Know Your Meat: How to Pick the Best Cuts

Sorry vegetarians! I guess this blog isn't really for you today. Meat lovers unite for a good cause! Here are a few tips to help you pick the freshest, most flavorful pieces of meat at your local grocers or butchers.

Beef. It's what's for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In Texas, beef is a staple here, and we take it very seriously. First I'll go over the USDA's grade system for beef. USDA Prime is the highest quality meat you can get, with a respectively higher price tag. I encourage people to splurge on Prime every now and then, because there is a big difference in tenderness and flavor. Prime is graded by having 11% or more of intramuscular fat or "marbling." Here's what to look for:

- Thanks to Certified Steak & Seafood for the photo of this awesome Cowboy style Ribeye Steak!

As you can see, not exactly something you come across everyday. Note also that the meat in much more tender, because the animal was younger. Younger meat is always better. Just when you think you have it all figured out, here's where it starts to get more complicated. There's perhaps as many types, grades, and certifications of beef & meats as there are types of apples or citrus fruits.

I'm sure you've heard the terms Angus and Kobe beef before, and here's some enlightenment on discovering the almost royal flesh. Certified Angus meat (which is further graded by USDA's Prime/Choice/Select) can only be officially certified as such when the cattle has Angus lineage. Angus is a Scottish breed, and qualifying cattle must be traceable to one registered parent or two registered grandparents. There is more to Angus certification than only lineage, including fat ratio, bone strcuture and density, overall animal weight, and a few other factors.

Kobe beef is an entirely different ballgame. Kobe beef comes from a breed of cattle called Wagyu, which comes from Japan, but have American Raised and Japanese Raised varieties. Kobe beef exceeds the rating of Prime by USDA standards, which is literally off the charts. Rumor has it that Kobe beef has a fat content of as much as 50%, but more typically sees percentages of about 30%. Their diets are far more specialized than other cattle, including beer or sake! The animals even get regular massages, as a belief that these massages will make the meat less stressed. As you can see, Kobe is so heavily marbled, it looks like something you would install on your countertops:

- Many, many thanks to this photo goes out to

Organic beef, is pretty much what you might think. These animals feed only on grass, rich in fertilizer with absolutely no pesticides, hormones, or antibiotics. This method also helps to maintain some of the natural nutrients that sometimes get drowned out by other diets. For example, organic beef has a higher Omega-3 fatty acid content. I've had the pleasure of sampling beef tenderloin that was certified Angus Organic, and I must say, it was one of the best pieces of meat ever to hit my tongue (yeah yeah, you can say your perverted joke now, haha!).

Choice beef, follows the same guidelines as prime, but has a smaller fat content, ranging from 4% to 8%. You'll often see these in the supermarkets more than prime, but they are hailed in supermarkets in similar fashion as prime would anywhere else, which can be misleading. This is an ideal grade if you're looking for something that's the best of both worlds, i.e.: fatty enough for some good flavor, but lean enough to stay on the healthier side of the spectrum. This is a typical cut of choice beef:
- Photo Courtesy of

Select grade is the most common meat on the shelves. The fat content on this quality is part of the lowest end, featuring 2% to 4% of fat content, which is minimal. The only times I will by anything in the select range would be ground beef and cube steak (for chicken fried steak which is known to be a lesser cut of meat made better with manual tenderization). As you can see from the following example, you can see the descending differences in marbling:

- Another great photo from

I hope this Beef 101 course has given you some new knowledge on what to look for next time you visit the market. Always remember that the butcher almost always keeps his best stuff in the back, so don't hesitate to get to know him, or her, and get a custom cut of meat from them for freshest taste and highest quality.

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