My Beef Part III: The Steak of Your Dreams

If you want a good steak, close your eyes, spin around, grab a beer and guess. If you want a great steak, follow these steps and be picky. Don’t be afraid too ask your butcher questions. If you are too shy to demand an appearance with the butcher then don’t be afraid to dig through all the available cuts, types, and grades located in the meat case. Just don’t be a jerk about it and start pouring blood all over the floor or peeling off labels. That’s in poor taste.

Only the top three grades are sold in U.S. markets. Grading is based on several factors that no one really cares about (ie maturity, marbling, firmness, color, and texture). Point is: the better the grade, generally the more marbling. And if you were paying attention you would know that the more marbling, the better the flavor. The lower the grade, the leaner and tougher the beef.

Prime, the Highest Grade. It has the most marbling and can be hard to find. You can typically only obtain this grade in fancy restaurants with fancy bills that lead to fancy escapes through the not-so-fancy back alley door next to the dumpster. If you want to pay for the ambiance go right ahead and seek out the Prime grade at your local overly priced food trough. If not, cook it yourself and opt for the “second best” grade.

Which brings us to Choice. Most filets are rated Choice, so it’s hard to call this grade second best. While these cuts have less marbling than Prime, they’re still of exceptional quality. Generally, this is what you’d find at your local butcher shop.

Still in the top three, Select has the least amount of marbling, making it leaner but also less flavorful. This grade is typically found in the self-service meat department at your local supermarket. Select is nothing to complain about. If you enjoy rubs, marinades, and steak sauces go with these leaner cuts and slop on your favorite sauce to make up for the slight lack of flavor.

So I mentioned earlier that only these top 3 grades are available in the US, so that must mean there are more grades, right? Good deduction. There are actually 8 grades in all. In order of best to worst they go: Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter, and last and VERY least Canner. Beef deemed Commercial-Canner comes from cows that are over 42 months old. Here is a chart that breaks down these grades. By the way, that big black mass in the bottom right is Canner. Yum.

As far as appearance goes, beauty is on the outside. The best way to choose a steak is based on its external features. A delicious steak will be bright red with thin streaks of creamy white fat evenly distributed throughout. This is known as marbling, and generally, the more marbling, the more juicy and flavorful the meat. The beef should also be firm to the touch and not drenched in a murky liquid. Murky liquid = scary bad.

Also, have you ever noticed how after a few days, steaks may turn from the fresh blood red color they were when you bought them to a darker red or even brown color? This is simply the oxidization of the outer layer that is touching (or touched) air. This doesn’t mean the meat is bad, nor does it mean that it is necessarily older than other meat in the same case. It just received more air time. Don’t be afraid to eat this meat, just watch it a little closer. Some say the oxidization makes meat taste a little more like liver, but this varies from taste to taste. If meat begins to turn shades of green, black or blue; or if it begins to talk, walk, or dissolve it is probably in your best interest to just let it go.

Buy steaks that are 3/4 to 1 inch thick. If you buy thinner steaks you may just accidentally overcook them if you are new to grilling. It’s ok, it happens to everyone, but the thicker the steak the better chance you have of learning proper cooking techniques. There really is no difference in toughness or marbling when thickness is involved, but cooking thinner steaks to perfection is just a bit more difficult. Once you master cooking them you can opt for thinner steaks, but I’m not sure why you would. Also, in case you were wondering the difference between a steak and a roast; it’s all about thickness. Roasts are 2 inches or more in thickness and steaks are less than 2 inches thick.

Fat Trimming
Depending on the steak, you may want to trim a bit of fat off the edges if it is excessive. Fat can shrink and compress meat which can make it a little tough, cause grill flare ups that can burn your meat, and fat is not very heart-healthy. Ideally you want at least 1/4 in of fat around the steak. Now, I would never sacrifice flavor by removing fat, but that is a decision that I made long ago. However, for heart healthy reasons, you may opt to trim some steak fat and because of this, I have found a helpful guide so show you how. Please visit Derrick Riches Trimming Steaks article to learn more. Of course you can always cook the steak first and trim the fat before serving, but that is up to you and your dinner guests.

Tenderness vs Flavor
Chuck and Round need some help to get tender. They’ll have to be marinated and slowly cooked in liquid. If you toss ‘em on the grill, get your chainsaw. Tenderloins are, obviously the most tender but may not be the tastyiest of the steaks. Some of the tougher steaks like flank which will need a lot of marinating and tenderizing may actually have a lot more flavor. Ribs, T-bones, Top Loins, and Porterhouse all have relatively the same tenderness and are all about as flavorful. The price of steaks is typically determined by the tenderness not the flavor, so don’t be deceived by that minimal price tag. You may be surprised by the less tender cuts.

Other Terms to Know
Enhanced beef has been enhanced somehow. It could mean the meat that has been injected with additives (such as flavoring, tenderizer or a salt solution to increase moisture). Look at the label. It must indicate what percent of the meat’s weight is from an injected solution. Be cautious when the meat has been “enhanced”. Unless, of course, it specifically says it has been enhanced with magical powers.

Natural beef means it’s been minimally processed without additives, colors or preservatives. That description fits most of the beef being sold but it has nothing to do with what the animal was fed or whether it was given antibiotics or growth hormones. Also, if you find meat that isn’t “natural”, I’d like you to find out what non-force of nature created it.

Certified Organic beef must meet the USDA’s national organic program standards, meaning cattle must be fed entirely with organic feed, must not be given growth hormones or antibiotics, and must have access to pasture.

Mystery Meat means you’re eating in a grade school cafeteria for some reason so get the heck out of there.

Hungry yet? Well, not for mystery meat but maybe a juicy steak. Check out Tasty Planner’s steak recipes and Happy Cooking!


Anthem July 15th, 2008

I remember mystery meat. We always sat around the lunch table trying to guess whether it was made of dog, cat or soy.

Mike July 24th, 2010

Great post! You really nailed the basics! Being on a first name basis with your butcher is a good thing :)
Keep up the awesome work!

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