How to Buy the Best Beef

Consult our expert guide to selecting the most nutritious, flavorful, and versatile cuts of red meat. Here's what you should know before you buy.

Beef tenderloin steaks
Photo: Randy Mayor

Americans love beef; we eat nearly 63 pounds per person each year. Although that’s a lot, the amount is down from our 1976 high of 89 pounds. When buying beef, we tend to stick to what we know, which may be why almost 60 percent of our beef dollars go for ground beef. Even as an experienced chef, I often brought home familiar cuts. But researching my book, Field Guide to Meat, led me to expand my repertoire to tasty, if less familiar, cuts like hanger steak and tri-tip. Soon you can do the same, knowing which cuts to choose for maximum flavor and nutrition.

BEEF BACKGROUND

Humans began domesticating cattle, Bos taurus, about 8,500 years ago. Columbus first brought cattle to the New World, and by 1690, descendants of Columbus’s cattle ranging in Mexico were driven north and became known as Texas Longhorns. Others arrived later with the colonists. America’s top five cattle breeds are Angus from Scotland, Hereford from England, Limousin from France, Simmenthal from Switzerland, and Charolais from France.

More than 90 percent of the beef we buy originates in America, while most of the rest is Canadian bred. The beef we eat comes mostly from 18- to 24-month-old steers, averaging about 1,000 pounds, and yielding about 450 pounds of meat. Each is divided for wholesale into eight primals (major portions): the chuck (shoulder and upper ribs), the rib, the loin, the sirloin (hip), the round (upper leg), the brisket (breast), the plate (belly), and the small flank. Organs like liver and kidneys are called variety meats.

When evaluating your choices at the grocery store, here are a few key terms and facts to know:

Grain-finished: Nearly 75 percent of U.S. beef comes from cattle fattened on grain (usually corn) for three to six months in feedlots. Since corn is not a natural part of a cow’s diet, cattle fed on it may experience stress and other ailments, so they are routinely treated with antibiotics. They also receive growth hormones to increase their size (and value, as beef is sold by weight). Until recently, inexpensive corn has helped keep down the price of beef.

Grass-finished: Grass- or pasture-finished beef comes from cattle that forage on grasses and legumes. Their meat is lower in saturated fat, cholesterol, and calories than grain-finished. (Because it is quite lean, cook rare to medium-rare for juiciness.) Grass-fed beef has a distinct flavor, often described as bold, complex, and gamy. Many people believe that grass-fed cattle are a more sustainable choice. However, raising grass-fed cattle is time-consuming and requires large open spaces, variables that raise its price. Most is imported from Canada, followed by Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and Brazil.

Aging: Dry-aging is the traditional process preferred by many steak lovers. The concentrated, intense flavor of dry-aged beef develops as it hangs in special temperature- and humidity-controlled rooms from 10 days to six weeks. The longer the aging, the better the flavor and tenderness, but also the more the shrinkage as water evaporates and a dark crust develops, which must be cut away. About 90 percent of American beef is sold as large vacuum-packed cuts. During the average seven-day period the beef spends “in the bag,” it ages in a process called “wet-aging.”

Processing and packaging: Until the 1960s butcher shops bought beef as half- or quarter- carcasses. Packers then began selling vacuum-packed beef, the same large cuts sold at warehouse club stores. Retailers refrigerated the boxes until needed, then opened the package and cut the meat into portions for sale. Next came case-ready meat, which precluded the need for skilled butchers on-site in markets. Leak-proof and easily stackable, case-ready packages are produced in USDA-inspected plants and have a longer shelf life. Packages covered with a sealed layer of clear plastic are modified-atmosphere packages, which have a gas-filled space inside to help preserve freshness and color.

 

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