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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


Compulsory Bartending for the Good of the Nation

November 19, 2010 Leave a comment
An American hero of a different sort

Bartending requires a skill set our young people desperately need.

Here’s an interesting stat.  Did you know that the majority of teenagers don’t work between their senior year of high school and college any longer?  In fact, the majority have no work experience of any kind until they graduate from college?  This is bad.  This is very bad.

Let me tell you, I have a solution for this.  A damn good solution.  No, I’m not going to suggest shipping them off to the military so some lantern-jawed jarhead can holler at them about holding their rifles correctly.  I have never been able to understand how the military is any kind of preparation for real life.  Perhaps if real life involved endless repetitive tasks and an unquestioning obedience to arbitrary rules.  An excellent preparation for the post office, perhaps, but otherwise it bears no resemblance to what most of us have to deal with every day, which is an intense, multitudinous work environment where we have to move quickly and think on our feet, a place where we have to play the role of servant, counselor, babysitter and authority figure, a place where we have to break up fights, commiserate with the wounded and stare down the mean, a place where we’re expected to know more than the boss but should never expect to be paid commensurately, a place where our mistakes will be called out in public, but our successes will be largely taken for granted.

For this far ranging set of skills you need the experience of a bartender.

I have never been a bartender, but over the years I have conducted a sort of informal survey of bartenders and I am impressed.  I am especially awed by bartenders who tend bar all by themselves, with just one or two bar backs, in a room swarming with customers, a whole rank of whom are sitting just a few feet away, lined up in a row, staring at them, like a dais of inquisitors.

Can you imagine trying to do your job under intense pressure, multi-tasking like crazy, holding a half dozen purchase orders in your head, all the while your customers are watching you, weighing what to give you as a tip, which, by the way, is how you’re going to make your living?  That’s a challenge.

Boy, would I like to get some of these ho-hum nineteen year olds and throw them into that squirming pit.  They wouldn’t last ten minutes.  They’d come out disheveled and frantic and begging to join the military.  “No way,” I’d say.  “This is real life, baby.  No one gives a damn whether you can make your bed, but if you can whip up a good cosmopolitan and light this candle and change the channel and take my food order and throw out that obnoxious jerk at the end of the bar, there’s two bucks in it for you.”

I propose compulsory bartending for all American teenagers.  Kennedy was onto something with the Peace Corp, a constructive way to use our young people other than as cannon fodder, but this would be even better.

Serving porridge to fly specked children in Zimbabwe or practicing mid-wifery in Chad may be commendable, but it doesn’t prepare you for a persnickety client who wants to confront you over a minor change in specifications, or one who’s hinting that he’s going to speak to your boss about revisiting the bottom line and may want to put the entire project on hold until January, thereby jeopardizing your sales projections.  For that you need a bartender’s deft knowledge of when to lubricate and when to call a bouncer.

And mixology requires schooling.  Not a four year college, mind you.  Not even an associate’s degree.  But for the schooling averse, bartending requires a minimal commitment to acquiring a marketable skill that not just anybody can do.  And once they’re out of school, they can join a community of like minded people dedicated to servicing customers in a barrel-house, watering hole or lounge.  They can even share their ideas and insights on a website like Tha

If your recent high school graduate is telling you that school sucks, introduce him to the wonders of making a mai tai, show him how to pour a Guinness, and confront him with the awful truth that drink garnishes were once whole fruits until a hardworking bartender, just like himself, sliced them up.

Ah, but you say, teenagers can’t become bartenders because they are not of age.  Yes, this is an interesting quirk in our American system.  Teenagers are not permitted to serve drinks because they could become tempted to imbibe.  Apparently, however, it’s perfectly fine to teach them to kill people without fear of a lifelong tendency toward violence.

For my money I would rather have a former bartender with a taste for the sauce but an ability to separate fives and ones living next door than a former soldier with an uncontrollable lust for firearms and an ability to dig a slit trench.

I’m not so foolish as to believe that our government would ever allow anything so constructive as teaching young people to tend bar, but I’m telling you, as soon as my daughter turns 21, I’m taking her by the arm and leading her straight to the nearest bartending school.  I can think of no better education in hard work, multi-tasking and human relations.

And besides, maybe she can pour her old dad a free one from time to time.

Categories: Food and Drink