Meat Grading System
In our favorite past time or profession for the lucky few of us, we are graded in a very strict belt system. We are not the only ones who fall into such criteria, our beef does as well! Knowing the grading system is a must when you are choosing what piece of beef is right for the occasion. The USDA are the sole inspectors of beef quality and percentage-wise they give out the highest grade of “Prime” to only 1 – 2.5% of all beef processed in the United States. The grading system is based primarily on the degree of marbling, color, tenderness, juiciness, and flavor of the meat. There are some crazy levels of detail that go into the grading, such as the maturity of the animal itself based on months and skeletal ossification, but we will not go down that worm hole. All that matters to us is to understand what each grade means on our end, unless you want to become a butcher.
• Black Belt | USDA Prime: The highest rank you will find. Prime grade beef comes from younger well-fed cattle. The meat has the best marbling, which results in a super tender and juicy steak. This grade should only be cooked with dry-heat methods. Pan seared or roasted are the best. If you want to feast like a king, go Prime.
• Brown Belt | USDA Choice: It’s close to Prime. You will more than likely not buy Prime unless you are a baller, but Choice will suit just fine and will be primarily what you find in your grocery store because Prime usually gets sold to high-end restaurants. Choice grade has great marbling, which makes it tender, juicy and very flavorful. However, some of the meats can get tougher if overcooked with dry heat. So, this is where you can start getting into braising or stewing.
• Purple Belt | USDA Select: You start to lack marbling here, which will make the meat leaner, since marbling is fat dispersed within the muscle tissues. Because of this, Select grade will be a bit tougher and lack in flavor and juiciness compared to Choice and Prime. Select cuts are better marinated to gain flavor and to tenderize. Select is your go to choice for braises and stews because the low and slow cooking within a liquid tenderizes without drying it out. If you pan sear or grill certain select cuts, you will be disappointed because it will be like chewing on a gi; leave the dry cooking to the senior ranked meats.
• Blue Belt | USDA Standard/Commercial: Blue belts! Don’t get offended here! I am in this with you. Standard and commercial grades are what you find on the shelves the majority of the time. Are they bad? No, but they are what you see as the “store brand” meats. They are your bargain cuts. They should not be avoided by any means, you just need to treat them differently preparation-wise to maximize their potential.
• White Belt | USDA Utility/Cutter: Not sold to stores whole; utility and cutter grades are what get processed into ground beef. These cuts are too tough to be sold on their own and did not pass the test to move up in rank. They actually make up the bulk of the meat sold.
Now that we are familiar with which piece of beef we need and what grade it comes down to, the hardest part is pulling the trigger on which piece to buy. There are a few things to take into consideration when purchasing the perfect cut of meat. Using 3 of your 5 senses you can tell a lot about the product.
Color: We eat with our eyes first and foremost. Meat color can indicate a lot, but can also be a little deceiving. You want to select meat that has a nice, bright red color. The meat, once cut and packaged, has a certain “bloom” to it that makes it hold that bright red color. Once exposed to oxygen, the outside of the meat begins to brown out, this does not mean the meat is bad; it just happens from exposure to oxygen. If you see this in prepackaged meats, avoid it. If you have some meat you just bought and opened yourself then the next day it’s brown, don’t throw it out, it’s still fine (unless you wait multiple days, then it will spoil).
Touch: This is the last ditch step once you have gotten the meat home or are checking a steak you had in the fridge. The meat should not feel sticky to the touch. If it does, return it if just purchased or throw it away if it’s been in your fridge.
Smell: Another step that is taken once you get home. It’s hard to smell through plastic at the store while in the meat aisle, but it’s worth a shot because if you can smell it through the packaging, chances are it’s bad, very bad. But once you get your piece of meat, it should have a nice “meaty” aroma, not a sharp and sour smell of ammonia. If that is the case, return it or throw it away.
What is “Marbling?”
Marbling is the term used to describe the level of intramuscular fat found in meat. The name comes from how the little specs of fat are found within the lean muscles resulting in a “marbled” look. The more marbling, the more tender and flavorful the cut! That’s why it is part of the grading criteria.
