How to Talk About Beef Like an Expert
America’s national dish might as well be the hamburger—we eat an estimated 50 million of them per year. In 2019, the average American consumed 57.7 pounds of beef sourced from more than 32 million cattle. Clearly, we like red meat, yet many of us know so little about the beef we eat, other than what temperature we like our burgers and steaks.
I’m here to help. To help explain all things beef—from coveted breeds and aging techniques to USDA grades and primal cuts—I talked to cattle aficionados Curtis Stone, the meat-obsessed celebrity chef behind Gwen Butcher Shop & Restaurant in Los Angeles, and Rena Frost, who owns and operates Mac’s on Main steakhouses just outside Dallas.
Read more: Our 44 Best Steak Recipes
Let’s Start with the Breeds
“When I think about beef, I start right at the beginning,” Stone says. “The first thing is the kind of animal the farmer wants to raise.” The differences can be stark, from cooler climate British breeds like Hereford, Angus, and Holsteins that have a high marble score to heartier tropical breeds that are more resistant to ticks and other pests in warmer climates.
Here are some of the breeds that are common in U.S. butcher store shelves:
One of the most common premium cattle breeds found in the United States, Aberdeen Angus (sometimes referred to as Black Angus) hails from Northeastern Scotland. The black, relatively small in size cows tend to boast well-marbled meat depending on how and where it was raised.
Hereford, which originated in Herefordshire, England, is another very desirable breed, often with a good marble score. The quality is almost as high as Angus; however, Hereford cattle is a heartier breed. So, the two are often cross-bred together.
Incredibly tender with a buttery soft flavor, Wagyu beef is very prized and very expensive. It’s a big breed, which originated in Japan, that produces big muscles and therefore big primal cuts with an “incredible marble score running through them,” Stone says.
Oftentimes, when you see “Kobe” on a menu, it’s referring to the Wagyu breed, but real Kobe beef only comes from Tajima strain of Japanese Black cattle, raised in Japan's Hyōgo Prefecture. It’s hard to get—about 7,000 head of Tajima-gyu cattle are taken to market per year, and only 5,500 or so get certified as Kobe beef—so it is even pricier than regular Wagyu. Currently, only six importers bring it into the United States. Most of the “Wagyu'' beef found in the U.S. market is actually a cross-breed, says Stone, “It’s very rare to find full breed Wagyu steer. It’s very prized and very expensive.”
A Little Something About Feed
It’s pretty simple. Grass-fed cattle has been fed on grass for the duration of its lifetime. The flavor tends to boast more minerality and an overall cleaner “beefiness.” However, just as the breed can differ according to where and how it was reared, there can be huge differences in the quality of grass-fed beef.
As the saying goes, grass-fed beef is what it eats. The pasture makes a big impact on the eventual steaks. Angus from the clover-rich hills of the Northern United Kingdom doesn’t have to exert much energy—meaning it doesn’t have to walk much—to eat highly nutritious food. “You get a ton of beautiful marbling, minerality, and deliciousness,” says Stone, as a result of the low-stress lifestyle.
Contrast that grass-fed beef with another that comes from a dryer climate, where the cow has to walk farther distances for less nutritious forage, the meat tends to skew leaner with less marbling throughout the cuts of meat. “When you’re looking at marbling, the flecks of fat throughout the muscle, the more of that, it probably means the grass was richer,” says Stone.
According to Frost, the grass-fed steaks she works with from Strauss Free-Raised tend to cook about 25% faster than their grain-fed counterparts of the same size.
Somewhat of a side note: The term “grass-finished” means that cows were finished on forage, but may have been fed grain at some points in their lives.
Naturally, cows are supposed to live off grasses. Cows are ruminants, meaning their rumen, a digestive organ that holds beneficial microbes converts the cellulose fibers of grass into nutrients. Here, in the United States, grain-feeding is considered “conventional,” as most cattle are reared on feedlots—which allows them to reach market weight much faster—unless otherwise specified on the packaging.
To bulk them up faster and marble the meat, the majority of U.S. ranchers switch their cattle onto a diet of grains, such as corn and soy, from the time they are weaned until harvest. “The color is probably lighter than grass-fed and the texture less dense, because you’ve got all that fat,” says Frost, who prefers the flavors of grain-fed ribeye, in particular, over its grass-fed counterpart.
Like grass-fed beef, there are differences in the quality of grain-fed cattle—as well as animal husbandry techniques—depending on how and where it’s raised. Cattle can still fall under the grain-fed label even if they are grass-fed for four- to six-months, then finished on grain for the five months of life. “If you fatten a steer up at the end, you won't necessarily put fat on throughout their muscles,” says Stone.
So, it’s important to pay attention to its grade, which brings me to my next point.
What Do the Grades Mean?
Grading methods differ from country to country. For example, Japan uses five different grades, and Australia has nine. In the United States, the USDA grades beef for tenderness, juiciness, and flavor by examining the marbling of the cuts.
