Is grass-fed beef superior to grain-fed? Fresh better than frozen? Here are some tips for assessing beef quality and how to buy the best meat for your needs.
Quality Grades of Beef
The USDA assigns eight different quality grades to beef based primarily on the age of the animal at slaughter and the amount of marbling in the meat. More marbling means more fat distributed through the muscle, which is exactly what you want for barbecue. Fat helps with flavor and moisture, and absorbs smoke flavor well. Of the eight grades, the top three (in descending order) are prime, choice, and select.
The most expensive grade available (according to the USDA), was once served almost exclusively in hotels and restaurants but has started turning up in grocery stores and even national chains like Costco According to USDA guide- lines, prime beef must have at minimum a “slightly abundant” amount of marbling. The best stuff, sometimes referred to as high prime, features “moderately abundant” to “abundant” marbling and is usually found in commercial kitchens.
The most common grade in supermarkets and can vary widely in quality. Its marbling scores range from “moderate” to “modest” to “small.” The majority of choice cuts fall into the bottom tier and have a small amount of marbling. Choice beef is with modest to moderate marbling as “upper two thirds.” You’ll often see this beef labeled “upper choice,” “top choice,” or “high choice.” The upper tier of choice cuts is comparable to the lower tier of prime, but usually cheaper in price.
These cuts are the cheapest of the top three beef grades, but only contain a “slight” degree of marbling. If you’re cook- ing a select brisket, be aware that it will likely dry out faster than a choice or prime cut due to the lower fat content. You might want to consider a shorter cook time at higher heat, or wrapping earlier in the cook to retain moisture.
By now, you’ve likely heard the term Kobe or Wagyu tossed around. Wagyu translates literally to “Japanese cow,” and refers to one of the more expensive products on the market. It is revered for its extreme level of marbling, which leads to meat that is exceptionally moist and tender, though its flavor less beefy. While the Wagyu beef sold in the U.S. does come from cows with Japanese heritage, many are interbred with breeds like Angus that are better suited to American agricultural conditions. ( Kobe beef is a variety of Wagyu produced exclusively in one region of Japan. (Kobe-style or American-style Kobe are marketing terms for domestically produced beef that has been crossbred with Wagyu cattle.)
Wagyu is graded both on its yield (the ratio of meat produced relative to the total weight of the carcass) and its quality. Yield is rated A (72% or higher), B (69–72%), or C (below 69%). Quality is graded on a scale of 1 to 5 based on the degree of marbling, firmness and texture, the color and brightness of the meat, and the color and brightness of the fat. Thus, there are 15 total grades of Wagyu—A5 being the highest, C1 being the lowest.
Grain Fed Vs. Grass Fed
Cows are ruminants, meaning they are naturally designed to graze on grass. Many beef cows begin their lives eating grass, before proceeding to a diet of grain and/or corn. (The phrase “grain fed” describes how an animal’s diet changed as it got closer to slaughter.) Grain-fed beef is typically fattier with a beefier flavor than grass-fed beef, which is why for longer cooks like brisket and grass fed for quicker cooks like steak.
It’s true that grain-fed cattle are more often associated with commercial farming and feedlots, but diet alone is not a true indication of how the cattle was raised. If you want to be sure you’re buying humanely raised, all natural beef, ask your butcher where and how the beef was sourced.