Beef: Marbling and Grades
There is nothing finer than a well-marbled steak. That luscious, tender bite of steak is at the top of most gastronomic desires.
Marbling is the fat that is within the fibers of a cut of meat. It's what makes the meat juicy, tender and flavorful. A Prime steak will have a high quantity of hard, evenly-distributed fat throughout the steak, while a leaner Select steak will have very little visible fat at all, which lends itself to a less desirable chew. That’s the reason we will pay that price for a well-marbled Prime steak.
Most of the well-marbled cuts come
from the loin area- the upper body along the back of the animal- where the muscles get very little activity, unlike the shoulders, hind and rump area. Graders evaluate the amount and distribution of marbling in the ribeye muscle at the cut surface after the carcass (sorry- industry term!) has been ribbed between the 12th and 13th ribs. From this area and adjoining area, you will see the Tenderloin, Ribeye, Kansas City Strip, Porterhouse, etc., known for their quality. When cooking these better cuts, the fat slowly melts and leaves the meat moist, tender and flavorful, whereas the lean cuts tend to be tougher and flavorless. The tougher cuts, i.e Brisket, Roasts, Round steak, need to be “wet cooked” or “slow roasted” for extended periods of time and/or tenderized (like the Round steak for our favorite Chicken Fried Steak). For example, you may see a large amount of fat around a Brisket, but not within the meat, so that "low and slow" cooking method becomes very important, using a low temperature that allows that fat cap to slowly melt into the meat to break down those meat fibers. Both cuts of meats are desirable, however it just comes down to the cooking process to get all the flavor you desire.
Beef Quality Grades:
A Quality Grade is a composite evaluation of factors that affect palatability of meat (tenderness, juiciness, and flavor). These factors include carcass maturity, firmness, texture and color of lean, the amount and distribution of marbling, and the dispersion of fat in the muscle fiber (again within the lean). Beef carcass quality grading is based on (1), degree of marbling, and (2), degree of age/maturity. The U.S. Department of Agriculture assigns 1 of 3 Grades to determine this quality: Prime, Choice and Select.
Checkout this handy chart describing the Grades of Beef. Thank you, USDA!
Let’s summarize by saying the quality of beef you prefer to eat will be predicated on the factors of your taste, cooking method and budget. For example, Chicken Fried Steak can use a lesser cut of meat than a grilling steak, however, if you really wanna knock your guests' socks off, make a CFS with one of those thin New York strips! Your Hamburgers would be great with Prime beef, but a good Choice 80/20 meat to fat ratio, will serve you best, and Mom’s Sunday Roast will never be Prime. A Select grade would even work here for that slow-roasted Sunday dinner.
I hope this was informative and not too stuffy. You only live once, so buy quality beef, and try the “Prime Cuts” every once in a while!
Eat more beef - support your local cattle rancher!