Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Beef buying basics: Quality grades

I had every intention of cooking a delicious beef meal tonight, snapping pics as I cooked and blogging about it afterwards. Really, I did.
But, plans changed and I needed to take care of some errands this evening and it just didn’t pan out. For the record, the Mr. and I did enjoy some delicious Arby’s roast beef sandwiches (his was a giant, mine a junior) and curly fries while we were out. Pretty tasty for a fast food meal.
Part of the reason I didn’t have time to cook, though, was something just as bloggable — buying meat. See, this weekend the small town we live in hosts a pretty large cook-off and my husband (and many of his friends and family members) participate. I’m also throwing my hat in the ring this year, but only as a contestant in the homemade salsa competition.
I’ll leave the meat smoking to the guys while I provide moral support, take photographs, provide the dessert and — of course — serve as a taste-tester for the steaks, brisket, pork spare ribs, chicken and goat they cook.
As we were waiting for the butcher to cut us (15) 1-inch thick ribeyes for the weekend, it occurred to me that a little lesson in beef buying basics would make a good series of blog topics. After all, while everyone loves a good steak, not everyone knows what to buy to get the desired result.
Tonight, we’ll start with the most basic in meat case lingo: quality grades. Not surprisingly, a quality grade is exactly what it sounds like — a grade given to beef based on its (you guessed it) quality. This grade is determined by a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector and based on amount of marbling (fat within the lean), firmness, color and texture of the beef, and the maturity of the animal. These factors indicate how tender, juicy and flavorful the beef is expected to be.
While there are 8 grades of beef in the U.S., only 3 are likely to show up in your supermarket or on the menu at a restaurant. They are Prime, Choice and Select.
A prime steak has the most marbling. Most prime steaks are sold to white tablecloth restaurants, but they do show up in some specialty markets and higher-end grocery stores.
A choice steak has a little less marbling. Choice steaks are widely available in both restaurants and grocers.
A select steak has the least amount of marbling. While this does make it a leaner choice, it’s often going to be less flavorful and juicy.
But how do you know which of these quality grades you’re buying? Most often, a quick scan of the label or grocery store signage will help you determine whether you’re looking at a prime, choice or select steak. Generally, if a quality grade is not listed on the label, the steak is select. After all, if it’s a higher quality grade, your butcher or grocer wants you to know.
Where it can get trickier is with branded beef. I’ll talk more about branded beef (like Certified Angus Beef, Rancher’s Reserve and Nolan Ryan’s Beef) later, but if you’re unsure where a branded product ranks from a quality grade standpoint, ask the nice man or woman behind the meat counter, or do a little research online.
It’s also important to note that all beef sold in the U.S. is inspected (and is required by law to pass inspection), ensuring its wholesomeness. You can feel confident no matter which cut or which quality grade you choose, you’re getting a safe, nutritious product.
Have more questions about beef buying? See a Beef Lover’s Guide to Shopping or Buying Beef Q&A, both brought to you by the Beef Checkoff, or stay tuned for future Make Mine Beef posts on the subject.

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