U.S.D.A. beef grading

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The Steak in my Heart…

It occurred to me the other day how few people understand the enigmatical U.S.D.A. beef grading system, or the differences in cattle varieties and their origins. So that seemed as good a topic as any to cover next. Different cuts and where on the animal they come from is something else I should probably cover briefly, as well, since that too seems to be a mystery to some. Let's talk about marbling first, however. Marbling refers to the veins of fat running through the muscles of the animal. Not the fat surrounding them, but the fat running through them. The U.S.D.A. has three basic meat grades. Select being the lowest (meaning least amount of fat marbling throughout the meat), next comes Choice, and then Prime is at the top. The prices inflate dramatically according which grade and cut you choose.

Prime, Choice, and Select grades side by side

Cuts: A quick lesson on butchery. When a carcass is broken down it's cut into four "Primals" in the U.S., and from there the sub-Primals and separate cuts of meat we end up with. The tougher cuts, which tend to have less marbling, are almost always the cheapest. Examples of those would be Flank, Rump, and Brisket. The tenderloin (Fillet Mignon) being an exception to the rule of less fat=tougher meat, is the most tender. Basically, the further you get from hooves or tail, the more tender the cut of meat will be. The tenderloin is located under the ribs in the center of the animal. Ironically, the tougher cuts tend to have more flavor. Fillet Mignon is probably a chefs least favorite cut because it's nearly flavorless so it needs a lot of help to coax out what flavor IS there. But it's the biggest seller in steak houses because it's the most tender and most expensive, since it's a very small loin and you only get about 10 pounds of it per average sized steer. An exception to the marbling/flavor/toughness rule would be the Flat Iron, which is a relatively new cut, meaning it wasn't until recently that butchers figured out how to market it because of a large strip of inedible sinew ("silver-skin" in industry jargon) that runs through the center of the muscle. A quick and economical way to remove it was developed, and now Flat Irons are a big hit with restaurants because they pack a lot of flavor AND have good marbling AND they're relatively cheap.

Flat Iron Steak

The most popular steaks outside of Tenderloin, being Ribeye (a.k.a. Delmonico), NY Strip, T-Bone and Porterhouse, all come from the muscle that runs down the back and above the ribs of the animal. These are all derived from one of two sections (or sub-Primals), the Rib Loin or the Short Loin. From the Rib Loin we get Ribeyes if cut into steaks, or Prime Rib if roasted whole (the name "Prime" Rib does not reflect the grade in any way). From the Short Loin we get Fillet, Strip, T-Bone and Porterhouse steaks. The only real difference in any of these is the way the Primal is broken down. If you just saw it into steaks you get bone-in Strips, T-Bones, and Porterhouse. If you de-bone it, you get Fillet, and boneless Strips. Confused? Ok, the large muscle on the one side of the bone in the T-Bone and Porterhouse is the same muscle as the Strip steak, just not be-boned. The smaller muscle on the other side in a Porterhouse is the Fillet (don't worry, I'm including diagrams). The tiny bit of meat on the other side of that bone in a T-Bone is the tail end of the Tenderloin, because the loin tapers at both ends. So, the only difference between T-Bone and Porterhouse is where on the loin the steak is cut from, be it where the Tenderloin is thicker or near the end where it tapers off.

T-Bone Steak

Porterhouse Cut

Boneless Strip Steak

Tenderloin Steak, or Fillet Mignon

Grading: When the butcher get's his hands on the steer it's already been cleaned and halved. The very first cut he makes in the hanging carcass is between the 12th and 13th rib, and that cut separates the Rib Loin from the Short Loin. This done, he quickly evaluates the grade by examining the fat marbling in the cut surface of the Short Loin. In days past they would then roll an ink stamp over the fat indicating the grade. This is no longer in practice, however, but most of you probably remember seeing the blue ink on the fat layer of the steaks in the butchers case at the local supermarket or butcher shop. That's what that was, the grading stamp. Now, just to further confuse you, I'll talk about cattle varieties. Black Angus is very popular here in the U.S.. Black Angus cattle are a breed that was imported from Scotland in 1873, and have since been bred to acclimate the breed to the slightly warmer American climate.Certified Black Angus simply means it's been deemed to be of top quality among the herd. I've heard that Scotland has the best tasting beef in the world, but I've never had Scottish beef, so I can't tell you first hand. Judging from Black Angus, though, I wouldn't doubt it... A chef I used to worked with and myself did a blind taste test once between CAB (Certified Angus Beef, CAB is more industry jargon) and U.S.D.A. Prime. At the time I worked at an upscale steakhouse that served only Prime, until (that is) the big "Mad Cow" scare drove the price nosebleed high on Prime, as if it wasn't high enough to begin with. This forced the owner to look at other products. So the chef and I tasted, side by side, a medium rare CAB NY Strip and a medium rare U.S.D.A. Prime NY Strip. We BOTH liked the CAB better. It tasted more "beefy" than it's Prime opponent, which had a quite subtle flavor.

