The goal we have here at Fairway Packing is to ensure that our customers understand what they're purchasing. In the following, you will learn about what you're consuming, the different cuts of beef, beef nomenclature, the USDA Grading process and what to look for when you're buying beef, gourmet or not. Don't fret, we will make this experience as pleasurable as eating a delectable Wagyu Filet.
First we're going to explain the different terms used in the beef industry.
- Meat - Is the muscle of an animal.
- Beef - Is the meat of a cow.
- Steak - Is defined as any piece of meat, cut across the muscle into a thick slice. This can be beef, lamb or pork. But we'll only be referring to beef steak.
- USDA - Is the United States Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for ensuring all agricultural businesses comply with the law and develop safety regulations and health standards by which the agricultural industry must operate.
- USDA Grade - Refers to the differing grades or levels of quality of beef.
- Mature (maturity) - Refers to the age of the cow.
- Marbling - Refers to the distribution of fat (the white streaks) in the beef.
- Eye - Refers to the bone inside of the steak, found in the rib section.
- Roast - Any cut of beef intended to be used as a whole.
So, what are the different parts of beef?
There are over a hundred different cuts of beef, this may be a little overwhelming, but you're a smart cookie, so we won't hold back for your sake, but our own! What we'll explain in the following is the cuts of beef that we use and where on the Beef Diagram they come from.
The Rib Section - Rib meat is very well marbled which will produce a unique balance of tenderness and that genuine beefy flavor that all beef should want after. Now, this location of the cut means that it's behind the toughest cut, the chuck and in front of the most tender cut, the loin. The two different ends of the section offer two different steaks. There is an eye, in the more tender sections the eye is neat and well defined, in the less tender area's it's not quite as nice looking.
From the rib section comes...
- Standing Rib Roast (Roast with bones)
- Boneless Rib Roast
- Bone-In Ribeye
- Boneless Ribeye (Comes from the rib section that runs across the top loin and top sirloin)
The Loin Section - (Tenderloin and Short Loin/Top Loin)
Short Loin is the least exercised muscle, because of this, it's the most tender. The short loin has two primary muscles, which makes it different from the rib section. Those two primary muscles are the top loin and tenderloin. The top loin has many similar characteristics of the ribeye. The tenderloin is significantly more tender and fine-grained. It's pretty safe to say that in a lot of steaks, there are a bit of both muscles (tenderloin and top loin).
From the loin section comes...
- Porterhouse (Short Loin)
- T-Bone Steak (Short Loin)
- New York Strip, aka Delmonico (Top Loin)
- Filet Mignon (Tenderloin)
- Bone-In Filet (Short Loin, it's the other side of a New York Strip, only it's on the bone)
- Tenderloin Roast (A whole tenderloin)
The Eight USDA Grades of beef
We took the following from Wikipedia, because its correct and informative. We here at Fairway Packing, have our USDA inspection once a day and we maintain one of the cleanest and top rated USDA facilities in the country.
In the United States, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) operates a voluntary beef grading program. The meat processor pays for a trained AMS meat grader to grade whole carcasses at the abattoir. Users are required to comply with Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) grade labeling procedures. The official USDA grade designation can appear in one or any combination of the following ways: container markings, individual bags, legible roller brand appearing on the meat itself, or by a USDA shield stamp that incorporates the quality and/or yield grade.
There are eight beef quality grades. The grades are based on two main criteria: the degree of marbling (intramuscular fat) in the beef, and the maturity (estimated age of the animal at slaughter). Some meat scientists object to the current scheme of USDA grading since it is not based on direct measurement of tenderness, although marbling and maturity are indicators of tenderness. Most other countries' beef grading systems mirror the US model. Most beef offered for sale in supermarkets is graded US Choice or Select. USDA Prime beef is sold to hotels and upscale restaurants. Beef that would rate as US Standard or less is almost never offered for grading.
- USDA Prime - Highest in quality and intramuscular fat, limited supply. Currently, about 2.9% of carcasses grade as USDA Prime.
- U.S. Choice - High quality, widely available in food service industry and retail markets. Choice carcasses are 53.7% of the fed cattle total. The difference between Choice and Prime is largely due to the fat content in the beef. USDA Prime typically has a higher fat content (more and well distributed intramuscular "marbling") than Choice.
- U.S. Select (formerly Good) - lowest grade commonly sold at retail, acceptable quality, but is less juicy and tender due to leanness.
- U.S. Standard - Lower quality, yet economical, lacking marbling.
- U.S. Commercial - Low quality, lacking tenderness, produced from older animals.
- U.S. Utility
- U.S. Cutter
- U.S. Canner
Utility, Cutter, and Canner grade are rarely used in food service operations and primarily used by processors and canners.
There are five beef yield grades - 1 to 5, which estimate the yield of saleable product, with YG 1 having the highest and YG 5 the lowest. Although consumers rarely see or are aware of it, yield grade was an important marketing tool for packers and retailers. The conversion from carcass and bone-in primals to boneless, trimmed cuts has reduced the importance.
