Apr 14, 2010

The beefy basics, part 1

These next couple posts will break down the basics of beef buying and talk about actually breaking down a beef carcass. Get your thinking cap on – there will be quizzes!

What??? Stop your groaning! I can’t just endlessly entertain you with stories about my travels, photography, cooking, nonsense and my naturally charming sense of humor. There must be education every once and a while, people. But you’re going to like it, I promise.

I had a pretty abrupt education on beef buying about five years ago, and I want to spare you from the same traumatic experience. I thought I was a fairly worldly college freshman – I traveled a lot with the National Beef Ambassador Program, promoting the beef industry and sharing the cattle production story. That was easy. The problem was, I had a hard time connecting with consumers’ stories.
Beef had always magically appeared in my freezer, straight from Nelson Farms. It showed up wrapped in crisp, white butcher paper with a red stamp that told us we were the only people allowed to pay for this product. An accompanying blue stamp described simple things: GROUND BEEF. STEAK. ROAST. BONELESS STEW. STEW BONES. PUT ME IN HAMBERGER HELPER. You see, I like simple things.

 Then one day, I ran out of beef from Nelson Farms. I had to go to the grocery store and venture into the meat case, just like 98% of our population does. I was completely and totally dumbfounded. I didn’t even know where to start. All the things my high school ag teacher tried explain in our meat evaluation segment jumbled around in this big ol’ blond head as I stood at the meat counter…. hmmmm…. quality grades… cutability… yield grades… USDA inspections…. marbling… oh, if only I had spent more time paying attention in ag class and less time talking boys into doing projects for me! I knew that was going to backfire eventually. I just knew it. They were just so gullible...

I resorted to the only thing I knew to do at the time – I called my mom. She walked me through it, explaining that yes, this beef looks a little different. Yes, that is OK. No, Select is not an instruction to pick that one... buy at least Choice. Yes, that ground beef looks kind of like worms, but it will taste the same. No, I will not reimburse you for this expense. You're a big kid now. Ugh.

Since then, I’ve made sure to truly educate myself on the beef industry, not just the cattle industry. That turned out to be a pretty good thing to understand, since making those connections pays my bills these days. I got a great refresher course on these concepts last weekend at the BEEF 509 course, which reminded me how confusing the meat case can be to consumers and cattlemen.

So this is where the education starts. I’m going to define a couple terms that we’ll need to differentiate here.

First, inspection. All beef sold in a retail store must be inspected through a branch of the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) called the FSIS (Food Safely and Inspection Service). This process ensures the wholesomeness of the product. The FSIS works very hard to make sure your beef is safe to eat. They’re nice like that.

Second, grading. Beef grading determines value (as in, price and enjoyment). A grade from the USDA is different than an inspection approval from the USDA. An inspection only determines it is a safe, wholesome product. A grade determines varying levels of quality in that product, which then helps determine its value. This is governed by the USDA’s AMS (Agriculture Marketing Service). This is not mandatory, although nearly all beef product sold in retail stores is graded.

Get the different between USDA inspected and a USDA grade? Good. If you don’t, read those two paragraphs a couple more times. Or persuade someone else to explain it to you. This is getting lengthy and I have a short attention span.

Now… about beef grading. There are two types of "grades." 

Quality grade predicts the eating experience of said "graded" beef. It’s a system that categorizes the predictability of that piece of meat’s tenderness, juiciness and flavor. In essence, quality grade is all about palatability. This is what most people want to focus on when buying beef. We'll address that more in a bit.

Yield grade shows a comparison of meat and fat on a carcass. This helps retailers predict how much meat they will have to actually sell when they buy meat compared to how much will be considered “trim.” This is called cutability. YG is a somewhat complicated calculation that doesn’t really have a lot of applications to the everyday consumer – the jest of it is this: a YG1 has more meat, less exterior fat; a YG5 has less meat compared to more exterior fat. YG2, YG3 and YG4 are in between. If you really want to know how to calculate YG, be my guest. Here's the formula:
Ya, that's what I thought. Stick to this mental picture of what the different YG numbers mean:
See the difference between the amount of muscle and exterior fat? I love being a visual learner. So in review:
Quality grade = palatability.
Yield grade = cutability.

