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Quality Beef. Who Decides?

August 20, 2011 1 comment
Juicy red meat

The different grades of beef are valuable for determining the quality of each cut.

USDA prime filet is the crème-de-la-crème of beef, the highest grade of the finest cut of beef available, tender, juicy and delicious.  By comparison, USDA choice sirloin is a mere poser, and USDA select round, truly second-rate.  But what makes one type of beef so unquestionably superior, while others are unable ever to aspire to such glowing accolades.  Who decides, and by what criteria?

What Determines Quality Beef?

Quality beef is distinguished by superior tenderness and flavor.  Tenderness and flavor are a result of how much fat runs through the meat.  When fat is heated, it melts and seeps into the meat, keeping it moist and making it flavorful.

Lean meat, highly muscled, has little fat running through it.  It’s naturally less moist and flavorful.  That’s why meat taken from parts of the animal’s body where muscles are regularly exercised is not as desirable as that taken from more sedentary parts.

From a butcher’s perspective, the animal’s body can be divvied up into more than eight different cuts.  Each of these cuts is categorized under two broad categories: forequarter cuts, meaning the front half of the cow; and hindquarter cuts, meaning the back half.

In both regions there are muscled and sedentary areas.  It is accepted wisdom among butchers that meat becomes more tender the further it is from horn and hoof.  Thus, among the forequarter cuts, the meat closer to the front, just above the forelegs, the cuts known as the chuck and brisket, are less tender and flavorful than the cuts behind them, toward the middle of the animal, such as the rib, which is why prime rib is generally considered more desirable than ground chuck.

A cook flips a slab of beef on the grill.

Meat is evaluated on two criteria: marbling and maturity.

The same is true of the hindquarter cuts.  The back of the animal, the beef round, is much less desirable than the less weight-bearing area in front of it, the loin.  In fact, the loin is the least exercised part of a cow and has the most fat running through it.  From this area we get the short loin and the sirloin.

What’s Better, Choice or Prime?

The most prized cut of all lies within the sirloin, two tube-like strips of beef that run along either side of the spine known as the tenderloin.  When the tenderloin is sliced or “filleted” into portions, the cut known as “beef filet” is the result.  The tenderloin tapers at one end, so cuts taken from this end are known as the small filet or, as they say in French, filet mignon.

But if beef filet is the most desirable cut of beef, what does it mean to call it “prime?”  Is this just a piece of empty hype?

Not at all.  The term “prime” is a legal designation, assigned by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to designate the highest quality of meat.  Meat processers actually pay meat graders from the USDA to evaluate their products before introducing them to the market.  Meat is evaluated on two criteria: marbling (the amount of fat running through the meat) and maturity (the age of the animal when it goes to slaughter).

The designation “prime” is the A+ of meat grading and is so grudgingly given that only about 3% of beef is so honored.  It usually ends up in upscale restaurants or on the tables of the well-to-do.  It indicates beef from a young animal with plenty of intra-muscular fat, and thus highly flavorful.

“Choice” is usually the top grade found at supermarkets.  “Select” is a more everyday grade, leaner and less moist than Choice but by no means objectionable.

Below “Select” there is “Standard”, a still leaner grade of decent quality, but less flavorful; and “Commercial”, lacking in marbling and tenderness and apt to come from older animals.  Even further down the scale are “Utility,” “Cutter” and “Canner”, grades usually reserved for processing into prepared foods and canned goods.

Currently, Certified Angus Beef is all the rage.  Certified Angus is a branding designation registered with the USDA and indicates USDA Prime or Choice beef that came from Black Angus cattle, which some consumers consider to have a superior flavor.

Whether Certified Angus Beef is the equal of good ol’ USDA prime filet, one thing is for certain.  The question represents one of the few cloudy areas in the otherwise crystal clear world of beef evaluation.  Not only the part of the animal where the meat was harvested but the grades assigned by the USDA tell the consumer pretty precisely what’s what.  The terminology is not hype or fluff, but communicates facts.

So can a choice sirloin ever be better than a prime filet?

Not a chance.  Better is better.


Author and Client:  This article was written by Malcolm Logan for Butcher’s Kitchen



USDA beef grading standards (PDF)

Michael Chu. “USDA Beef Quality Grades”. Cooking for Engineers.


Image credits:

Juicy red meat, FotoosVanRobin; Cooking Beef, Public Domain


Let’s Take a Tour Around a Cow!

December 2, 2010 Leave a comment

Cuts of beefOur friend the common bovine, bos primigenius, aka Flossie, Bessie and Elsie, provides us a wealth of yummy beef products.  From brisket to skirt steak to fillet mignon the humble cow is the signature source for steak houses, BBQ joints, picnics and tail gate parties.  But where exactly do we find the various cuts of beef?  What say we take a tour around the cow?

Let’s start at the tip of the muzzle, proceed up between the eyes and over the top of the head to the sloping area behind the ears and between the shoulder blades.  This is the top of the cow’s neck.  If we were to drill down here we would find a rather substantial slab of meat known as the chuck.

Because the chuck is interlaced with connective collagen it can be tough to cut unless it’s cooked for a long time, which makes it ideal for slow cooking dishes like beef stew and pot roast.  Chuck is often the meat of choice for shredded beef, such as that which you find in burritos, and is the area where we find short ribs.  Chuck can also be ground up to make hamburger.

From here let’s proceed down the animal’s back to the mid point, about where your knees would hit if you were foolish enough to try to ride it.  This is where the rib is found, in the sweet spot between ribs six through twelve on the animal.  Not surprisingly, this area yields rib roast, prime rib and back ribs.  What’s more, it is the first location where we find a superior cut of meat, good ol’ rib eye steak.  In this area the muscles are not exercised too strenuously so the meat is woven through with fat and the meat that comes from here is usually tender and nicely marbled.

