How to Select Beef

I was at the local supermarket last evening, procuring the various ingredients for the meatloaf, I came across that bastion of patronizing ignorance: the meat counter.

All I wanted was ground chuck. The first gentleman behind the counter said they didn’t make their ground beef with chuck. I had him ask the second gentleman, who responded, we make all of our ground beef with chuck. He then proceeded to tell me how lean ground chuck was. I dismissed him quickly with a wave of my hand. I have no time for salesmanship, especially when that salesmanship is flat out incorrect.

When it comes to beef…actually when it comes to most meats…you have to make a choice between eating for taste versus eating for your health. If you choose health, then why are you eating beef? There are better things for you that taste better than lean beef.

If you choose taste, then keep the following in mind: fat is your friend. Fat is where the taste and the moistness of meat comes from. The only time you should be looking at lean cuts of meat, is when you are making a dish where the taste comes from other ingredients and the moisture comes from the cooking technique. Slow-cooking (crockpots), braising, and stews are (generally speaking) the best dishes to use lean cuts of meat. Everything else? Go with a fattier cut.

But how to tell a good cut of meat? This is where the type of fat comes into play. Intramuscular fat (often referred to as marbling) is a good thing. Huge hunks of fat on the outside of the beef? Eh, not so much. The fat should be white and distributed within the muscle of the meat. Brownish or darkened fat means the meat has been out a while and should be passed by.

As for the meat itself, it should be a cherry or brownish red in color, and it should look moist, but not wet or sticky. If there’s a prevelance of water in the package, pass it by as it’s been frozen.

USDA ratings: There are eight different USDA classifications for beef, only three of which you should be aware:

  • Prime – If you see this in your meat section, pick it up. But you probably won’t, as this is the rating that is most often sold to restaurants via their suppliers. It’s one of the reasons why a Steakhouse often has better tasting steaks than you’re able to reproduce at home.
  • Choice – This is the grade you want if your having a primarily “beef” meal. For steaks, ribs, broils, roasts, etc etc, you should look for the Choice cut.
  • Select – Not as good as Prime or choice, this is the grade you should select when you have beef dishes where the meat is designed to be combined with other ingredient, i e, soups, stews, braisings. Because the other ingredients will cover the nuances of the beef, it’s best to save the money and go for the cheaper grade.

Grass fed vs. Grain fed: First and foremost, grass fed is more expensive of a beef type, because it requires pastures. Grain fed cattle can be left in a lot and fed grain (often corn) straight from the trough. So in the “which is more inexpensive?”, grain fed will win every time.

We here at the Hedonist are looking at other variables as well. Taste is one (which I’ll get to in a minute). Humane treatment of animals is another. Cattle are pasture animals by nature. They graze. When left to their own devices, they don’t graze on grain, they graze on grass. So in a choice between having cattle penned up all day vs. allowing to roam pastures, I think I’ll choose the latter.

Now as to taste, I know that taste is a personal opinion. One person’s wine is another person’s poison. That being said, I’m going to quote from a recent Frontline piece:

Meat from a grass-fed steer has about one-half to one-third as much fat as a comparable cut from a grain-fed animal. Lower in calories, grass-fed beef is also higher in vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids, which are thought to help reduce the risk of cancer, lower the likelihood of high blood pressure, and make people less susceptible to depression. Further, meat from grass-fed cattle is rich in another beneficial fat called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which supposedly lowers the risk of cancer. The benefits of CLA are so widely acknowledged that some ranchers who don’t grass-finish their cattle add CLA supplements to their animals’ feed once they’re taken to the feedlots.

Short answer: If you can spare the expense, choose the grass fed.

Angus and Kobe Beef: Welcome to the world of beef marketing. The breed of cattle often means very little aside from the all important carcass breed vs. dairy breed.

Angus beef is a breed of cattle that has a high carcass yield with marbled meat. Period. Guess what? Most of the cattle processed for meat have high carcass yield with marbled meat. You’ve been suckered into thinking it meant something, didn’t you?

Angus beef has the same falibilities as any other breed of cattle; treat it poorly, feed it grains other than grass, and you’ll have a cut of meat that tastes remarkably like any other supermarket cut of meat. Guess what else? They do exactly that.

Kobe beef, if you pardon the expression, is a different beast. Kobe beef comes from the Japanese Black cattle. They are treated with the utmost care, massaging the cows with oil to improve the distribution and softness of the sub-cutaneous fat, feeding beer them and other special foods to stimulate the appetite when the animal is on the high-energy, low-bulk finishing ration, and the deliberate restriction of exercise to prevent muscle toughness. The result is a mature carcass with bright cherry red meat, almost all of which is extensively and finely marbled with pure white fat.

See what’s important here? Cherry red meat with white marbling. Go figure. This is why I dismissed the counter person in the meat department. He wanted to sell me on the lean qualities of beef. It was then that it was apparent that he knew absolutely nothing.

UPDATE: As haddock mentioned in the comments, most Kobe beef here in the states is not true Kobe. They may come from the same breed of cattle, but it seems they are not treated with the same level of care that they get in Japan.

Also, pointed out by the chef is that it is perfectly acceptable, nay even required to use meat with a fair amount of connective tissue. As he writes – “after the long, slow, wet cooking (the meat) transforms into unctous deliciousness.”


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