The Marbling of Kobe

The word "Kobe" is getting thrown around a LOT these days. The SUPER marbled and SUPER expensive breed of cattle. This refers to a Japanese cattle variety, that much I'm sure most of you know. Here in the States, however, most (if not all) of the "Kobe" sold is a cross-breed of Japanese Kobe and American Black Angus. This cross-breeding allows for the signature Kobe marbling in an animal that's better suited to the different climate here in the States. In Japan, they belong to a group of breeds called Wagyu breeds (another word getting tossed around in the restaurant world like a midget at spring break). Of these, Kobe is actually the most affordable... if that tells you anything about the rest of them. Mishima, another Wagyu variety, is somewhere around $150 a pound! And that's in Japan! Good-fuckin-luck gettin your hands on it here! Even IF you could (and it's a damn big "IF") that price would probably double. That astronomical amount is due mostly to the fact that only about 100 head are raised every year. Ground beef: Something that has bugged me for years, that Anthony Bourdain addresses in his most recent book "Medium Raw", might I add, is why the hell does ANYONE bother with Kobe burgers? Kobe has a very subtle flavor, and most burgers aren't going for subtle... On top of that, the whole reason you buy Kobe is for the marbling, the fat content. When you grind the meat you can add as much fat as you want. The industry standard is pretty much 80/20. That means 80% meat, 20% fat. That throws the whole concept of Kobe right out the window! You want higher fat content in your burgers? Grab some some suet and throw that shit in the grinder with the meat! Easy! The way I see it, Kobe is really only good for a few cuts. Those would be Strip loin and Rib loin. But what about the Fillet (a.k.a. Tenderloin) you ask? Rubbish, I respond! Fillet has almost no fat at all, Kobe or not. So what's the point? Angus is much better suited for any application where Fillet might come into play because it has, as previously mentioned, a kick-you-in-the-teeth beefy flavor. The reason I say these are the only good cuts of Kobe is because they are the ones that will best showcase it's natural gifts. Kobe Prime Rib, Ribeye, or NY Strip are the ONLY way to enjoy Kobe. All other cuts, you're better off using Angus since a lot of the tougher cuts require more cooking time, which means more fat loss, and, as I've already mentioned, the Fillet is nearly useless. Despite all this bitching, I must say, a room temperature, thinly sliced piece of raw Kobe strip loin dipped lightly in soy sauce (Kobe sashimi, if you will) is fucking HEAVEN! Room temp because the fat softens, trying to eat cold beef fat is like chewing on Play-do... So, in the grand scheme of things, of the most popular breeds and grades of beef, the flavor breakdown goes something like this in my opinion: Select Choice (good cut of meat, and most bang for the buck) Prime CAB (Certified Angus Beef) Kobe (for those limited few cuts I mentioned) The price breakdown is a bit different, however, looking more like this: Select Choice CAB Prime Kobe The flavor breakdown for the individual cuts goes something like this: Flank, Flat Iron, anything from the Round Primal (hind leg) Anything from the Sirloin Primal (hip area) Brisket, Short Ribs, Skirt Steak, anything from the Chuck Primal (shoulder) T-Bone, Porterhouse Boneless Strip Steak Ribeye and Prime Rib Tenderloin or Fillet Mignon To conclude: You will NEVER go wrong with Certified Black Angus beef! Almost universally better tasting and (depending on the cut and application) middle of the road as far as price point goes. For the cuts that are leaner, or if you're gonna do a braised dish (which will render all the fat out anyway), Select or Choice will work great. But, if you're lookin for a steak, that American classic, just a big chunk of grilled or seared beef, Black Angus beats ALL in most cases! My personal favorite cuts for a steak are Flat Iron, Strip (bone-in or T-Bone), Sirloin, and Ribeye (a bone-in Ribeye is often called a "Cowboy Cut"). For a braised dish you can't beat Short Ribs, and Rare seared Flank get's honorable mention for steaks, though it's best used sliced thin for sandwiches. On a budget, though, Flat Iron for the win. Maybe even NOT on a budget! It's THAT good! Now that I think about it, I've never had a Kobe Flat Iron.... It might just change my opinion and add another cut to the list of Kobe superiority... Well, I hope that cleared up any confusion you may have had while pondering the myriad of choices at the meat counter looking for the right hunk o dead cow. Until next time, live well, and eat better beef!!! Jack http://meat.tamu.edu/beefgrading.html http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beef Video on YouTube of CAB steer being butchered

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