Still with me??? Good. There’s more. Let’s dig a little deeper into quality grade. Quality grade is determined by two things: maturity and marbling.

Maturity, like YG, probably isn't something the average shopper needs to concern herself with. Just know that the nice graders from the USDA look at bone characteristics, cartilage ossification and color and texture of the ribeye muscle to determine the physiological, not chronological, maturity of the beef animal. That basically means it doesn't matter how many birthday candles were on the last cake, it's all about how well (or poorly) your little (or big) behind metabolized it. Depending on those things, the graders assign the carcass a maturity designation of A (youngest) through E (oldest).

That maturity ranking is only half of the quality grade equation. The other half is the marbling score. The marbling score indicates.... this is a tough one... the marbling of that carcass. Marbling is the little flecks of fat spread throughout the meat. This intramuscular fat is what gives beef its great flavor and juiciness. Marbling is also considered "good fat," which makes it a homerun in my book. You can see the differernce in marbling between these two cuts:
Once the graders have determined how much marbling is in the beef, they do another calculation that combines the maturity rank and marbling score and sha-bam! A quality grade is born. This is where that stamp that says USDA Prime, Choice or Select comes from. There are more classifications, but these are the only ones you should ever even consider eating. Trust me on this one.

Prime has the most marbling and youngest maturity classifications. Only about two percent of beef grades Prime. It's super tasty and delicious.
Choice is what the majority of beef grades. It can vary from really good (upper Choice, which is closer to Prime) to just OK (lower Choice, which is closer to Select).
Select has slight traces of marbling, which means you're going to have to do some digging to find those little flecks of flavor. Some folks like Select beef because it tends to be a little leaner. Personally, I want a really tender, juicy steak and am willing to sacrifice a couple extra calories for it. That's just me -- you don't have to agree. However, if you've read this far into my babble, it seems like you might just care about my opinion, so there you have it.  

Now just for good measure, let's review this all one more time.
  • Beef inspection determines wholesomeness. ALL beef is inspected and equally wholesome and safe. 
  • Beef grading determines value. Beef grading determines value by using two indicators:
    • Yield grade, which determines cutability.   
    • Quality grade, which determines palatability.
      • Quality grade determines palatability by looking at two items: maturity and marbling.
      • Based on these items, beef is graded into these important categories:
  • Prime = Yum, every time.
  • Choice = Yummy, but can be inconsistant in its marbling. Hence the advent of branded beef programs like the Certified Angus Beef brand to bring a little more quality consistancy to the table. Oh come on... like you didn't know that plug was going to show up eventually.
  • Select = eh, if that's what you're in to. It's a wholesome, nutritious product -- just a little different flavor profile than what this girl likes.  
  • Everything else (Standard, Commercial, Utility) = never, ever buy for human consumption. Ever.
    Got all that? Excellent! Now it's time for the quiz. I warned you about this!!!

    Q1.) Who is my No. 1 blog follower from California?
    Q2.) Who gave birth to my wonderfully charming and sweet roomate?
    Q3.) Who is celebrating a birthday today?

    A1.) Kathy; A2.) Kathy; A3.) Kathy
    Happy Birthday, Kathy!!!

    Just checking to see if anyone is really playing attention out there.

    But really -- I hope this was a useful little lesson on beef basics. I know it was lengthy, and I'm exhausted from writing it. But this is important, people. The process of getting food on the world's table is a long and complicated, but it has safety, wholesomeness and consumer satisfaction in mind all the time. That needs to be understood. I want you to always enjoy your beef eating experience, and an educated consumer is a happy consumer. So holla if I missed something or you are dying to learn more!


    1. You are adorable and I'm so glad you are my daughter's roommate! I've been sick so it took me a couple days to see your birthday wishes but I appreciated them just the same!!

    2. I hope you are feeling better, Kathy!

      And happy late anniversary, too! :)