You’ve walked in the door from work, see your husband, and suddenly remember your in-laws are coming for dinner tomorrow. Words you shouldn’t say go through your head. A quick glance tells you your refrigerator is empty, so you turn around, get back in your car, and drive to the grocery store. Now you get to prepare a meal for your foodie father-in-law and your mother-in-law who is sure you starve her baby boy. The only way to win is making sure you feed these people like royalty.
You push the cart around the store grabbing the necessary sides: golden potatoes, garlic seasoning, $4.00 a pound asparagus, cheese from behind the sliced meat counter, then you arrive at the fresh meat selection. You move past the ground beef (this is an upscale meal) to the larger cuts and can’t believe how many different names and descriptions there are. Of course there is no one to ask at 8pm, so you grab four steaks that you can grill and move on.
The next day you spend your lunch hour on Pinterest learning how to cook the steaks perfectly. You get home, prepare the feast, and even get things cleaned up before the doorbell rings.
As you sit down to dinner, you smile as your father-in-law takes a bite of his steak. You stare and hold your breath as he chews (and chews and chews) after he finally swallows he looks at you trying to be nice and says “I don’t think they aged this one quite long enough. It’s a little tough.” The air rushes out of you as you think, “Where did I go wrong?” Unfortunately, your perfectly planned meal veered off course when you choose the select round steaks at the meat counter.
So what should you look for when you are buying beef?
Granted I’ve never really bought beef at the grocery store as I grew up eating my families beef and I then married a cattleman. I do know what quality beef should look like though and I hate hearing my friends talk about getting a bad steak at the store. So here’s the low down on what to look for so you never have that disappointing steak again.
Cuts– In simple we have working cuts and luxury cuts. A luxury cut will come from the back of the animal where the muscles don’t move as much, thus they are more tender and can be cooked quickly on high heat. A working cut (called that because they come from the high motion muscles) comes from the animal’s shoulder, legs, or flank. These cuts need to be cooked slowly on low heat (yay for the crock-pot).
Color– Different cuts of beef have a slightly different color, but in general fresh beef should be cherry red or dark red. If it is brown it’s probably old.
Marbling– Marbling is intramuscular fat (meaning it is dispersed within the muscle) and it is a good thing. High marbling means the meat will stay juicy, moist, and tender when cooked. If your cut of meat has little marbling it will most like dry out quickly from cooking and will lack flavor. Look for small white flecks throughout the cut of meat. You want your food to taste good, right?
Grade– The USDA grades beef into 8 categories. These grades are highly regarded symbols of safe, high quality American beef. Beef is graded in two ways: quality grades based on the amount of marbling present; and yield grades for the amount of usable lean meat on the carcass. Quality grades are the best indication to consumers of the tenderness and amount of flavor the meat will possess. As a quick side note, unless you learn to recognize the marbling on your own you have to make sure the meat you purchase actually has the USDA grade on the labeling. Meat can be sold without being graded. That doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with the meat, it just means a professional hasn’t graded it and thus you are left with the task of determining the quality.
- Prime– The highest quality grade, prime beef has the highest degree of marbling thus should be the juiciest and most flavorful meat. Prime roasts and steaks are excellent for dry-heat cooking such as broiling, roasting or grilling.
- Choice– Choice beef is excellent quality, but has less marbling then prime beef. Choice meat is still great for cooking with dry heat but is slightly less forgiving of overcooking. Choice cuts known to be less tender (working cuts) will be most best if braised, roasted or simmered with a small amount of liquid in a tightly covered pan.
- Select– Select beef is very uniform in quality and normally leaner than the two higher graders. It can still be fairly tender, but since it has less marbling it is more critical to cook it correctly and it still may lack all the flavor and juiciness of the higher quality grades. Only the most tender (luxury) cuts should be cooked with dry hear, the other should be marinated before cooking to obtain maximum tenderness and flavor.
- Standard and Commercial– These two grades are normally sold as ungraded or as store brand meat.
- Utility, Cutter, and Canner– These final three grades are seldom sold at retail. They are used to make ground beef and/or processed products.
What about ground beef?
We also use a lot of ground beef. Hamburgers, meatballs, pizza, chili, soup, etc.
Ground beef is normally the “leftovers” from steaks, roasts, and other beef cuts or the lower quality graded meat. Some labels will specify what you are getting (i.e., ground chuck is made with only chuck trimming). It is normally labeled with a lean-to-fat ratio. This refers to the makeup of the meat (i.e., 80/20—means a breakdown of 80% lean beef to 20% fat; 90/10—means 90% lean beef to 10% fat). By law ground beef can have no more than 30% fat. Ground beef should be cherry red when bought at the store.
Some retailers will trick their unknowing customers into paying more for their ground beef by calling it prime or choice ground beef. If you remember the quality grades prime and choice speak only to the amount of marbling or intramuscular fat within the meat. That is important because then every bite of steak has small amounts of fat mixed in to improve the eating experience. Once you grind that muscle you lose all benefit of having the fat mixed within the muscle. So with ground beef quality grades don’t mean anything.
Also remember ground beef has a short shelf live in your refrigerator, 2 days, so use it or freeze it within that time frame.
Now that you know your beef, buy quality.
And if you are like me and hate buying items at full price, invest in a deep freezer. The greatest investment you can make to supply premium meats, at an affordable price, for your family.
Contact Perry Farms today to learn about current pricing and purchasing 1/4, 1/2, or full beef for your family!
Until Next Time,