What's the Beef?
Grades, Styles & More
Have you ever bitten into a nice-looking steak to then only chew on a tough, grizzled piece of meat? Sure, it could be due to the way it was cooked, but it could also point to the quality of the beef. The tougher a steak, the lower the grade. Conversely, if you have a steak that melts in your mouth, you're likely eating top Prime. Do you know the difference? It matters with what you're buying and putting out to your customers.
What's the Beef?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) grades beef based on quality and consistency. It looks at the amount of fat content, otherwise known as marbling, and also the animal's age. It gives grade ranks as Prime, Choice and Select (and then lower-quality grades you generally don't want to pay attention to) where higher marbling and lower age play big factors on the grade.
Few people know as much about meat in America as Pat LaFrieda, owner of New Jersey's Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors, which started as a butcher shop in Brooklyn in 1922. We chewed the fat with LaFrieda, who discussed everything from Prime and Select to grass fed to grain finished.
Restaurant Inc: What is the basic difference between grades of beef?
Pat LaFrieda: The main thing to look for is intramuscular fat. That's what makes it tender. That's one variable [the USDA is] looking for. The second most important is the age of the animal. The beef that's prized in the U.S. is 22 to 24 months of age; that's what it takes to grow an animal to the correct size when they're finished on grain with no growth hormones.
RI: Why would a restaurant owner or chef want to know the differences — what is the benefit to knowing that?
PL: If you don't have Prime beef, or at least high Choice, in a new steakhouse where the prices are suggesting that's what it is, it won't be around for long. It goes Prime, then Choice and then Select – Select is a little more marbled than grass fed, but grass fed is not a grade. It's just the way it's fed.
RI: What should a chef look for when ordering beef?
PL: They first need to identify who they are: Are they a high-end steakhouse or are they making cheese steak? There's a market for everything. Once they identify who they are, [they can determine] what product and grade they should be using.
RI: How do grades play out in the way meat is cooked and how it tastes to the diner?
PL: The better the grade, the faster the meat cooks; there's more fat content and more heat traveling through the steak. The higher the grade, the more tender the meat. For every piece of intramuscular fat, there's that much more of that buttery internal fat content that allows the steak to be tender.
RI: What about grass fed vs. grain fed or grain finished?
PL: All beef is grass fed for about 80 to 85 percent of its life, then the last 15 percent determines if it's grain or grass finished. About 99 percent of cattle is grain finished.
RI: What about natural vs. organic?
PL: Organic isn't just in the meat, it's in the land, which has to be certified organic for four years before animals are put on it. That's why you see more natural over organic. It's too hard and expensive for the farmer and expensive for the consumer. All-natural products make more sense. They're raised without hormones or antibiotics.
RI: How does aging come into play when a chef is looking to buy beef?
PL: Not only is it very trendy right now, but the more people who eat dry-aged beef, the more they want it. It's the largest growing category in steaks. That added enriched beef flavor and reduced moisture product yields something that's very sweet, very tender and packed with flavor.
RI: What's the minimum?
PL: Twenty-eight days, teetering around 1 month is when you start to get some of the dry-aged notes.
RI: And what is Angus?
PL: Angus is a cross of different American breeds that's the most consistent for yield, which is looked at the most. When the government sets the market so to speak, they're going off product that has the right yield. Black Angus is the most consistent when it comes to usable yield and usable beef. Another popular breed is Hereford.
owner of New Jersey's Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors