I am a big fan of good quality beef. I love the center cuts of the animal from the loin and the rib sections. One of the great things about living in Las Vegas is that you can grill year-round. The meat cuts with the words loin or rib are always the ones that catch my eye and make me lick my lips. Usually when I buy a good quality steak I try to get one that has been graded by the Agricultural Marketing Service, a division of the Department of Agriculture that is responsible to check the quality of cotton and tobacco, dairy, fruits and vegetables, livestock and seed and poultry. This service is not performed for free; the agriculture owner is responsible for the costs associated with grading. For this reason not all products are graded, which is not required. Inspection, the process used to make sure products are wholesome and safe to eat, is required of all products except for fish and shellfish.
Meat graders charge between $66 and $79 per hour to grade and this cost is passed on to the customer to offset the extra money spent. This is why farmers will not grade every animal, only the ones raised to be of a higher quality. There are 8 grades of beef, but the only ones anyone will pay for are the top three: Prime, Choice and Select. A good portion of the meat raised will not get a grade and are called “no-roll” due to the grader not rolling the ink stamp saying which grade was met. Of all the cows and steers raised, 1.8% will be rolled with a Prime stamp on it. Within Prime and Choice there are three levels of meat: plus, even and minus. The next grade is Choice which accounts for 38% of the beef carcasses. The third quality is Select which accounts for 15.5% of the cattle. 3.2% will grade below this and 41.5% will not be graded. Make sure that you are aware the cut of “Prime Rib” is not necessarily Prime; it was named as a marketing ploy to try to upsell the cut. Chefs usually call it a standing rib roast since not all ribs are Prime.
If a store is going to pay extra for a graded piece of meat they will always put the grade on the label, so if you do not see any of the three grades it probably was not graded at all. Very few retail outlets package the Choice cuts in Styrofoam and then put them in the self-service meat section; they will usually put the Choice cuts in the meat case. Prime cuts of meat are usually not available at typical supermarkets. Although they might be available at butcher shops, the bulk of this grade is sold to the restaurant industry.
The factors for grading are very simple, but a novice would have a hard time grading meat quickly, which when you are paying by the hour you want to have the grader work as quickly as possible. After the animal is slaughtered, it is cut in half from neck to rear hoof. The next step is to cut the animal between the 12th and 13th rib, creating the forequarter front and hindquarter rear. The grader will look at the eye of the rib and discern the grade by the internal marbling, amount of kidney fat and the age of the animal, which the grader can tell by the ossification of the cartilage seen around the cut. 30 months is the oldest age for the best grade.
One of the worst things that you can do when you buy expensive meat is to overcook it or cook it improperly, which will allow all of the fat and juices to seep out during the cooking process. As I talked about in one of my first columns I am into using sous vide cooking to avoid getting foods to too high of a temperature while cooking, but still maintaining a bacteria-safe cooking zone. One method to cook a higher quality steak is to sous vide cook it at about 130 degrees for up to 2 hours and then finish cooking it in a hot skillet. Cast iron works very well for this. If you do not have a sous vide cooker another method is to start with a steak that has come to room temperature and put it in a 250 degree oven for about 45 minutes until it reaches an internal temperature of 125 degrees and then finish it the same way in a hot skillet. This method helps avoid the internally marbled fat from melting out of the meat and creates an evenly cooked steak from the outside to the center.