowboy steaks are so thick. Check the  internal temperature using the instant-read thermometer to ensure you aren’t overcooking.
  8. Remove steaks when properly seared and serve.

Wrapping It Up

Cowboy steaks might be confusing at first if you aren’t familiar with the term, but they’re essentially just massive bone-in ribeyes with all the marbling and flavor you’ve come to know and love. Whether you’re ordering one at a high-end steakhouse or serving them at home, they’ll certainly be Instagram-worthy and a showpiece. 

Oh, and no, you do not have to be a cowboy to enjoy a cowboy steak. 

Have you ever had a cowboy steak? What did you think? Let us know in the comments!

FAQs:

Question: What Are The Best Sides For Cowboy Steaks?

Answer: If you’ve got a favorite side dish for steaks in general, it’ll go well with a cowboy steak. It’s hard to go wrong with some creamy mashed potatoes and some sauteed asparagus, though. For more ideas, check out our favorite steak side dishes.

Question: Can I Reverse-Sear Cowboy Ribeye Steaks In The Oven?

Answer: Just because we are a website devoted primarily to the art and science of grilling and barbecue doesn’t mean we don’t understand being in a position where you can’t grill or smoke food. I’ve been there myself before. The good news? You can enjoy that cowboy cut steak in your very own kitchen. Set your oven to 250°F, put your steak in an oven-safe skillet (or a baking sheet if you need to,) and cook as above. Then preheat a large cast-iron skillet on your stovetop over medium-high heat. We want to sear the steak, not burn it. After your steak gets within 5°F of your target internal temp, remove it from the oven and let it rest 10 minutes. Then put your steak in the hot skillet and sear each side.

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