In the first part of our Steak Guide, we discussed what a steak is (and isn’t), the related terminology, and what cuts of beef we recommend that you buy. The question remains, then: how should you go about buying your steak? This second part in the series answers that question, letting you know where and how to buy steak in order to get the highest quality product for your money.
Getting Started with Buying Your Steak
The first step to buying a great steak is to look at the components we discussed in Part I of this guide, in order to determine your preferred cut–whether that be a ribeye, a tenderloin, a New York Strip, a sirloin, or a t-bone or porterhouse.
Second, you look at the flavor profile. Is it grass-fed is it grain-fed or maybe grain fed with grass finish? Of course the size and the thickness of the steak are also very important. Most grocery-store steaks are usually cut very thin, while most chefs prefer a 1- to 2-inch thickness. At the end of the day, you should choose something that you’re comfortable cooking, because both can be over- and under-cooked. In our experience, we recommend slightly thicker cut steaks, as they preserve a bit of that nice pink area inside when prepared medium-rare.
Measure the Marbling – The USDA Grading Scale
A huge factor to consider when buying a steak is the amount of marbling, which is basically the amount of intramuscular fat. The marbling of steak can vary considerably depending on the cut you choose as well as the quality level of beef that you get. In the United States, the USDA has a grading system for beef that’s pretty universal; there are three main categories: USDA Select, Choice, and Prime. These three grading categories are simply based on the amount of marbling present in the beef. USDA Select is considered to be the lowest grade of steak you can get, but it’s therefore also the leanest one.
Approximately 40% of all steaks are categorized as USDA Select. The next class up is USDA Choice, which will already have a higher degree of fine marbling visible; large chunks of fat are undesirable, because they won’t melt when you grill or sear a steak. Choice is the only category that is further sub-categorized into three: these sub-categorizations are small marbling, moderate marbling, and modest marbling. Small marbling represents approximately 37% of all steaks, modest marbling approximately 15%, and moderate marbling approximately 5%. Reigning supreme at the top of the USDA scale is the Prime steak. It’s the most flavorful choice, having the largest amount of marbling. Only about 3% of all steaks are graded as USDA Prime.
What About Grass-fed Beef?
Though it has become a desirable term (and something of a “buzz-word”) among consumers these days, we feel it’s important to note that “grass-fed” is not a protected or regulated term to any degree; thus, it can mean anything from a cow that ate just a tiny bit of grass to one that ate nothing but grass. As such, it really pays to understand where your grass-fed beef is coming from, and what the breeders are actually doing and feeding to their cattle. In general, grass-fed beef is leaner and has less intramuscular fat, simply because grass is not as energy-dense as grain. Also, grazing cows walk more than their grain-fed counterparts.
In recent years, grass-fed beef has become increasingly popular, touted by many as the healthy choice in steaks due to its higher amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids. While this claim is true when comparing the amount of Omega-3 in grass-fed steak to conventional grain-fed cuts, the overall amount still pales in comparison to other foods. For example, a 3.5-ounce piece of sirloin steak that is grass-fed has about 80 milligrams of Omega-3; at the same time, a traditional or conventional grain-fed piece of beef of the same size and cut has about half that, at 40 milligrams. Comparing both of these cuts to a 3.5-ounce piece of salmon, we find that the salmon contains 1000 to 2000 milligrams of Omega-3, meaning you’ll get about 12 to 25 times as much in the same portion.
What does this mean in practice? While it’s true that the consumer will get more Omega-3 fatty acids with grass-fed beef, we suggest that you simply enjoy the occasional piece of salmon every once in a while, and stick with traditional grain-fed beef; thus, you’ll continue to enjoy the more complex flavors of grain-fed beef when indulging in a steak, while still maintaining a diet that is richer in Omega-3 overall. That being said: as we discussed previously, grass-fed cattle are more often raised under more humane conditions; fewer antibiotics are used, and the cattle are allowed to roam and graze rather than being confined to tight-fitting pens, with the added benefit that such conditions lead to less environmental pollution. All this being said, grass-fed steaks do have a distinct flavor that some people enjoy or even prefer. At the end of the day, it’s a personal choice which you must make for yourself, and there’s no right or wrong answer.
