If you have been shopping in a supermarket recently, you may have found yourself faced by a huge variety of descriptors for the juicy red selections in the beef case. How do you know what to pick? Do you choose Angus or USDA Choice? Or is Grass Finished beef the best choice for you? Deciding which direction to go may be daunting at first, but it is not impossible to decode. Here are a few pointers in choosing a good slab of cow.
1) USDA Grading
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agriculture Marketing Services (AMS) grades meat to eight levels of quality. This grading is voluntary and it is a service that the meat processor pays a trained AMS agent for. Once the meat is graded, it is labeled with a vegetable dye mark indicating that it has been inspected by the USDA and the grade that it has been assigned.
The grades of beef are as follows:
US Prime – Prime is the best quality meat there is. It has a lot of intramuscular fat, or marbling, and the bulk of this quality of beef goes to high end restaurants. It is available in some high-end grocery stores or through good quality butcher shops, but it is quite expensive. A true “prime rib” is a standing rib roast that is graded by the USDA as Prime quality. Less than 3% of beef carcasses are graded as Prime.
US Choice – Choice is also extremely high in quality, but a somewhat leaner than US Prime. Most of the difference between Choice and Prime beef is the amount of intramuscular fat. Many premier steak houses choose to go with Choice beef instead of Prime because they feel that it has a cleaner, beefier flavor than Prime. You will find Choice as the dominant quality of beef in the vast majority of good quality grocery stores.
US Select (formerly called USDA Good) – Leaner still than Choice, US Select may cook a bit dry due to its leanness. You will find this in some markets as bargain beef, and, if handled properly, it can be an excellent choice for charcuterie where fat is added from other sources. Select may also be used for super lean ground meats in other applications, and it can be an excellent selection for those concerned about reducing the amount of fat and cholesterol in their diets. This is the lowest grade of beef sold at retail.
US Standard – Lean and lower quality beef. Used for commercial applications.
These lowest grades of beef are used for potted meat applications and pet foods. as the quality decreases below the US Select level, there is an increasing amount of tendon and connective tissue, making the lower grades very tough, beyond what might be considered useful for household or restaurant applications.
Remember: No matter what the grade of the beef, it it carries a USDA grade, it is wholesome and safe to eat. The grading pertains to the tenderness and flavor of the meat, not its safety. If mishandled after grading, US Prime may be unsafe to eat, but well handled US Canner, while unpleasant, is not unsafe to eat.
2) Other Beef Grading Systems
A number of discount stores have moved away from USDA grading because it does cause the price of beef to go up a few cents per pound due to the cost of grading the meat using that system. You will find products with names like Steakhouse Certified Beef or Ranch Select Beef. These, and numerous other names, indicate grading systems for beef other than USDA rating. When meat packers use one of these systems, they must adhere to the standards established by the system used in order to claim the name. The beef is not necessarily inferior to USDA rated beef, but for those of us who are not familiar with the standards of the various rating systems, it is difficult to tell what the names mean. In my experience at local discount grocery stores, the beef rated by one of these systems is closer to USDA Select.
3) Grass Fed vs. Grass Finished
The vast majority of US grown beef, after weaning, is fed on grass until it is close to market weight. When it is getting close to time to make the transition from “cow” to “beef,” the cattle is brought inside and fattened up on corn. This procedure not only builds up weight so the producers can garner the most dollars per animal, but it also standardizes the flavor of the resulting beef. In other words, it makes it very bland. Cattle raised on local grass up until market time develop a distinctive flavor and character that varies from region to region and season to season. Some diners who are used to the standardized flavors of corn finished beef find these flavors to be gamey or harsh, but many who seek out the traditional regional flavors prefer this richer grass-fed product.
Grass Fed – Under the legal definition, these are animals that have been fed on grass from the time of its weaning until it goes to market.
Grass Finished – There is no legal definition for Grass Finished, and, at this time, it is completely meaningless.
4) Kobe and Wagyu
Wagyu is any one of several breeds of Japanese cattle bred for very high quality of beef. Kobe is a region particularly known for the raising of Wagyu beef. In Japan this cattle is raised under exceptional conditions with a premium quality diet including beer, and it is hand walked and massaged by specially trained handlers. The resulting beef has an exceptional amount of even marbling, often exceeding the standards set for US Prime beef. The flavor of Wagyu beef tends to be exceptionally rich and strong without the gameyness associated with grass fed beef. This is truly an exceptional product, and the price reflects the amount of hand-raising time spent with it.
Wagyu cattle are raised in a number of countries now, often emulating the traditional Japanese method. Kobe beef, however, must originate in the Kobe region of Japan.
5) Breed Named Beef
In California we get a lot of Black Angus beef that is sold as premium quality. While it is true that Black Angus is an excellent beef breed, because an animal is Black Angus, or any other good quality beef breed, does not of itself mean that the meat will be of superior quality. In other words, do not accept the breed identification as a substitute for grading – Black Angus cattle may range from US Prime all the way down to US Canner quality.
6) Organic vs. Natural
In the cattle industry, according to rules established by the USDA, certified organic beef must come from a carefully monitored raising system wherein each step of the animal’s growth is documented. Organic beef must meet the following criteria:
*They are born and raised on certified organic pastures – This means that the food that they eat is organic and chemical free.
*They are fed only certified organic grains and grasses
*They may never receive antibiotics
*They may never receive any sort of growth-promoting hormones
*They must have unrestricted outdoor access
The term Natural, on the other hand, per USDA definition, just means meat raised for human consumption without additives and minimally processed.