In this post, I clarify:
- When to pony up the extra coin on a piece of meat, when and when not to spend
- Practical application: How, why and when to buy graded or ungraded meats
- Beef “quality grades” as Prime, Choice and Select
When purchasing meat, beef in particular, which grade should you buy? The higher the grade, the more expensive is it… and quite frankly spending more “moo”-la is not always the best choice!
All retail meat, graded or ungraded has been Federally Inspected and Passed and is “fit for human consumption” (somehow that doesn’t sound so appetizing!).
Beef is voluntarily graded for quality, a program that ensures a certain amount consistency within the product. Almost every cut of beef you will see in the store is graded. Most often chefs/restaurants and the meat industry use this marketing to promote, market, and charge for high end cuts.
The time to choose or buy a meat that is graded is typically when quick dry cooking methods would be applied such as grilling, searing or sauteeing. Grilling most often is associated with steaks or individual cuts. Look for the grade on your package of tenderloins and hangar steaks. Prime will give you a more velvety, tender steak than choice. In this case, spend!
Another application where you may purchase graded beef is when cooking and serving a whole roast such as rib-eye (what most know as prime rib) or strip loin (where NY Strip Steaks, T-Bones and Porterhouses come from).
The end cooked quality of these rely heavily on fat content “marbling”, the intramuscular fat dispersed throughout the muscles. The more marbled the steak or roast the more flavorful, moist, juicy and tender the meat will be. In this case, FAT = FLAVOR.
Ungraded meat (still completely safe to eat) is best served when stewing, braising or slow/long cooking techniques are utilized. Tough working muscles such as shank, shoulder or leg cuts will become tender, flavorful and juicy within the cooking liquid itself as well the long time simmering that will break down muscle tissues thus making braised and stewed items “fork-tender”! This would be stew meat, osso buco cuts or brisket. In this case, save! No need to have more expensive cuts when you’re just going to cook the heck out of it to tenderize anyway!
The USDA Grades:
Beef grades weigh heavily on marbling (intra-muscular fat), but size, firmness
and other factors play an integral role in the grading process. If you like math and animal carcasses you just might enjoy the detailed statistical data processing and recording that goes into being a USDA Grader.
Here are some easier examples as to how to identify the marbling.