Produced from young, well-fed cattle, prime beef are rich in marbling with 8 to 13% fat. On average, less than 8.6% of all beef graded in the U.S. earns the Prime label, most of which goes directly to restaurants and hotels—and, oddly, Costco. Cuts with some fat, like NY Strips and ribeyes, better highlight the merits of prime. “They’re marbled so beautifully, they would melt in your mouth,” says Frost, who recommends cooking this grade of meat on a grill over coal or wood to give it a nice crust.
A step down from the abundant marbling of Prime, Choice has slightly less marbling (about 4 to 10% fat) but is still very juicy, tender and flavorful. Most restaurants serve Choice.
Like Prime, most of the cuts—even the less tender ones—are well suited for dry-heat cooking as long as they’re not overcooked. While Frost doesn’t eat filet mignon and has heard that Prime filets are quite good, she doesn’t see the point in buying one above Choice since it doesn’t have much fat, which is essentially why you’re spending the extra cash.
“Select is the bottom, which is not a bad thing,” says Frost. “If you go to the grocery store, some of the cuts on the counter are Select.” Uniform in quality and leaner than the higher grades, Select is still fairly tender. It just doesn't have the same level of marbling, so it lacks some of the juiciness and flavor.
The tender cuts are fine cooked with dry heat, but the less tender ones, like skirt or flank steaks, should at least be marinated before cooking.
If you're planning a wet-cooking method like braising, it actually doesn’t make much sense to spend the extra money on higher grade beef, says Frost. “If you’re going to braise something, you don’t need Prime meat. Like pot roast, braise that sucker and you couldn't tell what grade it is.”
It sounds kind of morbid, but if you take a cow, harvest it, and eat the fresh steak immediately, it’s going to be tougher than if you let it sit around for a bit. Aging gives the connective tissues time to break down. “When it’s breaking down those connective tissues, that’s part of the tenderness,” Frost says.
Large cuts of beef are hung in a dry-aging room for anywhere from a few weeks to several months before getting trimmed and sliced into steaks in this low-moisture curing process. Two things happen. Mold gets introduced, adding a funky nuttiness the same way it does to cheese, and the meat starts to lose moisture, tenderizing it and concentrating the beefy flavor.
The longer the meat hangs, the more moisture evaporates—and the thicker the bark that needs to be trimmed off—bringing down the weight substantially. So the cut that weighed ten pounds when it went into the dry-aging room comes out weighing eight, thereby increasing the price significantly.
At Gwen, Stone dry-ages his meat between 30 and 80 days (for his bone-in ribeye). Some guests come in specifically for that 80-day dry-aged cut, relishing the strong taste and real blue cheese-like funkiness it gets from hanging so long. However, there are lots of people who dislike the dryer texture and stronger scent. “If you’re used to cutting into a steak with a lot of juice, you’d probably say, 'This isn’t how I like it,’” says Stone. He personally prefers the moisture balance of the 30-day dry-aged cuts, and says, “Ribeye is a great one [to dry-age].”
Read more: Meat Aging: The Great Debate
Sealed in its own juices inside a cryovaced bag, wet-aged steaks essentially brine in their own blood. Some evaporation does take place, as the juice does begin to come out of the meat the longer it sits, but this aging method produces juicier steaks without the funk of its dry-aged counterparts. “To me, dry-aged has better flavor,” says Stone. “It’s questionable as to whether it’s a better or worse texture. It depends on if you like it juicy or not.”
Frost prefers wet-aged steaks, sourcing cuts that have been sealed for a minimum of 21-days before they reach her restaurants.
Most styrofoam and plastic-wrapped commodity beef found in the grocery store is not aged and does not have the same level of marbling of higher-graded steak. These unaged cuts get some minerality from the blood and a fresh beef flavor; however, because the meat has had less time to breakdown the steaks tend to be more fibrous.
But here’s a trick: if you don’t want to fork out the extra cash for aged meat, you can age big cuts of steak on a wire rack in the open-air of your fridge for a few days. “You’re not going to benefit from the microorganisms in a dry-age room,” says Stone. “What you do gain is that little bit of evaporation that’s going to happen from the air blowing on it and that will help the flavor a bit.”
There are eight primal cuts of beef in the United States. They are:
Set around what is essentially the shoulder, the muscular portion of the forequarter that includes the neck, shoulder blade, and upper arm, many of the larger cuts that come from the chuck are pretty tough. If you think about it, it takes a lot of work to hold up a cow’s massive head.
These cuts are flavorful as hell and they tend to have a lot of connective tissue that makes them ideal candidates for low-and-slow tenderizing techniques, like braises or pot roast. And because this area is so fatty, the ground up chuck is ideal for burgers.
The steaks that come from this section, shoulder steaks, Denver steaks, and flatirons, are great cooked straight up on a grill or in a cast-iron skillet with some butter. Frost recommends about four-minutes per side before letting it rest. “You want meat to rest at least ten minutes,” says Frost. “Get your salad together and come back after the juices seal in.”
Read more: 8 Perfect Pot Roast Recipes
The brisket, which is one of the highlights of Central Texas barbecue as well as the cut for corned beef and Jewish holiday roasts, come from the section of the cow that sits right under the chuck. It is basically the chest of the cow, a tough, fairly fatty hunk of meat that needs to be cooked slowly to break down and tenderize. “You’re doing that whole section low and slow,” says Frost.
