Well look outside. The sun is shining, the birds are out in full force, and the children have been release back into the wild. It must be summertime. Although summer can bring ridiculously high energy bills and heat stroke, it does offer one fairly anticipated event. The BBQ.
There really is nothing like a thick juicy T-bone or a mouthwatering brisket to get those salivary glands rip roaring. With hamburgers being the number one entree served in American restaurants (with fast food not even included) it is no wonder why we Americans hold beef near and dear to our hearts. Because of this, I have decided to create a series of informative blogs about beef cuts, their best cooking methods, meat safety, and other important issues pertaining to the subject at hand. This is a huge subject to cover, but I will do my best to explain the basics and the most important aspects of this delicious topic. By the way, the image to the right is in fact Denny’s Beer Barrel Pub‘s 123 lb burger. Yes, you did read that right, 123 lbs. It is a charity burger (but I’m not sure what that means) and costs a mere $379.95. I have eaten at Denny’s BBP and believe me, when they bring one of those bad boys out, I cheer and die a little inside. It’s quite terrifying. Anyway, back to the blog.
There is nothing worse that an over cooked steak or dried-out lifeless ribs. It is a monstrosity to our taste buds and an even greater dishonor to the beast that gave up its life to a meatier and tastier cause. Beef, like all meat, needs to be monitored when cooking. Not only is it unsafe to walk away from a grill until the “set amount of time” has passed but it doesn’t allow the cook to become one with the meat. I will delve deeper into this issue in a later blog, but cooking is not only a necessity of life but it is a science and an art form. To fully appreciate anything we create in the kitchen we must understand the journey our food embarks on to get from the pasture to our plate.
Note: If you are a vegetarian or of the vegan variety the following will be of little use to you or down right disgust you in every way humanly possible. Please come back later for my several part series about the wonders of Soy.
Now, back to the beef.
The United States is the largest producer and third largest exporter of beef products in the world. There are four types of beef produced in the US including: Natural, Branded, Certified Organic, and Grass-finished. You may not care where your beef comes from, but you should, so, here is a little information about the types of beef available in the US.
The USDA’s definition of natural meat is that the meat is minimally processed and free of additives such as preservatives, artificial flavors or colors. Most fresh beef is natural (beef that is not – such as beef that has an added marinade or solution – will always have an ingredient label). If the package does not include an ingredient label, the beef is natural, that is, free of additives. By the way, whoever started the rumor that beef has “added dye” to make it look redder is a darn fool. Everyone knows that butcher cases use special florescent lights to enhance the color. Not dye. Get it right people.
Branded beef products are marketed by a company based on the product specifications or production standards required for their brand. A brand could be based on the breed of cattle or a name given to a beef program that follows set specifications. Branded beef is sold at restaurants and grocery stores. Some familiar types of branded beef include “Certified Angus Beef” and “Cattleman’s Collection” or the lesser known “Brandine’s Yee Hawwin’ Boot Stompin’ Best”.
Certified Organic Beef
In October 2002, USDA announced it will certify foods that are at least 95% organic with a special seal. To be certified organic, a beef product must meet a number of criteria specified in USDA’s national standards for production, handling and processing of organically produced agricultural products. In order for beef products to be labeled organic, the livestock must have been fed only organic feed (grass or grain) and received no antibiotics or growth promotants. Vaccines are permitted to keep the livestock healthy. The more organic food consumers buy, the higher the demand becomes and the healthier tomorrow will be. I wholeheartedly support all organic food producers.
Grass-finished beef comes from cattle that have grazed in pastures their entire lives. Cattle spend the first year or more of their lives in the pasture, but for the final 3-6 months, the vast majority of U.S. beef cattle are fed a nutritionally balanced mixture of grain and nutrients. On a small number of U.S. farms, ranchers raise cattle that continue to feed on grass through the final stage. There are no safety or significant nutritional differences between grass-finished and grain-finished products. The principle differences are taste and texture. It’s a choice that is available to consumers. Most American consumers prefer the taste of beef that comes from corn-finished cattle. The grass-finished market aims to satisfy a small group of consumers who prefer the concept of cattle grazing through the final stage of production.
There are also four breeds of cattle raised in the US, Angus, Shorthorn, Kobe, and Hereford. All types of beef and breeds of cattle are monitored by USDA inspectors and veterinarians.
You’ve surely heard of this one. Originally from Scotland, the renowned Certified Angus is esteemed for its marbling and quality. Angus is so well-regarded that it’s used widely in crossbreeding to improve the quality of other breeds.
Brought to America from Northeast England, the Shorthorn is an ideal breed for high quality beef. Testing has shown this breed contains one of the highest percentages of tenderness.
Originated in Japan from the Wagyu breed of cattle, Kobe beef has earned recognition as a premium beef choice. Extremely expensive and desirable, Kobe is known for its intense marbling and high percentage of unsaturated fat.
Its ancestry can be traced back to England. These cattle produce consistently tender, juicy and flavorful beef products without excessive marbling, making this beef a leaner option.
Aging is a scientific process that creates severe moisture loss in order to dramatically concentrate the steak’s natural flavor. When done properly, steaks become more tender and tasty. Here’s how the two types of aging work:
Without any protective packaging, the beef is suspended in a precisely refrigerated environment. Too warm and it will spoil. Too cold and it will freeze. A constant temperature between 34-36º F with 75% humidity is crucial to the process. Dry aging also requires extreme ventilation. In the end, the beef loses 20% of its original weight to evaporation. The major effect from dry aging is an extreme change in color and flavor.
Vacuumed sealed packaging is the trademark of wet aging. This seals the beef in its own juices and permits the enzymes to break down connective tissues, so there’s no major fluid loss and no major flavor concentration. The major effect from wet aging is an increase in tenderness.
So why not save yourself some money, and age your own beef? Take that vacuum packed primal cut (from which market cuts are taken) from the butcher and put it in the refrigerator for 2 weeks and you’ll have a really tender piece of meat, right? No. No. If you have learned everything you know about meat from blogs and internet articles I can’t recommend that you take beef aging into your own hands. The slightest contamination could destroy all your hard vacuum-packed work. You may not be able to age like a pro, but with careful determination you can definitely master cooking like one.
This concludes part I of my beefy series. Come back later for more information and fun filled beef tips. While you’re waiting, don’t forget to look around Tasty Planner for mouthwatering beef and steak recipes. Happy cooking!