Hailing from Iowa meant growing up in a steak and corn loving family. In fact, I loved my steak so much so, that I remember asking my mother to smuggle in a juicy t-bone steak when she visited me at summer camp one year. Knowing the cuts of beef I found most flavorful came as second nature to me, but then food production practices started changing dramatically in the 1970’s giving rise to a myriad of perplexing labels that seem to confuse the consumer, more than inform them. Perhaps more so for Personal Chef Approach™ member, Rachel Cree-Lowe who happens to be a vegetarian cooking for her meat-loving husband and children, so she asked me to shed some light on the matter.
The number one tip I give members is that a good butcher will be happy to answer any questions you may have, so ask! They should be knowledgeable about the various grades, cuts, how they should be cooked, and the provenance of the meat – was it reared on organic feed, grass-fed, hormone and anti-biotic free, or factory farmed?
Grade refers to the age, marbling, color, and texture of the meat and will also be a determining factor in the price. The three most common grades you’ll run across are:
- Prime: This is the grade you will most often find in high end steak houses. It’s the most tender and flavorful beef with lots of marbling (thin ribbons of fat running through it), but also the most expensive.
- Choice: You’re more likely to see this grade in grocery stores, because it is much more cost effective for the average consumer. It’s slightly leaner than prime, but should still have decent flavor and tenderness.
- Select: You can find select steaks, but I’d avoid using select meat unless you intend to slow-cook it in a braise or stew to tenderize it (not an ideal method for steak).
“We are what we eat,” so another important factor a conscientious consumer might want to take into consideration is the provenance of the meat – how was it reared? Know what the labeling means:
- Grain-Fed: All cattle graze in the pasture for the first part of their lives, but grain-fed are then moved to feedlots where they’re fattened up on a concentrated mix of corn, soy, grains, and other supplements, plus hormones and antibiotics to prevent illnesses. Grain-fed cattle yield more tender (fatty) meat, and will usually cost less than organic, natural, and grass-fed, but you have to weigh the pros against all the other things they’ve ingested when choosing what’s right for you, and your family.
- Natural: Means hormone and anti-biotic free. Much like an athlete who takes hormones to bulk up, grain-fed cattle are given hormones to bulk them up faster for slaughter. This is done purely to increase the profit. Likewise, antibiotics are given to prevent illness – lessening the risk of having to put a sick cow down (and not be able to sell it). How many times have you heard your doctor say “you shouldn’t take antibiotics unless absolutely necessary, or you might become anti-biotic resistant when you really need them.” Do you really want to ingest them in your meat? There is absolutely no health advantage to you eating these chemicals, and there could quite possibly be health risks to you in the long term.
- Grass-fed: Cattle graze entirely on grass as they were biologically meant to do. That means it’s better for the cow, and better for the environment. Grass is easier on their digestive system so they don’t emit as much ozone damaging methane gas, and less fuel is used in producing their feed. Unfortunately, most of us have been eating grain fed beef for so long now, it might take a little getting used to again, but your taste buds will adjust. It’s usually more expensive too, but I always consider this a “penny wise, dollar stupid” attitude when people complain about the price – health care costs are far greater!
Finally, understanding the difference between the cuts helps in making your selection too, and this really boils down to personal preference. If you want to serve steak you want to avoid all cuts that require a slow-cooking process to tenderize the meat. The most common cuts for steak are:
- N.Y Strips are my favorite cut, because they are not too fatty yet have an abundance of flavor.
- Fillet Mignon was all Tatjana would eat as a child, because it comes from the tenderloin, or most tender cut of beef. It also has very little fat, so it is a great option if you are watching your weight.
- T-Bones & Porterhouse steaks are cut from both the striploin and tenderloin, so it’s like getting best of both worlds – part N.Y Strip and part fillet with a t-shape bone in the middle.
- Ribeye’s are a big steak house favorite because they have a lot of fat yielding flavor.
- Sirloin is another lower fat option, generally a more cost effective cut of meat with plenty of flavor, but can be on the tough side.
- Flank steak is another cut that is lower in fat, flavorful and cost effective, but generally requires marinating to tenderize before grilling or broiling, and should always be cut across the grain (if you cut with the grain it will be very chewy and tough).
I feel beef got an undeserved bad rap when the government decided fat was bad for us. Beef is a great source of protein and iron. Making informed choices will help you decide what is right for you. Personally, I have cut back on the amount of beef I eat, because I like to observe at least one animal free day a week, but there are times when nothing else can hit the spot like a juicy steak grilled to perfection. I’m sure I’ll be enjoying one with mom for Mother’s Day this year. Don’t forget that Personal Chef Approach™ Gift Certificates make a great Mother’s Day gift (that you’ll most likely get to enjoy too), and they’re available to fit any budget.
Roasted Garlic & Chili Rub
This versatile rub is an outstanding on any kind of beef, chicken, pork or shrimp. I sometimes find garlic already roasted at the store, which does save time, but it is very simple to do – just check out my note below. Any extra can be saved and used up to 5 days covered and refrigerated, but in my household it goes quickly.