Understanding USDA Steak Grades for Grilling
For the most part, grillers are a carnivorous crowd. In fact, "how to grill a steak” tops the list of online food searches in the grilling category. So, what type of steak is the best grilling cut? What grade of beef works best on the barbecue? The answer: It depends on the recipe. Take a little time to familiarize yourself with the grades of beef and the different cuts. Buying the right piece of meat - not the most expensive piece - is what makes the meal perfect.
Grading: All beef is inspected for wholesomeness by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and is graded for quality. Here’s the USDA grading breakdown:
USDA Prime – Best quality grade given by the USDA. Prime is produced from young, well-fed beef cattle. It has abundant marbling and is generally sold in high-end steakhouses or butcher shops. Prime roasts and steaks are excellent for dry-heat cooking (grilling or roasting). Less than three percent of all beef qualifies as USDA Prime.
USDA Choice – Just below Prime on the scale. Choice is high quality, but has less marbling than Prime. Choice roasts and steaks from the loin and rib will be very tender, juicy, and flavorful and are, like Prime, suited to dry-heat cooking. Many of the less tender cuts, such as those from the rump, round, and blade chuck, can also be cooked with dry heat if not overcooked. Groceries and restaurants most commonly advertise Choice.
USDA Select – Lower on the quality grade scale, Select is normally leaner than the higher grades. It is fairly tender, but, because it has less marbling, may lack the juiciness and flavor of the higher grades. Only the tender cuts (loin, rib, sirloin) are best for dry heat cooking. Other cuts should be marinated before cooking or braised to obtain maximum tenderness.
Hot Tip: Note: When shopping for steaks, if it doesn’t say Prime, Choice or Select on the sticker, it usually means the product received a Standard grade. Standard grade beef has only traces of marbling or is practically devoid of marbling. While it may appear economical, it likely will not be very flavorful.
Marbling: This plays a big role in quality grades (as mentioned above) because the more marbling you have, the more flavor. Marbling is the name for the white flecks of fat in the beef. Higher amounts of marbling also protect beef from overcooking and make the meat juicier. In turn, you are less likely to dry the meat out over high heat.
Most Popular Cuts for the Grill When shopping for steaks, choose ones that have a bright red color, without any grayish or brown spots, and are firm to the touch. Here are the best-selling cuts of beef and a few details about each. None of these require much in the way of marinades or tenderizing because they have enough internal marbling to cook up moist and tender.
Ribeye: This steak is very well marbled, full of flavor, tender and great for grilling. It is also often referred to as a Delmonico steak. It is one of the richest tasting and beefier cuts available. The center of the steak is smooth textured and has a fine grain, while the outer parts tend to have more fat (more flavor) and a looser grain.
NY Strip: This is a rectangular strip steak that ’is lean and full-flavored. It has a tight texture with a definite grain, which means strip steaks are moderately tender, but still have a bit of chew. With good marbling and a strong beefy flavor, it's not as robust as a ribeye, but much easier to trim with no large pockets of fat, making it an easy-to-cook, easy-to-eat cut.
Beef Tenderloin (Filet Mignon): Lightly marbled with fat, this cut has the mildest flavor of all four. The meat is extremely tender and it has a buttery texture which makes it very desirable. If you are looking for a low-fat cut or prize tenderness above all-else, this is the cut for you. It’s also great wrapped in bacon – but most things are…
While all of these steaks will taste terrific with even the simplest of preparations, have fun experimenting with rubs and marinades to add layers of flavors. And don’t forget that cooking juicy steaks also requires great equipment. Check out what these TRU-Infrared grills can do.
- The Cattle Pages, the Internet guide to the cattle industry, reports that beef is the number one source of zinc in the human diet in the United States.
- The Steak Enthusiast, sponsored by the Kansas City Steak Co., reports that grilling is an exceptionally healthy method of cooking steak and other kinds of meat because excess fat drains away rather than being consumed.
- The Chicago Meet Authority explains where the name steak actually originated from: When the Saxons and the Jutes, who lived in what is now known as Denmark, conquered Great Britain, they brought with them skills as cattlemen. The Saxon word STEIK means meat on a stick. The Saxons liked to cook their beef on a pointed stick over a campfire.
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