Let’s meat up

From grain to grill: everything you need to know

By Paula Johnson

Photo: Julia Garner as “Sage” and Lily Tomlin as Elle Reid in “Grandma”

Cue the strains of Aaron Copland and hear the sizzle and pop of fat rendering in a volcanically hot skillet. Beef. Nothing smells as appetizing cooking, and tastes quite as deep, rich and satisfying. Yep, it’s what’s for dinner.

And now it’s time to stake your claim and claim your steak. But how much do you really know about beef—what all the designations and grades mean, going grass or staying grain, and what about the Japanese beef that is now popping up on menus?

Age appropriate

Let’s start with dry aged—just what does that mean, and is it worth the money you’ll pay for it? Dry aging refers to the conditions that are created which allow enzymes that are already present in meat to do their work breaking down fats, proteins and glycogen onto amino acids, fatty acids and sugars. Most meat is ready for market almost immediately after slaughter. Dry aged meat carcasses are allowed to rest in carefully climate controlled conditions for weeks (even months) at a time. The result of this is a concentration of crazy rich tasty flavors and melting mouth feel that’s impossible to duplicate without the costly and laborious aging process.

It’s a hugely expensive process to produce dry aged meat. Because the meat has to be kept in a controlled environment for a long time it adds substantially to production cost. Losing some of the weight due to evaporating moisture means less to sell, and the meat’s surface develops unpleasant flavors and mold, which requires trimming, meaning further loss of profit.

It’s why a lot of meat is “wet aged”—meaning it’s kept in plastic packaging for days or even weeks to shield it from oxygen, and will retain moisture to let the enzymes work. Wet aging offers some of the flavor and tenderness of dry aged meat, but not the same concentration of flavor.

Making the grade

Tenderness, juiciness and flavor are the criteria used to grade beef. The USDA actually defines eight grades, but most of us know only the first three: Prime, Choice and Select. You can tell what you’re buying by the shield shaped sticker on the package.

Here is how the USDA ranks the beef you buy:

Prime grade is almost never found in supermarkets. This beef is produced from young, well-fed beef cattle. It has abundant marbling and is generally sold only in restaurants. It’s one of the reasons your steak at home just doesn’t taste like the one at your favorite high-end steak house.

Choice grade is still of high quality, but has less marbling than Prime. Choice roasts and steaks from the loin and rib are very tender, juicy, and flavorful. This is what you’ll find at the market, and the price you’ll pay will reflect it.

Select grade is very uniform in quality and normally leaner than the higher grades. It is fairly tender, but, because it has less marbling, it may lack some of the juiciness and flavor of the higher grades. Select meat will be less costly than Choice.

Standard grade is frequently sold as ungraded or as “store brand” meat. This is your bargain meat. Buyer beware.

Commercial grade is much the same as Standard grade.

Utility grade is seldom, if ever, sold at retail. It is used to make ground beef and processed products.

Cutter grade – same as above.

Canner grade – same as above.

A word about Angus

Angus beef is the meat from Angus cattle, the most popular beef breed of cattle in the U.S. Known for their adaptability, they mature at around two years of age, and have a high carcass yield with marbled meat. Not all Angus cattle are Certified however, and the term Certified Angus Beef (CAB) carries additional distinction. Cattle are eligible for “Certified Angus Beef” if they meet all 10 of the industry standard criteria to enhance the meat’s look, flavor and texture consistency.

Certified Angus Beef is a company brand owned by the American Angus Association, set up in 1978 with the goal of promoting Angus beef as higher quality than other breeds. Its mission is to “increase demand for registered Angus cattle through a specification-based, branded beef program to identify consistent, high quality beef with superior taste.” In other words, CAB monitors meat, and gives their special stamp of approval to those meeting the standards set forth. Generally speaking, buying CAB means you can expect a dependably good steak.

Japanese jargon

The words Wagyu and Kobe beef are popping up on many menus these days. What do those terms actually mean? Let’s start with the word Wagyu: Wa means Japanese or Japanese style, and Gyu is the Japanese word for a cow or cattle. So these are not the American Angus we’ve just touched on. Wagyu beef is intensely marbled with softer fat, has higher percentages of monounsaturated fats, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and is lower in cholesterol. The combinations of these fats deliver a distinctive rich and tender flavor compared to other beef.

The most exclusive Wagyu in the world comes from Kobe, Japan. People use the terms Kobe and Wagyu beef interchangeably in the U.S. thinking it refers to the same premium imported Japanese beef, when it does not. While many restaurant menus feature “Kobe Burgers” or “Kobe Steaks” and the Internet is flooded with online companies offering Kobe Beef, the truth is authentic Kobe beef is very rarely seen on restaurant menus in the USA.

Legitimate Kobe beef is priced around $200 per portion for a steak, and $50 for a burger. If you see something on a menu referred to as Kobe priced less than that, it is most likely domestic or imported Wagyu. It might still be tasty, but chances are you won’t be tasting the real thing.

Grass vs. grain? 

This is one that’s tough to distill in a few paragraphs. Taste-wise, it’s easy to come down in favor of grain. Fat equals flavor, and nothing creates fat and marbling like grain. Our American palates have been conditioned to love and expect that melt-in-your-mouth grain fed taste. Does grass fed taste bad? No, just different, and mostly in texture, with a more fibrous (not tough) mouth feel. If you did a blind taste test, most likely you could tell which is which pretty easily.

A decade ago there were barely 50 grass fed beef operations in the U.S. Now there are thousands, responding to America’s growing awareness of healthy eating. But is grass fed substantially healthier than traditional grain fed? Is it worth the extra money you’ll shell out due to the fact that the cattle weigh hundreds of pounds less than their conventionally fed counterparts, and the amount of time and money it takes for pasture raising?

Cows are ruminant animals, meaning their stomachs do not naturally and easily digest the grain and soy they are fed, and that leads to the use of antibiotics. Large factory farms also feed their animals steroids and growth hormones to make them fatter faster. Dr. Andrew Weil states that more than two-thirds of the cattle raised in the U.S. are given hormones, usually testosterone and estrogen to boost growth. Childhood obesity and the age girls reach puberty is linked to growth hormones in foods, specifically beef.

So absent the antibiotics and hormones, is grass fed healthier? Pasture raised beef contains the same heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids and fish, and twice the amount as grain fed. There are also anti oxidants, trace minerals and vitamins which are not present in grain fed. We may be circling back to thinking of beef as a health food option if we are talking about grass fed.

Looking at it strictly from a food safety standpoint makes a persuasive argument to go grass. Urvashi Rangan, the Director of Consumer Safety and Sustainability Group for Consumer Reports has been researching the topic, testing hundreds of beef samples from across the country for contaminates such as salmonella and E. coli. We already know more sustainable production systems (grass fed) are better for the environment and better for the animals, Rangan says. Now we know they actually produce safer meat. “More sustainable systems manage manure, the main cause for contamination,” she says.

Cattle call

That’s a lot to digest, but now you will be armed and ready the next time you head to the meat counter, or open a menu at your favorite restaurant. If you decide to splurge on a dry aged steak, sample some Wagyu, or try a grass fed/grain fed taste test, let me know—I’d love to chew the fat about it!

Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Paula Johnson
Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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