What About Angus Steaks?
Certified Angus is a term that you’ll often see in restaurants or grocery stores, but stated simply, it refers to a specific cattle breed, not a quality grading. Angus or Aberdeen Angus is a breed of Scottish cattle that is smaller than the typical American cattle. As it is a breed and not a grading, Angus steaks can be graded under the USDA system discussed above, just as is the case with non-Angus beef. The breed has been around in the US for quite a while; the American Angus Association was founded in Chicago in 1883, though interestingly, it took them until 1978 to come up with the Certified Angus beef standard. The purpose behind this certification was simply to promote the idea of a higher-quality beef. In order to meet the Certified Angus standard, the cow in question must be 51% black in color and exhibit Angus influence, which includes simmental cattle and cross-breeds. Other necessary criteria include higher-than-average marbling, a carcass size of under 1000 pounds, and a certain hump size.
With that being said, it’s worth keeping in mind that even McDonald’s serves Certified Angus beef. In our opinion, most people would not be able to discern a tenderloin of Certified Angus beef from a tenderloin that is not Certified Angus in a blind test, whereas a great many people would immediately be able to tell the difference between (for example) a Select-grade tenderloin and a Prime tenderloin. As with the differences between grass-fed and grain-fed beef, the difference in flavor (however marginal it may be) is yours to seek out if you prefer it.
What About Japanese Beef?
Given that these terms have also risen to greater popularity in recent years, let’s aim to answer the question of what characteristics are displayed by Kobe and Wagyu beef, and whether or not these Japanese cuts are worth your money. Stated simply, Kobe is a Japanese black cattle breed; more specifically, one of the Tajima substrain. It is fed on grain fodder, with a feeding period which is considerably longer than in the US (typically 26 to 32 months, as opposed to just 18). Kobe beef also has a much higher degree of intramuscular fat, the melting point of which is also much lower by comparison–meaning that when you eat it, it melts in your mouth like butter.
There are only about 3000 cattle that qualify annually as authentic Kobe beef, and the best of them are never exported from Japan. Kobe grades go from a 1 at the low end to a 5 at the highest end. In the US, there are only a handful of restaurants that even offer a 5 grade Kobe beef. With this degree of exclusivity in mind, know that anything outside of these 3000 annually imported cattle are not the real deal, but rather a crossbreed between the Tajima strain and Angus cattle or other cattle in the US. In other words: whenever you are at the grocery store in the US and you see something advertised as Kobe beef, know that it’s simply not the real thing. If you are at a restaurant which touts that it does happen to serve genuine Kobe beef, it will cost you anywhere from $40 to $60 per ounce to enjoy such a steak–almost $2 per gram. While there are, in fact, some American Kobe beef breeders who have not crossbred their cattle, and they have them DNA tested to have them certified by the American Wagyu Association, we would generally urge you not to overpay for this American-style Kobe beef (especially when in a restaurant), because you can never see the raw product.
In our experience, Kobe beef is so fatty that you really don’t need more than two to three ounces per serving; personally, I once had it when I was in Japan, and it’s an entirely different experience from an American steak. I wouldn’t even call it the same thing–it’s really more like flavorful butter rather than the steak experience that you’re used to. So, should you buy the American Wagyu or Kobe beef that is advertised all over the place? Just keep in mind that it’s a crossbreed, and while it usually results in a higher amount of fat, it’s not regulated, so you really don’t know what you’re getting unless you can trust the source.
