Blame it all on Christopher Columbus. Legend has it that the famous explorer brought cattle with him on his second voyage to the New World in 1493. Thus began America’s love affair with beef.
Whether your preference is filet mignon or plain ol’ hamburgers, red-blooded Americans love their red meat. Beef is the meat of choice for almost every holiday except Thanksgiving and Easter. In fact, the three “beefiest” days of the year are Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day, which break the record for the amount of beef consumed. And although everyone loves to cut into a supple cut of juicy prime rib or a well-marbled T-bone, the most popular cut of beef is the stuff our burgers are made of – plain ground beef. Approximately 45 percent of all beef sold today is in ground form.
It doesn’t matter if you eat your beef at restaurants with a side of Béarnaise or at home with a bottle of ketchup, the United States Department of Agriculture has ensured its quality so you can enjoy a tasty and healthy meal. The USDA oversees a voluntary grading system, paid for by the beef industry, which sends inspectors to grade each beef carcass during processing. This ensures uniform quality during the sale of the beef. Since not every cow is equal, the grading helps in the pricing of the beef, which assures that consumers get what they pay for.
Grades are based on two criteria: the age of the animal and the amount of marbling – the flecks and streaks of white fat you see in the meat. In general, the more marbling, the more tender, juicy, and flavorful it will be, and it will be correspondingly expensive. Beef is also better when the cattle are between 18 and 24 months old, so the grading favors younger animals. There are eight distinct grades of beef recognized by the USDA, but only the top three are generally available for purchase by consumers.
Prime – With less than 3 percent of beef graded as “prime,” most of this meat is sold to upscale restaurants and select meat markets. It has a high degree of marbling and exceptional juiciness and flavor. Most top steak houses sell only prime cuts. Prime cuts are excellent for dry-heat cooking, such as broiling, roasting or grilling.
Choice – Approximately half of all beef is graded as “choice.” It has a little less marbling than prime, but is the most popular grade because it is sufficiently tasty and tender while still being affordable. Most cuts will work well for dry-heat preparation methods, but some of the less tender cuts, such as those from the rump and round will work best when braised.
Select – This is generally the lowest grade of consumer beef available. Select cuts vary in juiciness and tenderness and have the least amount of marbling. It is a very lean cut of beef and only the loin, rib and sirloin should be cooked with dry heat. Other cuts should be marinated or braised to obtain maximum tenderness and flavor. About a third of all meat is graded “select.”
Standard and Commercial Grades – These cuts are frequently sold as ungraded or as “store brand” meat.
Commercial, Utility, Cutter and Canner Grades – These grades are seldom, if ever, sold at retail, but are used instead to make ground beef and processed products, such as “potted meat.”
If cost was no object, we would all dine on prime cuts of meat for its exceptional flavor and juiciness, but many of us can only afford prime beef on special occasions. Choice cuts of meat are a good compromise in terms of cost, taste and ease of preparation. You can feel confident buying a choice cut of meat knowing that you will not have to worry about eating something tasting like shoe leather. There is nothing wrong with select cuts of meat; they are an excellent choice if you are looking to limit your fat intake. Just be aware that to extract the best flavor from select cuts, it is best to use a marinade to tenderize it before cooking.
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