The origin of the word sirloin for that so very popular and tender cut of beef (sirloin can also apply to pork), is one of those cases where the fictional origin is a lot more fun and interesting than the actual one, which is quite literal and quite boring. In fact, I think the story is better than the steak, which is overrated, in my opinion. Tender yes, but not as flavorful as say, a nice New York Strip, which is very tender as well. So let’s start with the fictional story, and I’m sorry I’ve already given away the bad news that it’s fictional.
The story concerns one King Charles II of England, who lived in Friday Hall, at Chingford. King Charles went out hunting in the Epping Forest…wait, this is interesting as well. Did you know that a “forest” was actually a word that referred specifically to royal hunting grounds that surrounded the jurisdiction of a kingdom? We tend to think of a forest as a big, ancient, primaeval thing. The large scale version of the woods, that is, a woodland. But forests didn’t originally signify a woodland, necessarily. The forest could have tree cover, but also pastures, farm land, moorland, etc. These designated grounds are said to have had their own legal system. So, you see, when Robin Hood and his Merry Men were hiding out in Sherwood Forest, they weren’t just hiding in the woods, they were hiding in the royal stomping grounds.
So, back to the story. King Charles was hunting in his forest, and he worked up a huge appetite. Upon returning back to Friday Hall, he found a huge loin of beef on the table, fresh out of the oven, with inviting rivulets of steam wafting from it. He was mighty pleased, being so famished, and exclaimed, “A noble joint! By St George, it shall have a title!
The king then drew his sword, raised it above the roast, and with mock ceremony, in his kingly dignity, announced, “Loin, we dub thee knight; henceforward be Sir Loin!”
The easiest way to show this is nothing more than a folk tale is to mention that this is only one version of the story. In another version it is Kind Henry VIII. And why not, he was a bit nuts.
It’s a pity to have to spoil that with the facts, ain’t it? But it seems too good to be true and you know what they say about that. The facts are that sirloin comes from the French word for the cut, surlonge. Sur means “over” or “above” or even “upon.” You can guess what longe means. So surlonge means on or above the loin. This came into English as surloin but the U in sur eventually was replaced by an I. It could be that the folk story given above influenced this change.
There is another version of the above story though, explaining how the “I” replaced the “U,” having James I, or some other king, seated at the table and spying a beautiful “surloin” saying, “Bring hither that surloin, hirrah, for ’tis worty of a more honorable post, being, as I may say, not surloin but sirloin, the noblest joint of all!” I used an exclamation point because I imagine him saying this very loudly.
More likely, one lexographer or another was influenced by one of these stories and mispelled surloin with an “I” and passed it along to history.
Now, I was saying that the sirloin is over-rated. The problem is, when you order a sirloin steak in a steakhouse, you aren’t necessarily getting the best part of the cut. I should point out, as well, that the American sirloin cut is a bit different than the traditional British cut. In the British cut, the sirloin is a large area in the upper middle part of the animal, and it overlaps part of what we call the short loin. Plus, the flank portion is much larger. You can compare the images to see the differences.
Usually, the best part of the sirloin from which to have a steak is the top sirloin and this is usually what people mean when they say “Sirloin Steak.” Many people rave, however, about a cut that is often called the tri tip, which can be used as a roast or cut into steaks. This is a triangular cut from the bottom sirloin (hence trip tip) This is also called sirloin bottom butt or “Santa Maria” steak. These are lean and tougher than the top sirloin, but with more flavor. This is a great grilling steak, typically cooked medium rare and sliced. But for less money you might find a nice flat iron even better. Either way, to me, none of this compares to a cut from the “short loin” such as a T-bone, porterhouse, New York strip (strip steak, club steak, shell steak). Also, the rib eye, you know, from the rib. If you’re one of those people who’ve been lead to believe that the sirloin is the best steak to order, you just have to try any of these other typical cuts. You’ve been steered wrong due to it’s fancy sounding name, I think.