Beef is available in many cuts of varying tenderness and quality. According to USDA standards, beef is graded as Prime, Choice, and Select. Prime is mainly sold to restaurants and some specialty markets. Choice and Select (the leanest) are readily available to consumers.
All beef must pass USDA inspection based on the age and health of the animal and the appearance and cut of meat after processing.
Some cattle, usually steers, are more desirable than others for producing quality beef. Top breeds include Angus and Charolais. It is helpful to know which part of the cow you are buying to understand why beef is tender or tough.
Loin – This portion of the cow is very tender and more expensive. Familiar names include fillet, tenderloin, T-bone, Porterhouse, and sirloin.
Chuck – This is from the shoulder and neck and tends to be more muscled and tough, but excels in flavor. These meats benefit from marinating, and slow cooking. Cuts include roasts, stew meat, top blade steak, and ground chuck.
Rib – Meat around the rib section is tender with good marbling. While these may not always reach the “prime” classification, they are sold in stores as prime rib.
Round – This section is actually the back of the cow. Because it is well-muscled, these cuts will be tougher than most.
Breast/Flank – The breast and flank area produce steaks, short ribs, and brisket. Some of these are tough.
Miscellaneous/Specialty – All other parts of a cow fall into this grouping including tongue, liver, and bones.
Beef (with the exception of ground) should be firm to the touch. Any signs of graying, sliminess, or fat that has yellowed means the meat is past its prime. Aged and vacuum-packed beef products are always darker than commercially packaged types.
Marbling adds flavor and tenderness to cooked meats. In lesser-quality cuts, the white veining will be tough and stringy or nonexistent.
When cooking within 2-3 days after purchase, leave beef in its original wrapper. Check for leakage and double wrap or place on a tray if necessary. Roasts and steaks should be used or frozen within 4 days; hamburger within 2 days.
Don’t be alarmed if a package of hamburger is grayish in the middle. Beef reacts to oxygen in the air, which gives it a deeper coloration.
To freeze, remove from package and double wrap –first in a layer of heavy-duty foil, then a freezer bag. Beef will keep in the freezer for several months. However, check occasionally for signs of crystal formation and freezer burn. If frozen beef begins to deteriorate, thaw and cook immediately.
• Always defrost meat completely for even and thorough cooking.
• Thin strips of beef are easier to slice if the meat is partially frozen. If it is fresh, place in the freezer for about 20 minutes.
• After cooking, let beef stand for at least five minutes (longer for larger pieces). The juices will have time to spread throughout the meat instead of running onto the plate or platter.
• Cook whole beef to 145 degrees and ground meat to 160 degrees.
• Frozen meat can be easily defrosted in the microwave. Rotate often to keep the edges from cooking.