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Meat Buying Basics – Part 1
This article is aimed at giving some basic data to anyone who buys, cooks, or eats meat. I’ve tried to make it easily understandable, and yet give enough information to help anyone have better meat at a much lower cost.
The whole subject of meat is little understood by most people. A walk down any meat counter makes that very obvious to me. I’m often amazed to see some cut of meat “seasoned,” or “marinated,” for sale at $1 or $2 per pound more than exactly the same cut, but without the dime’s worth of seasoning making it look, “oven ready.” Anyone could accomplish exactly the same effect by using the seasonings they probably have at home, yet they’ll pay $3. or $4.00 more for that “seasoned,” 3 lb. piece of meat without really giving it any thought.
I see and hear advertisements for undoubtedly very fine steaks and ground beef, offered by specialty meat companies at 10 times what anyone could produce just as well, probably better, at home.
You’re reading this because you’ve been to:
Meat Basics 101
and have an interest in having cleaner, fresher, higher quality and generally better meat and saving money in the bargain. We hope to help you do just that.
There are 8 grades of beef, as designated by “Graders” of the U.S.D.A. (United States Department. of Agriculture) Graders evaluate the freshly killed beef, after the full side of beef hangs from a roller hook on a rail suspended from the ceiling. (Many movies have had scenes that were shot inside a large meat cooler-it looks pretty much like that in real life.) Having beef “Graded” is voluntary. The meat-packer must pay the Grader, who is an employee of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), thus you see on the stamped meat, or on the label, “USDA Choice,” or whatever the grade might be.
Without USDA in front of the grade, any description, “Choice,” Reserve,” “Select,” has no meaning. The word “Choice” alone is not misrepresentation. Anyone call anything by the word, “Choice.” A Dept. of Agriculture Grader can only perform the labeling of meat as USDA Choice, USDA Select, or whatever the grade might be. If a market isn’t advertising USDA Prime, USDA Choice or USDA Select beef, it is probably USDA Standard.
One could call USDA Standard graded beef “Choice,” or “Select,” without consequence. The line is crossed and it becomes a Federal offense to label it USDA Choice, etc., if it hasn’t been graded as such by the USDA.
The grader primarily considers the age and shape of the beef, how well the muscles are filled out, the color of the fat, the fat content, both external fat and the streaks of fat within the meat itself, which is called marbling. Adequate marbling makes the steak or roast tender and flavorful.
After evaluating the carcass, the grader rolls a stamp all along the carcass, which says one of the following: USDA Prime, USDA Choice, USDA Select, USDA Standard, USDA Commercial, USDA Utility, USDA Canner, and USDA Cutter. Usually, as grading is voluntary, meatpackers don’t want to pay for grading anything they know won’t grade above Standard or Select, and so they aren’t graded at all. The grades below Select or Standard are used for making a large variety of meat and meat based products, including lunchmeats, canned soups and stews.
Today we see advertising promoting “free range,” “grass fed,” “all natural,” beef. The prices per lb. of this meat can be staggering. It doesn’t cost much to let a steer graze right up until it’s time to go to market, although more labor is involved in moving the herds from pasture to pasture. It costs a great deal to put the same steer in a feedlot and feed it all the corn it wants for 90 days. I’ve had “grass fed” beef several times over the years, when it was unavoidable, and to this day I’ve had none that was tender, tasted “good,” or even had a flavor I could enjoy.
Grass fed “organic beef” isn’t graded, because it is of such a different standard. Some portion of the population, for whatever reason, prefers it to grain fed beef.
A Rose by Any Other Name
It’s a safe bet that Shakespeare didn’t have cuts of meat in mind when he wrote those words, but I hope he doesn’t mind that I apply them here.
Today even I have some trouble recognizing where some cut of meat in the counter came from and there’s no way to tell from some of the creative names on the label.
One night some years ago my wife served delicious, oven baked chicken wings for dinner. I commented on them and asked how she had seasoned them. “Oh, I didn’t. I bought them that way; all seasoned, at Trader Joe’s, just put them, still frozen, on a cookie sheet and put them in the oven for 40 minutes. They’re called “Buffalo Wings.”
To my question about the price, she responded, “I don’t care about that. They’re very fast and easy, and I didn’t want to think about cooking when I got home.”
I later found the package they had come in and couldn’t believe the price per lb. she had paid for the seasoned wings, but a wise man goes no further in such a conversation.
The next time I happened to notice chicken wings on sale I bought 10 lbs. I cut the tips off, cut through the joint separating the “flapper” from the “drumstick,” seasoned them with whatever sounded good from the spice rack and put them on a cookie sheet to individually freeze. After an hour or so, I put how many I thought we’d use at a meal, in a sandwich bag, put several sandwich bags inside a large Zip Lock bag, which went back in the freezer. In the 20 minutes that took, I saved about $20. They were juicier, fresher, and considerably better tasting “Hot Wings” than those she had paid so much for out of the frozen food counter. Just take a bag out of the freezer, spread them on a cookie sheet, and in 40 minutes at 375 degrees, they’re ready for dinner.
“Buffalo Wings” wouldn’t sell for nearly as much if they were simply called what they are, “Seasoned Chicken Wings.” “Boneless Buffalo Wings” honestly called “Strips of seasoned Chicken Breast,” would probably fail to sell. “Baby Back Ribs” properly named “Pork Loin Rib Bones” wouldn’t be nearly as attractive. “Bone-in Rib Eye Steak” factually a “Rib Steak,” would command less money. “Bone-in New York Steak,” or “Shell Steak,” called by what it really is, “T-Bone Steak, with the Filet Mignon Portion Removed,” would probably just annoy people, and would have no chance of selling for a fair price. Marketing terms and labels on cuts of meat are meant to make the cut of meat seem more valuable; not to tell us what it is.