Read more: Our Favorite Brisket Recipes
Under the brisket in the front and the round in the back is where you’ll find the shanks. There are two shanks on each side that are essentially the animal’s thighs and biceps. It’s very tough and full of connective tissue, sort of like the brisket, but with more cartilage and less meat. It’s the cut that is most often seen in Italian osso bucco, again, braised slowly over low heat until the meat is ready to fall from the bone.
Get the recipe: Beef Shank Sauce Over Polenta
Prime rib, prime rib roast, ribeye steak, and back ribs all come off the rib section. It’s located right behind the chuck on the upper section of the forequarter. These steaks and roasts are already tender, so they don’t require the same slow cooking process as other primal cuts.
Roasts, like ribeye roasts and prime rib, should be cooked slowly to allow the meat fibers to break down, but they can handle a bit more heat than briskets for those who want to speed up the cooking process. Frost slowly cooks hers overnight in a salt and pepper crust (two-to-one kosher salt to pepper) and lets it rest for 30-minutes or so before slicing in.
The smaller steaks from this primal cut are great over high heat on a grill, or in a skillet cooked in butter. Frost suggests throwing some thyme in the pan and spooning that sizzling butter over the steak as it cooks, but do not—she repeats—do not touch the steak for several minutes. “Put it down, do something for four-minutes and come back,” she says. “Everyone moves things too much.”
Read more: Our Favorite Prime Rib Recipes
The hindquarter starts at the short loin on the top, where the some most desirable cuts come from including the Porterhouse, strip loin, strip steaks. Depending on how the cow is butchered, whether or not the tenderloin is removed separately, this section can include filet mignons or, if the tenderloin is left in-tact, T-bone steaks. These tender and lean cuts should all get cooked over high, dry heat, preferably on the grill.
Read more: Our Best Strip Steak Recipes
The section of the cow that runs right behind the short loin is the sirloin. It’s subprimal cuts include the tenderloin, the leanest and most tender cut on the whole beast. The appropriately titled loin runs perpendicular through the sirloin into the short loin where it can become a part of T-bone steaks or separated depending on the butcher’s preference.
What’s referred to as beef sirloin (i.e., sirloin steaks) runs across the top and bottom of the primal cut along the spine and towards the belly. That part is great sliced into steaks, served as a roast, or cubed up into kebabs. “They’re the most flavorful steak and most sirloins are pretty lean,” says Frost.
Read more: Our Best Sirloin Steak Recipes
“This is on the booty,” says Frost. “It’s going to have a lot of muscle and it’s going to need a low and slow to break down the fat and fibers in the meat.” Like horses, cows push their weight around from the back, so the muscles from the round are pretty lean but very tough because they get a lot of exercise.
It's broken down into two parts. The bottom round, which is where the rump roast and eye of round is cut from, is good for slow roasting, stewing and braising.
The top round (also known as inside round) is what Frost uses to make her chicken fried steak. She takes half-inch-thick slices, “beats the crap out of it with a tenderizer” until it’s about a quarter-inch thick with lots of holes, tosses it in an egg wash (with milk), double dips it in flour, salt and pepper, then tosses it in the fryer. “Some restaurants in Texas do ribeye [for their chicken fried steak],” says Frost. “I’m like, ‘Why would you do that to a poor little ribeye?’ I think that’s a waste of ribeye personally.”
Home cooks who want to try chicken-frying top round can fry it in a pan for about four-minutes per side, before letting it rest on a paper towel to catch some of the excess grease.
Get the recipe: Horseradish-Crusted Roast Beef
The flank stretches across the cow's belly underneath the short loin and the sirloin. It has tough muscle fibers and can get even tougher if it’s overcooked, but it’s a fairly straightforward cut to sear over high heat on the grill. “It’s very flavorful and grabs marinade well,” says Frost, which also helps prevent it from drying out.
She also will butterfly it, stuff it with ingredients like spinach, mushroom duxelles, and nice cheese and roll it up before tossing it over the flames.
Read more: Our Favorite Flank Steak Recipes
Skirt steaks, hanger steaks, and short ribs come from the short plate (also called “plate” or, depending on where it’s separated from the rib “long plate”). The steaks are very flavorful and fatty enough to hold up well on the grill. The short ribs can be cooked in a variety of slow methods, from braising to barbecue. “Short ribs have a lot of versatility and great fat,” says Frost. “I always turn around roast bones and make stock with them.” Since the area is pretty fatty, it also gets ground up for high-end burgers.
Read more: Our Favorite Skirt Steak Recipes
How to Store Beef
Beef that is cryovaced can last two to three weeks in the meat drawer. If it has been sealed at the manufacturer, there’s no air of bacteria getting into the packages to break down the fat and meat, causing it to spoil. Burgers and ground meat still taste basically the same after coming out of the freezer, so feel free to stock up. If you do need to stick a steak in the freezer, do not do a quick thaw. Allow it to thaw in the fridge over a couple of days. “Don’t freeze steak if you can,” says Frost. “If you have to go shopping once a week, you’re fine to keep it in your fridge.”