If the label on the Styrofoam package simply read “beef”, would you buy it? Wouldn’t you want to know more about what is inside the cellophane wrapping?
Then why do you buy it when it says “New York steak”, or “tri-tip roast” and nothing more? Don’t you want to know something about the quality, flavor and tenderness of what is in that package?
When you look at a restaurant menu, do you automatically think the most expensive steak is the best one? How about the usually high-priced steak that is the lower-priced special that night? Think that’s a good deal?
I started to think about such things at a steakhouse menu in Issaquah WA not long ago. Listed on the menu were: “ribeye – richly marbled, boneless” and “prime delmonico – bone-on center cut New York.”
Wait a minute. Aren’t rib eye and Delmonico the same thing? Of course they are. So are spencer steak, beauty steak and market steak. It all depends on where in the nation you are shopping. But I’d never before heard a Delmonico described as having anything to do with New York, unless you’re talking about the famous old restaurant of the same name.
I don’t ever recall seeing rib eye and Delmonico on the same menu before. I’ve ordered each countless times. They always looked the same. Clearly some research was in order. I had no idea what I was getting into.
The first website at which I looked presented a drawing of a cow with various sections marked off and labeled with familiar names. I would run into that same drawing countless times on a number of websites.
At the top front of the cow I found a section labeled “chuck.” I know that one. I learned a trick from my mother years ago, when markets sold something called chuck steak, which no longer can be found. Mom’s trick: separate the bone and eye portion for a very tender and flavorful steak. Grind the outer part with as much or as little fat as you liked for burgers, meatballs and meat loafs, chunk it up for beef stew, or use it for beef stew. It made for some very inexpensive meals at home. The chuck is the section that runs from the cow’s neck to just behind the shoulder. Cuts from this section are full of flavor but can be very tough. The steaks about which I learned from my mother came from the rear portion of this section, closest to what was labeled on the drawing as the rib section.
Right below the chuck section is one called brisket. Easy enough. Better cook it a long time in moist heat. I do that all the time for family dinners. It’s also the cut commonly used to make corned beef or pastrami. And it’s used at barbecue joints for smoking. Here’s a link to my personal recipe for baked brisket: https://www.tabletalkatlarrys.com/index.php/2010/09/baked-brisket-of-beef/
After this, things get complicated. Right behind the chuck section is the rib section and behind that is the loin section. These two sections run back to just before the butt of the cow and from the top of the animal to very near the bottom. The rib section gives us the tastiest and most fat marbled cuts of steak. Think rib steak and rib eye.
But wait. The rib steak is just a slice of prime rib with the bone left in. The rib eye is the boneless interior of the rib steak. So how come I love rib eye but find prime rib to be much drier with far less marbled fat? And why do restaurants sometimes sell the rib eye on the bone and sometimes boneless?
The loin section yields some famous cuts: tenderloin, t-bone, porterhouse, strip loin. And by the way, strip loin is also sold as New York steak. The porterhouse is a t-bone with a piece of tenderloin attached, but there is no definition of how much tenderloin is required to turn a t-bone into a porterhouse. Loin section cuts are the tenderest cuts of beef, although they contain less fat and tend to be less flavorful then what we get from the rib section.
Behind the loin sections is the cow’s behind, called the round section. On a pig it’s called pork butt. Cuts from this section can be flavorful but are far less tender than the sirloin cuts. Top rounds are comparatively inexpensive. They can be grilled. Bottom round tends to be tougher and chewy. They should be marinated before cooking, but can be grilled. The eye of round is very tough and cannot be cooked quickly. Think moist cooking – braising or boiling.
Below the rib section is something called the plate. This cut is marbled with about one-third fat. It’s flavorful but not very tender. Meat from this section is best used for grinding or corning, or in stews or pot roasts.
Behind the plate and below the loin sections is the flank. Flank steaks often are stuffed and rolled before broiling. They also can be marinated and baked or broiled. They don’t have much fat but are full of flavor, though a bit on the chewy side. Flank meat also is used in stews, or ground for very lean hamburgers.
That leaves the shank, the meaty part at the top of each leg. These require cooking in moist heat for a very long time. Often they are not eaten but used to make a rich broth for a soup. Veal shanks are used to make osso buco.
One other cut you’ll find prominently offered in markets is the rump. No need to describe its location on the live animal. It’s a wedge-shaped cut with great flavor but useful only for stews, pot roast or ground beef.
