Making sense of beef grading

Posted: Thursday, May 01, 2008

What is beef grading and what does it mean to your taste buds?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's beef grading system is in place to determine the relative tenderness, flavor and juiciness of the beef we buy. The major factors in evaluating the quality of beef are marbling (intramuscular fat), maturity, texture, firmness and color.

USDA beef grades are as follows; prime, choice, select and standard, subdivided into commercial and utility. There are also independent grades of beef, including certified Angus beef and Kobe beef, which hold their grading to even more stringent standards than the USDA.

The number one factor to great beef is the marbling. The more the better. In addition, the finer the marbling the better. Big chunks of fat are tough and don't melt easily whereas fine intramuscular fat melts quickly and makes your steak juicy and delicious.

The primary scores in the USDA marble scoring system are as follows: Prime beef contains marbling scores of "abundant" through "slightly abundant;" choice-grade beef contains "moderate," "modest" and "small" degrees of marbling; select beef contains "slight" marbling; and standard-grade beef scores range from "traces" to "practically devoid."

The other factors influencing beef grades are texture, color and firmness, all of which are directly related to the maturity of the carcass. The older the carcass the darker and coarser the meat becomes. There is a method to the madness regarding maturity also, Maturity A is 9 to 30 months, maturity B is 30 to 42 months and maturity C is 42 to 72 months. All the beef grading falls under A and B maturity except the lower levels of the standard grade which are off the chart.

As I mentioned above, there are also independent grading systems with tighter standards than the USDA grading system. Two that you will encounter in Juneau are certified Angus beef and Kobe beef. Both of these brands are derived from a specific breed of cattle. Certified Angus beef is from the Angus breed and Kobe is from the Waygu.

The Angus beef standards include a modest or higher degree of marbling, A-level maturity, moderately thick or thicker muscling, and no dark cutting characteristics.

Kobe beef is held to another level of standards entirely. These include daily massages and a diet of beer and sake. The marbling in this meat is so extraordinary that it takes on a pink meat color instead of red.

As you can see, all of these standards directly influence the quality of each and every steak.

Aging is the last factor that will result in a fine steak. Aging beef after it is cut, not to be confused with maturity of the animal, allows enzymes to break down lots of the tissues, resulting in incredibly flavorful and tender meat.

The aging process can be wet or dry. Most of the aging done these days is wet aging in which the beef is aged in a sealed bag for 21 to 28 days. Dry aging involves aging the meat in the open air, which concentrates the beef flavor. Dry aging is rare these days because it is expensive and takes a highly-trained butcher to execute properly.

There are a few locations around town that have dedicated themselves to providing quality beef. You can find dry-aged beef at Superbear, and occasionally you can find Kobe-style beef at The Baranof. Mi Casa serves aged certified Angus, and every beef item served at the Breakwater is aged certified Angus. So if you are in search of a great steak, these are the places to visit.

Enjoy, Juneau!

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