Standing at the meat cooler in a grocery store can be a bit overwhelming. There are so many options. And it is even more intimidating to talk to the butcher and ask for a specific cut of meat. How do you know what to ask for? There is so much lingo and jargon. All you really want is a delicious dinner for your family.
Let’s try to break it down and make sense of the word soup. Let’s be specific and talk about beef. Pork and chicken have some of their own terms.
Where the meat on the animal comes from and specifically how it is sliced or chopped, will determine the cut of meat. For beef, the animal can be broken down into four main quadrants. Cuts of meat from the hind leg are from the round. Cuts from the front leg are the chuck. The two middle sections are then the rib and the loin.
Different cuts of meat are better for different dishes that you may want to prepare. Briskets come from the chuck of the animal and can be very tough and dense meat. It needs to be cooked for a long time at a very low temperature so that the meat will break down and become softer. Briskets are perfect for corned beef. If you prefer to cook meat for a short period of time over high heat you want to start out with a cut of meat that is naturally tender. Filet mignon which is a cut of the tenderloin is known as being one of the most naturally tender cuts of meat.
If a recipe calls for a specific cut of meat, you could potentially make a substitution if you know what part of the animal it comes from. For example, you could interchange top sirloin steaks, New York strip steaks, and Filet mignons because they are all from the loin section of the animal. This video from Bon Appetit gives a complete breakdown of cuts of meat that butchers can get from a steer. Cuts from different parts of the animal can also have different flavors.
Within each cut of meat, we can assess the quality for the meat. Beef is evaluated by skilled meat graders and rated with a scale created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The meat is evaluated for tenderness, juiciness, and flavor as well as the amount of usable lean meat on the carcass. The four grades are prime, choice, select, and standard.
Prime beef is produced from young, well-fed beef cattle. It has abundant marbling (fat interspersed in muscle tissue). It is generally sold in restaurants and hotels. Prime roasts and steaks are excellent for dry-heat cooking such as broiling, roasting or grilling.
Choice beef is high quality, but has less marbling than Prime. Choice roasts and steaks from the loin and rib will be very tender, juicy, and flavorful and are suited for dry-heat cooking. Many of the less tender cuts can also be cooked with dry heat if not overcooked. Such cuts will be most tender if braised, roasted or simmered with a small amount of liquid in a tightly covered pan.
Select beef is very uniform in quality and normally leaner than the higher grades. It is fairly tender, but, because it has less marbling, it may lack some of the juiciness and flavor of the higher grades. Only the tender cuts should be cooked with dry heat. Other cuts should be marinated before cooking or braised to obtain maximum tenderness and flavor.
Standard and Commercial grades of beef are frequently sold as ungraded or as store brand meat. Utility, Cutter, and Canner grades of beef are seldom, if ever, sold at retail but are used instead to make ground beef and processed products.
If you know the cut of meat and the quality you should be set for a high quality, delicious meal. Marketers try to help consumers understand the beef that they are buying. But sometimes it can actually muddy the waters.
One of the terms that is used is grass-fed. While this doesn’t have an official definition, it typically refers to cattle that have been raised on pasture their entire life. Many cattle spend the last two months of their life on a diet that is supplemented with corn and nutrients in addition to grass. This is called grain-finished beef. This diet of corn helps increase the marbling of the meat and can increase the quality of the final cuts. It is harder for cattle raised on only grass to achieve the Prime grade. In the United States grass-fed beef seems to have a perception of higher quality, in part because it isn’t as readily available. In other countries like Australia, grain-finished beef has a perception of being higher quality. Most beef sold in the U.S. is grain-finished.
Marketers might also use terms like hormone-free or antibiotic-free. Hormones occur naturally in the body and help the animal grow. The FDA regulates any artificial hormones that might be used. Meat raised with hormones have to be safe for humans to consume and can’t harm the animal or the environment. If hormones are used, they are usually synthetic versions of naturally occurring hormones. So, the meat can’t be 100% hormone free, but it could be synthetic hormone free.
Antibiotics are an essential strategy to help animals get healthy if they get do get sick. Just like a doctor might prescribe an antibiotic for a sick human, a veterinarian may prescribe an antibiotic for a sick animal. The important thing to know is that antibiotics have a withdrawal period before that animal can be harvested. Many antibiotics have a 60 day withdrawal period. That means that the animal waits 60 days or more before it is slaughtered. The animal won’t have antibiotics in its system or in the meat. If the meat is being sold, it is required by law to be antibiotic free. The label ‘antibiotic free’ doesn’t mean much.
You might also see beef labeled as 100% Black Angus. Black Angus is a great breed of cattle. There is a certification process to guarantee that it is Certified Angus Beef. However, is Black Angus better than Hereford, Simmental, or even Holstein? Some might argue that it is, but all three can grade the same and be Prime or Choice. If looking at two steaks right next to each other you, probably couldn’t tell the breed of the animal or which one is a Black Angus steak. And both steaks are going to taste great.
So the next time you are at the grocery store, stop and look at all of the labels. See if you can decipher the code and pick the best cut of meat for your next dinner.