Behind the rib, in the narrow area where your saddle would sit if you were intent on riding the beast, we find the short loin, which is steak central on our tour of the cow.  Here we’ll get some of our best cuts of beef, including porterhouse, T-bone and filet mignon, as well as strip steak.  In this area there is a nice infusion of fat into the meat, resulting in superior tenderness and enhanced flavor.

Behind the short loin is the sirloin, an area that yields top sirloin beef, a cut that is less tender than what we would find in the short loin, but more flavorful.  If we descend deeper into this area we will penetrate the tenderloin, a wedge of beef that cuts through the sirloin and intrudes into the short loin.  Of all the locations on the animal, this region gets the least exercise, so it produces the tenderest beef.  If it had been our intention to search this cow for the highest quality meat, we would have just arrived.

If we had saddled and mounted the cow, we would soon find that it doesn’t respond well to kicking, so we might be inclined to reach back and slap it on the rump.  We would be smacking it in the area commonly referred to as the round.  The round of a cow is the area where it uses its walking muscles.  Consequently, the meat from this region tends to be lean and tough unless tenderized.  There are two segments: the top round, which will produce a round steak for a London broil or a tip steak or kabobs, and the bottom round which will produce a rump roast or can be used for corned beef or pot roast.  The round can also be ground up to make hamburger.

Having discovered the impracticality of riding a cow, we will now dismount and look under the animal at the abdominal muscles.  If we were to stand it up on its hind legs and pinpoint the location of its belly button (if a cow had such a thing) this is the area referred to as the flank.  This produces a tough cut of meat suitable for use in fajitas, stir fry and flank steaks.

Moving along under the animal we next come to the plate.  Again, standing the animal on its hind legs, we might think of it as the upper belly.  This is actually the diaphragm muscle of the cow. This produces a flavorful but tough cut used as skirt steak.  Like the flank, the skirt can be used in fajitas, stir-fry or ground up to make hamburger.

Returning to the front of the cow, we come to the brisket.  This is the breast or lower chest of the cow.  These muscles bear the brunt of the cow’s weight and are therefore highly muscled with plenty of collagen fibers running through the meat.  The brisket needs to be tenderized with slow cooking of the kind associated with barbecuing.  Traditional Texas barbecue relies heavily on the brisket, for example.  In addition, the brisket is a favored cut for making corned beef and pastrami.

The brisket is located directly under the chuck, so as we move back up the cow, past the throat and under the jaw to the tip of the muzzle, we complete our tour of the cow and allow the patient beast to return to its grazing.  In the meantime, we have learned where the various cuts of meat can be found so we can choose more wisely the next time we have a barbecue, arrange a tail gate party or open a steak house.

How to Select a Beef Brisket for Barbecuing

November 21, 2010 3 comments
Brisket on the hoof

This bovine doesn't mind so much if you stand in front of it.

Never stand in front of a bull.  If you want to live long enough to select the right cut of meat for barbecuing, never stand in front of a bull.  Stand in front of a cow instead.

Look at it.  The breast or lower chest area of the animal contains a cut of beef known as the brisket.  The brisket is excellent for barbecuing, but only if you know how to select it.  There are plenty of cuts of brisket on the market and choosing the right one can make or break the aspiring BBQ chef at the cooker.

Proper brisket for barbecuing should have all the bones and cartilage removed, as well as the hard fat and muscle between the rib bones on the inside surface where the brisket was attached to the rib cage.  The flat, rectangular piece of meat, referred to as “the flat”, makes up the majority of the whole brisket, the main cut, and should be trimmed free of fat.

However, this is not to say that the brisket should contain no fat.  In fact, good quality meat is defined in part by the degree of marbling, the amount of intra-muscular fat in the meat.  And with brisket there is also the question of exterior fat.

Savvy BBQ chefs look for a whole, untrimmed brisket with the “point” intact.  The point is a small mound of meat that partly overlaps one end of the main cut. It is fatty on the outside as well as through the meat fibers.

Between the point and the main cut is a thick vein of fat, called the “fat cap”, that covers the entire top surface of the main cut.  The skill used in trimming this fat determines how much moisture will be imparted to the meat during cooking and has an effect on the flavor.

Small, highly trimmed briskets, referred to as “nose off” or “cap removed”, may be fine for braising but are usually not preferred by BBQ chefs as they tend to dry out easily during cooking.

Look for a white, hard fat which is indicative of an animal that was grain fed at the feedlot. Fat with a yellowish cast is a sign that the animal was grass fed and is thought to be less conducive to achieving the most flavorful results.

The USDA grades meat with eight quality designations.  The top three are of interest to chefs interested in barbecuing brisket: select, choice and prime.  Select is the lowest grade commonly sold at retail and can be tricky to barbecue as it has less intra-muscular fat.  Choice is the, well, choice of most BBQ chefs as it has more marbling than select and is easier to come by than prime.  Prime is the top grade of beef but is hindered by its lack of availability.

Look for brisket in the 10-12 pound range.  Cuts larger than this can be difficult to fit on the grate of a cooker.

Even thickness throughout a brisket helps promote even cooking.  Many briskets narrow somewhat toward one end and this is normal, but steer clear of those that narrow to a very thin edge.

Even cooking, the right amount of fat, the right cut of meat, these are factors that can make or break you at the cooker.  Follow the guidelines above and you will improve your chances of success considerably.

For more tips on cooking, tenderizing and selecting meat check out