Where’s the beef? Tell that lady from the famous old school Wendy’s commercial that it’s right there, in the supermarket and on the restaurant menu. Just don’t make a mistake when buying or ordering. And yes, I did say “steak.” With summertime upon us, it is not only grilling season but also a season that finds us traveling and eating out a lot. Either way, steak is on the menu so we should know a little about it. Steak is actually a pretty good choice nutritionally, and although it does contain significant amounts of saturated fat, it is also rich in protein, vitamins, and minerals. It is also naturally gluten free and contains few allergens. It is the third most widely consumed meat in the world, behind chicken and pork. But what about beef grades? What separates a prime steak from its lesser counterparts? Knowledge of beef grades and what they mean can go a long way toward helping you know what to buy in a market and what to order in a restaurant.
Beef grading has been around for about 100 years and is done by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Beef is primarily graded into three categories: prime, choice, and select. There are lower grades, such as canner and cutter, that aren’t sold at retail and instead end up in frozen dinners and other processed food. But if you’re getting steak from a market, butcher, or restaurant, then you’re either getting a prime, choice, or select cut of meat. Before we get into what separates one grade from another, it is important to keep in mind that when buying a steak, make sure to buy one with the USDA stamp next to either the prime, choice, or select designation. Without the USDA stamp, anyone can call any cut of meat prime, but that doesn’t mean anything unless it was graded as such by the USDA.
So let’s talk grades. Unlike humans, unfortunately, beef can only be graded once it’s been killed (or “harvested,” in trendy food speak) and the carcass can be examined. The grade that a USDA inspector gives to a beef carcass is primarily based on two factors: marbling of the meat and age of the animal at harvest. In general, the younger the animal, the more tender its meat will be. A large part of what makes a steak delicious is its texture and how easy it is to cut and chew. The other main criteria for grading beef, marbling, is all about fat and flavor. Marbling does not refer to the external fat around the cut of steak, but rather the fat within the muscle. Marbling isn’t about the chewy kind of fat that is visible when cooked, but rather the fat within the steak that has already melted during the cooking process, adding flavor and juiciness from the inside out. The more marbling a steak has, the higher its grade will be. The next time you’re in a supermarket where prime beef is available, take a look at the difference between, say, a prime New York strip steak and a choice one. Notice how the prime steak has more little fingers of white fat throughout the meat and probably a lighter color due it being taken from a younger animal. Prime is not only something you taste, it is something you can see as well.
So how common is a prime steak? Not common at all. In fact, many markets don’t even carry prime beef as it is often all snatched up by meat purveyors and sold to restaurants and other high end establishments. Only about 2% of carcasses nationwide are graded as prime, whereas about 50% are graded as choice. Most of what you are probably accustomed to eating from a market or at a restaurant is choice. Choice steak is still very good quality, and should have good flavor and texture if prepared properly. But if you’ve ever had a prime steak, there is simply no comparison. A prime steak is inarguably next level, it has that unctuous and satisfying flavor that just leaps off your fork and lights up your brain with pleasure and delight.
A prominent national steak purveyor recently told me that steak prices will start to go through the roof around July due to many factors including a Midwestern drought that reduced the cattle feed supply. Much like gas prices, beef prices are affected by a myriad of factors. The purveyor’s exact words were, “Don’t worry when beef prices get too expensive. Just buy chicken or pork instead.” Not bad advice, but there is simply nothing like a good steak. A good steak is a choice steak, but if you’re looking for a next-level, out-of-this-world, great steak, then prime is what you want. And now you know exactly what prime means, and how it got that grade in the first place. Only you can decide if a prime steak is worth the extra cost, but if it were up to your tongue and the pleasure centers in your brain, prime would be the only way to go.
Article Courtesy: Andrew Steingrube