Grass-fed vs Grain-fed
All cows start out around the same way by being out on a pasture and grazing on grass, but eventually cows are moved into lots and fed grains. Grass-fed cows, though stay out to pasture and they result in slightly different flavor, marginally less saturated fats, more vitamins and more omega-3 fatty acids. Does it make a world of difference? Not to the average consumer, just eat actual food before supplementing. It is more enjoyable.
Bison or Beef?
You often will see ground bison meat, aka buffalo meat, in the meat aisle. If you are concerned with the fats found in ground beef, then bison is a great alternative. Usually 90% lean, a fair amount of less calories and delicious, it makes for a great burger replacement!
1. Use your hand! You can tell a lot by the power of touch. A trick is using your finger to press the meat while it is cooking and then compare how it felt to the fleshy part of your thumb. By changing which fingers you use you can mimic the doneness of steaks.
2. The chef’s method, my preferred method, is using a “cake tester.” Not everyone has one of these, but they are super handy and cost under a dollar. Stick it through a steak sideways to the center of the meat then remove it and touch it to a sensitive area of skin, upper lip or wrist briefly are best, you can then feel how hot the inside is. It’s harder to get used to and figure out what the temp is, but it’s much more accurate.
3. Traditionally, the most basic and sure proof way is, you guessed it, using a thermometer. The only issue I have with them is that they are usually large and puncture your steak, which releases all of the delicious juices.
Know your temperatures
You’ve now got your perfect steak, let’s say you splurged and opted for a USDA Prime Rib Eye Steak. After going over what you’ve just learned, what does that mean? Don’t worry, I’ll wait while you process it and then say it out loud to a magazine, causing those around you to give you a funny look. That is correct! You now have a tender, juicy, very well-marbled steak that will be best cooked using a dry-heat method, preferably grilled or pan seared. Now, when you have a steak that is so high quality, you do not need to screw around with it seasoning-wise. The best thing you can do is highlight its features by getting a nice sear on it. The crust you create on the outside of a steak when seared, or the grill marks you see are what is called the Maillard Reaction. This is what makes grilled, roasted and seared meats so damn mouth watering. But when you are creating that flavor you need to be careful how long you cook the steak. Proper meat temperature charts have been implemented for food safety. At 145°F harmful bacteria is killed off, if there were any forms of bacteria that would be harmful. This is why you see some restaurants having “*” next to “doneness” of burgers and claiming they are not responsible for any food related illnesses. Learning how to check your steaks is easy, do not cut them open and look inside, use these “handy” methods.
[row][double_paragraph]The Maillard Reaction
In short, the naturally occurring amino acids and sugars on the outside of the meat break down and change color and flavor. When this begins to happen, the compound starts to degrade and dehydration of the outside of the ingredients begins, resulting in a crispy flavor outside.
“Black and blue” 120°F
Rare 125 to 130°F
Medium-rare 130 to 135°F
Medium 135 to 145°F
Medium-well 145 to 150°F
Well-done 150 to 155°F
Hammered 160+°F [/double_paragraph] [/row]
Take a rest
Imagine when you roll, your big strong muscles are tight and constricted. Then the second you sit down for a few minutes your body relaxes. Well, the same happens when you are cooking a steak, the heat essentially makes the steak muscle, contract and act like a flexed bicep, if you go straight into it, it will remain tough and tight. But if you pull your steak just a doneness level earlier, then let it rest for 5 minutes, you will have a steak that has relaxed, is super tender and the carry over heat will bring your steak up to the next level of doneness. For example, you want a tender steak that will melt in your mouth that’s cooked medium? Pull it when you check it and feel that it is medium rare, let it sit for 5 minutes and then try it, it will be medium.
Selecting the right cut of meat for the right occasion does not have to be difficult. With a little understanding of the grading system and structure of cuts you can learn a lot and narrow down how to maximize flavor by making the right choice in the meat aisle. You spend a good portion of money on meat; protein is our fuel, so why not enjoy eating it? With that being said, when it comes to cooking your meat don’t be a bone head and just hammer your steak like you do your training partners. Properly cooking that meticulously selected perfect steak of yours is an art, not of the martial kind, but it does focus on balance (heat,) technique (skill) and patience (timing.)