Now that we’ve mapped out the territory, let’s move into the land of confusion and contradiction, where marketing meets bovine anatomy.
What is a London broil? Sounds uppity enough. But it’s cut from the cheapest part of the cow, the round, the part at the back end. It has virtually no fat so you best not cook it too long. Marinated, broiled or grilled very quickly and served rare works. Otherwise, grind if for very lean burgers.
Should you roast something just because it’s called a roast? Not always. Roasts from the fattier parts of the cow can be oven roasted. Less fatty cuts need pot roasting for a long time in moist heat.
Do rib steaks always have a rib bone? Nope. Prime rib usually is served boneless. Rib eyes? Well we’ve already been over that turf.
What about that “baseball steak” you saw on a menu? It’s a boneless top round from the top sirloin. Sometimes it’s sold as filet at a hefty price. But it really should be the cheapest steak on any menu.
So, now, you’re in the meat market, or the meat department of a super market, or even in most butcher shops. There are important things you will never know from reading the package or label. And in many cases even the counter people won’t know the answer. Nor will you get the information from the menu or wait staff at all but the highest end steak houses.
How about the quality of the meat you are offered? Is it prime, choice, select, standard, commercial, or even lower on the list? Is it Angus? What is Angus?
The meat grading program offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is voluntary. Meat processors pay trained meat graders to rate the whole carcass. The official rating can appear on container markings, individual bags, legible roller bands appearing on the meat itself, or by a USDA shield stamp. If it’s prime or choice the vendor will want to brag about it in the labeling. If it doesn’t say anything it’s either a lower grade or was not submitted for grading.
There are eight grades of beef based primarily on the amount of fat marbling and the age of the animal at slaughter. These are generally believed to be the key indicators of the tenderness of the meat.
Less than three percent of beef qualifies as USDA Prime. Most of it is sold to high end restaurants and is hard to find in markets.
Most of the meat sold in super markets and butcher shops is either choice or select. Choice carcasses are about 53% of the total of meat sold at retail. The difference between choice and prime is largely the fat content, with prime having more fat and thus being more tender, juicy and tasty. Select meat is the lowest grade sold at retail. It’s less juicy and tender due to a lower fat content and should be cheaper than choice.
How do you know what grade of beef is in the cellophane-wrapped package in the supermarket cooler? Ask. If they don’t know or tell you the beef is not USDA rated, then it’s a good idea to find a different place to shop for meat. Beef that will not qualify as select or higher usually is not submitted for USDA rating.
Meat at the lowest three ratings – utility, cutter, or canner – generally goes to processors and canners.
Many restaurants have taken to describing the meat on the menu by the brand name instead of the USDA rating. In some cases this may be an attempt to pawn off a lower grade by giving it a glamorous name. In other cases it can lead to something special on your plate.
Wagyu beef is naturally well-marbled, which gives it all the best attributes of flavor, tenderness and juiciness. Piedmontese is bred to be less well-marbled than Wagyu. That makes it more heart healthy. But under the care of a good chef it will be almost as flavorful as Wagyu.
Certified Black Angus beef is in a category all its own. The term can be used only by those licensed to do so. If you see the term Angus Beef or Black Angus Beef and it isn’t preceded by the word “certified” then it isn’t the real deal. (Yes, there are merchants out there who would try to fool you.) The Certified Black Angus Beef (CBA) brand is owned by the American Angus Association and its 35,000 members. Among other things CBA is raised with stricter animal welfare rules.
But wait. We’re not through. There’s more to consider in the confusing world of meat shopping.
Grass-fed beef cattle are raised only on forage. Grain-fed cattle are raised mostly on forage, but are finished at a feedlot. Grass-fed generally is believed to be superior.
Kobe beef is a pure Tajima-gyu breed of bull or virgin cow born, raise and slaughtered in Hyogo prefecture of Japan. Export from Japan was prohibited until 2012. So, anything you saw on U.S. menus or meat shelves before that was actually a “Kobe-style” beef, most likely raised in Montana. Even today you need to be mindful of the difference when shopping or ordering at a restaurant. Again, ask. If it seems too inexpensive it’s probably “American Kobe.”
Halal beef doesn’t identify a type of cow or a grade of meat. It means the meat is certified to have been processed according to Muslim dietary laws. Among other things, the animal must not face undo stress during slaughter.