With the notion that fat is generally “bad,” even the USDA changed the wording from “USDA Grade Good,” to “USDA Select.” Choice beef, containing more fat, more marbling, and thus better flavor and tenderness, fell out of favor. The less fat “Good” apparently needed a more marketable name and now we have USDA Select instead of what was formerly USDA Good.
Change occurs more and more quickly in every field today, and the marketing of meat is no exception. The profit margin in the meat department of a supermarket is extremely small. A manager once pointed out to me that the difference between our meat department showing a profit or a loss for a 3 month period amounted to 1 penny per package of meat sold. For example if we got $2.19, for a given package of meat, we made a profit. If we sold the same package for $2.18, we had a loss.
There is a constant effort to find ways to reduce costs and to market cuts of meat in some way that will produce a little more profit.
Centralization in meatpacking and specialization has evolved to its current state for the cost savings. Some years ago, quarters of beef were commonly shipped from the local slaughterhouse and delivered to super markets where they broken down into primal cuts and used for steaks, roasts, etc., as needed. Today the carcasses are already broken into primal cuts, generally boneless, vacuum-sealed in plastic, boxed and shipped to supermarkets. The boxes arriving at the market contain top rounds, bottom rounds, eyes of round, top loin strips, or what have you, each within the sealed plastic. The meat cutter has only to un-wrap and slice for it to be ready for the counter.
I recently saw a meat rail in the meat department of an old supermarket. Having not seen a meat rail in many years, I asked the meat cutter if they got their beef in quarters.
“No,” he said regrettably, “None of us would even know how to break down a quarter of beef.”
Full cut round steaks and bone-in rump roasts, are things of the past. Instead the rounds are cut into top round steak, bottom round steak or roast, and eye of the round steaks or roasts.
We have cross rib steaks or cross rib roasts or shoulder clod roast and English short ribs from what used to be a round bone roast.
“Tri-tip” was once the tail of the sirloin tip and the top sirloin. If you couldn’t get away with leaving it attached to those steaks, you could only turn into hamburger, stew meat, or possibly run it through the tenderizer and call it “cube steaks” to be fried as chicken fried steaks.
Sides and Quarters of Beef
A side of beef consists of four quarters. When the beef has been dressed, skinned, shrouded (wrapped tightly in white cloth while hanging on the rail), and has cooled over night, it is split down the middle, becoming two sides of beef. The front quarters are cut across and through the side of beef, 12 ribs up from the bottom, the neck end of the hanging side. The two hind quarters remain.
Primal Cuts of the Front Quarter
Sections of the beef are categorized into what are called “Primals.”
The front quarter primals are:
1) The Chuck, which includes the neck,
2) Cross Rib, or Shoulder, which includes the front shank,
“The plate” runs from the bottom of the rib, to the lower edge of the front quarter. The brisket is located under the front shank and runs from there to the end of the front quarter. The point of the brisket is quite fatty, and has two large knots of fat within the meat. As the brisket runs along the lower edge of the front quarter it becomes leaner and leaner. The lean end is generally referred to as the “Plate of the Brisket.”
Primal Cuts of the Hind Quarter
1) The Round: includes the rear shank, sirloin tip and rump.
2) Loin: includes both the head loin and the short loin.
3) Head Loin: left whole would be the full sirloin steak. The head loin is nearly always boned out to become Top Sirloin steak, Fillet steaks or Fillet Mignon. The large end of the fillet begins at the head loin, and continues on down the short loin, tapering as it goes until it disappears. I’ve not seen a Sirloin Steak in at least 30 years. We used to slice through the entire head loin, giving a huge steak, which included a big slice of bone, the large full top sirloin and the fillet. One of those on the Barbie grill pretty well filled it up.
4) Short Loin: runs from the head loin to the end of the hind quarter. Where it ends is where the rib begins on the front quarter. The short loin sliced into steaks becomes Porterhouse steaks at the large end, next to the head loin, then T-Bone steaks, with the smaller and tapering fillet. Where the fillet has disappeared entirely is sometimes called Club, or Shell steaks. Boned out, the short loin is cut into New York steaks, also called Top Loin steaks, Club steaks, Shell steaks, or by whatever name happens to sell well at that location.
5) Flank: Is a large flap fat and meat that contains one flank steak, and meat that is best used as hamburger or stew meat.
Lately I’ve seen much attention called to the fact that the rib steak, bone-in or bone out, is more flavorful than any other steak on the beef. The T-Bone and Porterhouse steaks aren’t often seen anymore. This is because the loin of the beef, which runs from just past the rump to where the rib begins, is de-boned, or partially de-boned. Instead of a huge full bone-in Sirloin Steak, Porterhouse and T-bone steaks, as it would be if the bone were left in, with the bone removed we have a full Fillet (The full fillet, below the bone, is cut into fillet mignon steaks. Mignon is a French word meaning petite) Top Sirloin Steak, and the short loin strip, also commonly called a New York strip. I’ve never heard a Fillet Mignon called by any other name, but the New York steak is now commonly called a variety of names, including Shell steak or Strip steak, and whatever else the marketing fellows might come up with.
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