Another Japanese beef variety that has become more popular recently in the US is so-called Akaushi beef. It’s actually a form of Japanese brown cattle, as opposed to black. In 1994, a Texas Ranger imported 11 purebred Akaushi cattle to the US, taking care to keep them separate from any American cattle to prevent crossbreeding. Today, that farm has over 5,000 head of Akaushi cattle. Typically, Akaushi steaks have even more marbling than USDA Prime steaks, and as such, are often priced higher (though you may occasionally be able to find a sale). Personally, I like the taste of it, and I think it’s a good alternative. So, the next time you come across a cut of Akaushi beef, maybe give it a try and see if you like it.
Where to Buy Your Steaks
Of course, once you know what kind of beef you like, you have to decide where you intend to buy it.
Typically, the lowest-quality steak is always precut at the grocery store and shrink-wrapped. You have to hope that they didn’t falsify the packaging date, but keep in mind that–as we discussed in Part I–aging beef is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as it’s not spoiled. Alternatively, you can have your piece of meat cut at the grocery store’s meat counter, which has the considerable advantage that you can get exactly the piece of meat you want, in the exact thickness.
Butcher Shop & Farmer’s Market
Another great source for your steaks is the local butcher shop. While there are chains of butchers, visiting a chain makes it harder to know where things are coming from. Conversely, if you go to an independently owned butcher, they can usually tell you exactly where their cattle is coming from, what breed it is, and why they chose it. Best of all, you can even have your local butcher dry-age certain beef cuts to your exact specifications, ensuring the flavor profile that you most enjoy. Additionally, you can also buy meat from a local farmer’s market; the benefits of this option are that you’ll be able to get to know the farmer well with repeated shopping (as well as learn what his cattle-raising and preparatory techniques are), and be secure in the knowledge that all the money you’re paying goes to him, and not to some marketing or logistics scheme.
When it comes to specialty steaks–especially American-style Wagyu or other very high-end and expensive cuts–you can also buy them online. These cuts will likely come to you in Styrofoam boxes, packed in dry ice to prevent spoiling. You can buy online with confidence; that being said, it’s our experience that the prices you’ll pay for that kind of service are quite high for the quality that you’ll receive.
At the end of the day, what kind of steak you buy is entirely up to you. If you go to the grocery store, you’ll likely get the lowest overall price, whereas if you go to your local farmer or butcher, you will probably learn more about where your meat is coming from and what you’re eating. Also, if you like the taste of dry-aged beef, you’ll most often have to go to a butcher shop, or to someone else who really knows how to handle it; it’s not something you can do in your fridge at home.
Finally, here are a few other tips we recommend when selecting your steaks:
- How do you know whether a steak is aged so it’s really tender? I always find that if I use my finger and I push into the meat and the meat stays down it is tender, and will remain so once it’s cooked or grilled. Typically, grocery-store steaks are not aged as long, and will spring back immediately when subjected to this “push test.”
- It’s worth noting that cattle that is stressed out before it’s slaughtered will have meat that tastes differently and feels tougher than meat from cattle that was relaxed at the time of slaughter–ergo, asking local sellers of meat about their techniques is often a desirable course of action.
- If you and your family are frequent meat eaters, consider buying in larger quantities, such as a half or quarter of a cow. As beef can be frozen and defrosted for individual meals (and in fact, many chefs argue that beef that has been frozen cooks up better than fresher beef from the refrigerator), buying in bulk may be a cost-effective solution for the more carnivorous consumer.
With the information we’ve presented here, you should now be able to enter your local butcher shop or grocery store as a confident and well-informed customer, and come home with your desired cut(s) of beef. This is just the middle part of the process to enjoying a great steak, however; after procuring your cuts, you’ve still got to know how to cook them properly. To learn more about this final (and perhaps most important) part of the experience, consult the final part of this Steak Guide; Part III deals with cooking and serving techniques. Additionally, you can go back to reference Part I, which covers basic terminology and our top five preferred cuts. Bon Appétit!
This steak guide was written by Preston Schlueter, incorporating previous writings by Sven Raphael Schneider.