Traditionally, beef sold in steakhouses and supermarkets has been advertised by its USDA grade; however, many restaurants and retailers have recently begun advertising beef on the strength of brand names and the reputation of a specific breed of cattle, such as black Angus, Piedmontese and Wagyu
What to Look for When Buying Beef
Firstly, how do you want to cook it?
The more tender the steak, the better it is for grilling and broiling. The most tender cuts of beef are Ribeye, Bone-In Filet, Filet (mignon,) New York Strip, T-Bone and Porterhouse.
Now, let's move onto what you need to look for. Firstly, look for the best grade available, which is USDA Prime or Choice. All high graded beef WILL be labeled and they will not be labeled anything BUT the grade at which the USDA Inspector grades them.
Once you've selected your grade, it's time to inspect the beef. What you want to note is the marbling, in certain steaks the marbling will be more prevalent than others, such as the Ribeye (Bone-In and Boneless.) The better the marbling, the better the steak. To elaborate, that marbling is fat, what happens when its cooked, is the fat will cook into the beef, leaving it with a robust beef flavor and make the beef more juicy and tender.
To avoid confusion, Wagyu is naturally very well marbled, which leaves it with all the above attributes and makes it one of the best beefs. Piedmontese is not naturally well marbled, however, because there is less fat in piedmontese it makes it more natural and heart healthy, but just because there is little marbling, doesn't mean that the flavor isn't there. In fact, it has almost as much flavor as Wagyu.
Check out the information on Wagyu Beef.
Check out the information on Piedmontese Beef.
Store this in the back of your head somewhere... if it's not marked Piedmontese beef, it isn't. Just because you pick up a piece of USDA Choice or Select that has little marbling, doesn't make it Piedmontese. USDA Choice or Select, lightly marbled, usually means it will be not be the most tender or juicy. Piedmontese is bred specifically to be more lean, but maintain the tenderness, juiciness and robust flavor of USDA Prime or Wagyu.
Good beef will be colored bright red. If it's brown, put it down (little rhyme there!)
If it's a bright / dark red, and it's been vacuum sealed* for wet aging and safe storage, this will maintain the juiciness, flavor and tenderness and keep the beef healthy and good for an extended period of time. A vacuum sealed piece of beef can be stored in a standard refrigerator for no longer than two weeks or 14 days or frozen** for up to 4 months, however, we do NOT recommend freezing any beef.
**If you do freeze it, do not thaw it in a microwave, let it thaw in the refrigerator over night.
*Cryovac (cry-o-vack) / Vacuum Sealed is the process of sealing the beef in its own juices and removing the air. This stops the bacteria build up and makes it more tender, in the wet aging process.
If it's bright red and it's not been vacuum sealed, it's usually set on a tray, with a clear, thin plastic tightly wrapped around it. This is how you'll find it at most grocery stores. It should be eaten within 3 days of purchase, if placed in a fridge. If frozen, then 2 months is usually a good time to eat it within.
If it's brown, put it down... it's iffy at best to consume. The brown discoloration is bacteria build up and the beef is swiftly on its way to spoiling. Some brown spots are okay, if it's mostly red. Some red spots are not okay, if it's mostly brown. Our suggestion is that if it's brown at all, spots or not... just don't bother. It will only last a few days before it gets worse and begins to spoil. If they're brown, call the company and return them immediately! Ours will never be brown!
You can tell tenderness by simply impressing a finger lightly on the steak or roast. If the indentation caused by your finger remains for longer than 20 or 30 seconds, it's pretty tender. Anything less and it's not going to be as tender.
Trimming is removing unwanted or fatty portions of the steak, this is important! What you want is an edge trimmed steak or roast, with consistent marbling that's tender and bright red. If it has thick portions of fat on it... it wasn't trimmed, because removing the fat would cut into the steak too far and leave you with less meat. Which also leaves a smaller weight. Edge fat doesn't cook away like marbling fat does.
If you buy from a local deli or butcher shop or even a grocery store butcher, they will cut it how you want it and from where you want it cut. Tell them the cut you want, Ribeye, Filet, Bone-In Ribeye, Bone-In Filet, Standing Rib Roast, Boneless Rib Roast, Tenderloin Roast, Porterhouse, T-Bone, New York Strip or whatever. Have them pull out the section it's going to be cut from and you inspect it for color (don't poke it or touch it!) Make sure you ask them the USDA Grade. Then tell them how thick you want it and how many ounces and ask them to cut it. If it's pre-cut, look at the meat out of the case and make your selection, if it's not wrapped... don't touch it!
Grocery Store Pre-Packaged and Cut
It should be USDA Prime or Choice, bright red, soft to the touch and the impression should hold for tenderness, well marbled and trimmed properly. If all of these are check marks, it should be some good beef.