Kosher beef also is not a type or grade of meat. It means it was processed in accordance with strict dietary laws, also among which is the method of slaughter.
Organic beef cannot contain added hormones, pesticides or other chemicals. However, requirements for labeling meat as organic can vary from state to state.
Aging of beef usually is done to improve tenderness. Wet aging uses vacuum packaging to reduce spoilage. Dry aging involves hanging the meat in humidity- controlled coolers. Premium steakhouses dry age their beef from 21 to 28 days, or wet age for up to 45 days to concentrate flavors as well as improve tenderness. Aged beef can be purchased at some butcher shops, but is not commonly found at super markets.
We aren’t going to get into the confusing subject of steaks named for places because there essentially is no logic or reason that would help the shopper. New York steak has nothing to do with the state or city. Kansas City beef probably was produced in Kansas City but it is no indication of where the cattle were bred or raise, what they were fed, or anything else helpful. London broil probably never crossed the Atlantic. Brand names like Harris Ranch Beef tell one nothing about the grade of the meat, although it can be an indicator of quality.
To bring things full circle let’s look at examples of how particular cuts of beef can be known by and sold under different names in different place and by different marketing mavens, often for no other reason than to make them more commercially appealing.
T-bone, porterhouse and club steak are used interchangeably.
Tenderloin is also known as (pinkies up) filet mignon, fillet de boeuf, fillet steak, chateaubriand, tornados, or medallions.
Boneless top loin can be found as ambassador steak, strip steak, boneless club steak, hotel-style steak, Kansas City steak, New York strip steak, or veiny steak (veiny? yuck).
Bone-in top loin is also known as sirloin strip steak, Delmonico steak, chip-club steak, country club steak, strip steak, shell steak, or rib steak.
Plate can be found as skirt steak (my favorite cut of beef), fajita meat, inside skirt steak, outside skirt steak, Philadelphia steak, or pinwheel steak.
Hanger steak is also sold as hanging tenderloin, butcher’s steak, or hanging tender.
Flank steak can be flank steak fillet, jiffy steak, or London broil (not in my house).
Sirloin is where we get the Baron of Beef often used to show off at the end of a buffet line. Sirloin steak also goes by flat-bone steak, pin-bone steak, round-bone steak, and wedge-bone steak.
Boneless top sirloin steak is also sirloin butt steak (yuck again).
Tri-tip steak is culotte steak and triangle steak.
Thin cut round tip steak doubles as ball tip steak, beef sirloin tip, breakfast steak, knuckle steak (huh?), sandwich steak, or minute steak.
Round steak sometimes is called full-cut round.
Top round steak? Try London broil (again), or eye of round.
Chuck steak also is billed as top blade boneless chuck, flatiron steak, book steak, butler steak, lifter steak, petite steak, or blade steak.
Boneless shoulder steak is clod steak (more yuck), English steak, or half-cut shoulder steak.
Chuck arm? AKA arm Swiss steak, chuck steak for Swissing, or round bone steak.
Chuck eye boneless also goes by boneless chuck fillet steak, boneless steak bottom chuck, or boneless chuck slice.
Chuck mock tender steak is chuck eye steak, chuck fillet steak, fish steak (what?), or chuck tender steak.
And finally, 7-bone chuck steak is also known as center chuck steak.
(NOTE: All yucks are intended to question what the marketing people were thinking.)
Had enough? All this is far too much to be thinking about when out on a shopping trip. So, let’s reduce it to a few essentials to help you in the market or restaurant:
Do you want a well-marbled piece of beef for grilling, broiling, or roasting?
What is the grade of the meat on offer? Try for prime or choice.
Do you want a lower-priced cut with less fat for making a stew or pot roast?
Do you want to show off for guests at a dinner party with Certified Black Angus or Wagyu?
In a restaurant don’t hesitate to ask questions. In a super market or butcher shop chat up the vendor, look for a bright red coloring with a nice amount of marbled fat. Vacuum-packed meats may have a slightly darker color because of the exposure to oxygen. That doesn’t mean bad meat if it still is comfortably within the sell-by date. Shun anything with ice crystals or melted water in the package. Press your finger on the meat, even through the cellophane. If the indentation springs right back, the meat can be accepted a fresh.
As for the steakhouse in Issaquah, I asked the waitress to explain the difference between the rib eye and the Delmonico. All she could tell me is that one has a bone.