There is a greater focus these days on reducing meat intake. But beef remains one of the best sources of protein in our diet. Focusing on lean meat, choosing the right cuts of beef, and buying the best quality available insure that you can enjoy a sizzling steak on the grill or a tender slow-roasted pot roast on occasion. Here’s what you need to know.
Beef is the meat of domesticated cattle, generally castrated as calves and specifically raised for meat. It is the third most widely consumed meat in the world, accounting for about 25% of meat production worldwide, after pork and poultry at 38% and 30% respectively.
Although cattle have been domesticated for several thousand years, it is unknown exactly when people started raising cattle for their meat. Cattle were widely used as draft animals (oxen) and for milk, and were specifically bred to increase meat yield with the mechanization of farming, or to improve the texture of meat, giving rise to the Murray Grey, Angus, and Wagyū. Cattle have only been in North America since Columbus introduced them in 1493 on his second expedition to the West Indies. The Spanish brought cattle to Florida and Texas in succeeding decades. Texas Longhorns descended from the original Spanish cattle and were raised in the mid-1800s on the open range to meet America’s demand for beef. The Homestead Act of 1862 threatened the open range and cattle ranching began to decline. Today beef cattle are raised and fed using a variety of methods, including feedlots, free range, ranching, and intensive animal farming. In 2014, he largest exporters of beef were Argentina, Brazil and the United States.
How Beef is Graded
The USDA designates eight beef quality grades. The grades are based on two main criteria: the degree of marbling (intramuscular fat) in the beef, and the maturity (estimated age of the animal at slaughter).
Most beef offered for sale in supermarkets in the United States is graded U.S. Choice or Select. U.S. Prime beef is sold to hotels and upscale restaurants, and usually marketed as such.
- U.S. Prime – Highest in quality and intramuscular fat, limited supply. Currently, about 2.9% of carcasses grade as Prime.
- U.S. Choice – High quality, widely available in foodservice industry and retail markets. Choice carcasses are 53.7% of the fed cattle total. The difference between Choice and Prime is largely due to the fat content in the beef. Prime typically has a higher fat content (more and well distributed intramuscular “marbling”) than Choice.
- U.S. Select (formerly Good) – lowest grade commonly sold at retail, acceptable quality, but is less juicy and tender due to leanness.
- U.S. Standard – Lower quality, yet economical, lacking marbling.
- U.S. Commercial – Low quality, lacking tenderness, produced from older animals.
- U.S. Utility
- U.S. Cutter
- U.S. Canner
Utility, Cutter, and Canner grade are rarely used in foodservice operations and primarily used by processors and canners.
Types of Beef Cuts
After a steer is slaughtered, it is cut into four quarters and then further cut into primal cuts (chuck, brisket, shank, rib, short plate, shaft, loin, sirloin, flank and round), subprimal cuts or is designated for “fabrication.” The cuts of beef that come from well-used muscles tend to have a larger portion of connective tissue and can be tougher than those cuts from areas where the muscles are less used.
Certified Angus Beef is a brand created in 1978 to distinguish the highest-quality beef produced from descendants of the black, hornless Angus cattle of Scotland. The meat must meet American Angus Association standards for yield, marbling and age, and be graded as high choice or prime.
Kobe beef is traditionally produced in Kobe, Japan. Wagyu cattle are fed a special diet, which includes beer to stimulate the animal’s appetite during the summer months. The cattle are massages with sake to relieve stress and muscle stiffness in the belief that calm contented cattle produce better-quality meat. The cattle are raised without hormones and the meat is dry-aged for 21 days prior to sale. This special treatment does result in meat that is extraordinarily tender and full-flavored. It is also extremely expensive and can cost as much as $200 per pound. Only about 3,900 head of cattle each year meet the strict standards to be labeled as Kobe beef, and only about 10% of this is exported from Japan. Much of the Kobe beef on restaurant menus is domestic Waygu and does not come from pure Japanese bloodlines.
Halal beef has been certified to have been processed in a prescribed manner in accordance with Muslin dietary laws.
Kosher beef has been certified to have been processed in a prescribed manner in accordance with Jewish dietary laws.
Organic beef is produced without added hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, or other chemicals, though requirements for labeling it organic vary widely.
Steak tartare is a French dish made from finely chopped or ground (minced) raw meat (often beef). More accurately, it is scraped so as not to let even the slightest of the sinew fat get into the scraped meat. It is often served with onions, capers, seasonings such as fresh ground pepper and Worcestershire sauce, and sometimes raw egg yolk.
Carpaccio of beef is a thin slice of raw beef dressed with olive oil, lemon juice and seasoning. Often, the beef is partially frozen before slicing to allow very thin slices to be cut.
Bresaola is an air-dried, salted beef that has been aged about two to three months until it becomes hard and a dark red, almost purple, color. It is lean, has a sweet, musty smell and is tender. It originated in Northern Italy. Bundnerfleisch is a similar product from Switzerland.
Chipped beef is an American industrially produced air-dried beef product, described by one of its manufacturers as being “similar to bresaola, but not as tasty.”
Beef Jerky is dried, salted, smoked beef popular in the United States.
Biltong is a cured, salted, air dried beef popular in South Africa.
Pastrami is often made from beef; raw beef is salted, then partly dried and seasoned with various herbs and spices, and smoked.
Corned beef is a cut of beef cured or pickled in a seasoned brine. The corn in corned beef refers to the grains of coarse salts (known as corns) used to cure it. The term corned beef can denote different styles of brine-cured beef, depending on the region.
There are various ways to cook beef. Generally the tougher cuts are braised or stewed. Steaks can be grilled.
When you place a steak on the grill at temperatures of 300 degrees or more, you produce a crust with rich, caramelized flavors that form from the meat’s natural sugars and amino acids. This process is called the Maillard reaction, named for the French physician who, almost a century ago, was the first to investigate similar reactions between proteins and sugars in the human body. At the same time, you don’t want the steak’s interior to go much above 135 degrees (medium rare) because that’s the temperature at which it stays juicy. If you cook the steak more than that, the strands of protein in the muscle fibers contract so much that they squeeze out the juices.
Customs and Traditions
Most Hindus consider killing cattle and eating beef a sin. Bovines have been highly revered as sacred to mankind in Indian culture due to the critical role of cattle, especially cows, as a source of milk, and dairy products. The slaughter of cattle has been likened to matricide in these cultures, due to the fact that the cow provides milk and sustenance for society. Cow’s milk is again used as curd, butter, cheese, milk sweets and a wide range of other items.
Three ounces of lean beef contains 154 calories and 25g of protein which provide all the amino acids the body needs for optimal health to maintain weight and to build and preserve muscle.
In 1984, the use of meat and bone meal in cattle feed resulted in the world’s first outbreak of mad cow disease in the United Kingdom. In 2010, the EU, through the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), proposed lifting the restrictions on feeding mammal-based products to cattle. allowing for certain milk, fish, eggs, and plant-fed farm animal products to be used.
Labensky, Sarah and Hause, Allan: On Cooking: A Textbook of Culinary Fundamentals.