But first, let’s conduct a little thought experiment.
Imagine that steaks are cars. Juicy, sizzling, delicious cars. There are many different makes, and these are the cuts. Flank, rump, chuck and cube are the Chevys, Fords, Hyundais and Kias of the steak world. They get you from point A to point B, but they’re nothing extraordinary. They won’t get much attention, and you aren’t especially excited to tell your friends about them. Fine for the masses, but we’re looking for a first class experience.
We only concern ourselves with the three premium cuts of steak here at Flawless Steaks: Ribeye, Strip and Tenderloin Filet.
Think Mercedes Benz, BMW and Porsche.
A quick drive around the block is all a driver needs to see that even the cheapest Mercedes is a better car than the most expensive Kia. But even within the Benz world there is quite a range in quality. A recent ad campaign proudly declares that their entry-level model is available for under $35,000. On the other end of the spectrum, a wealthy customer can drop over $100,000 on a top-of-the-line G-Class. While their entry-level is still a great car, if you park these two next to each other, there’s really no comparison.
So where’s the beef?
OK, the point is this: While the Filet, Ribeye and Strip are the best cuts of steak, there are “trim levels” that can make a huge difference from one steak to the next. The good news is that understanding the difference is exceedingly simple.
In the US, the USDA has developed a grading system to separate the best tasting meat from the rest of the pack. The USDA grading system is quite a fascinating bit of science in its own right, and you’re welcome to read more about it here. But we’re here to cut through the noise and give it to you straight.
The USDA grading system accounts for two factors:
- Marbling – Formally called Intra-Muscular Fat (IMF), marbling is the amount of fat you can see within the main part(s) of the muscle that makes up the steak. The more the better.
- Maturity (the age of the steer) to determine the quality grade. As cattle age, their meat becomes progressively less tender and, thus, less tasty.
As with all things 21st century, the grading is highly dependent on technology. According to the USDA’s website, their software snaps photos of thousands of cattle a day all over the country, analyzing them to determine the quality and ultimately assigning one of three grades to the steak you may purchase at the local grocery store:
- The lowest grade of meat you’ll find in the meat section.
- The least marbled steak you’ll find in a steak at your grocery store. The term the USDA uses is “slight” marbling. This results in a steak that is not very juicy or tender.
- Young cattle aged between 9 and 30 months. This is generally good, but the scant fat content isn’t enough to outweigh the benefit. Generally, you need fat marbling to make a great steak.
- Bottom line: You may be able to enjoy a USDA Choice tenderloin filet (cooked medium rare, of course) because it’s so naturally tender, but if you’re looking for a flawless steak, avoid USDA Select grade.
- The most common grade of meat you’ll find in the meat section. In most cases, this is also the highest grade meat you’ll be able to find locally.
- A wide range of marbling, anywhere from “small” to “slightly abundant”, you will find USDA choice to be hit or miss. When buying USDA Choice, look for more heavily marbled cuts (read on for a great tip below).
- Cattle aged anywhere from 9 to 96 months (and possibly more).
- Bottom line: You can find some great USDA Choice steaks, but because of the wide range of marbling and age, it’s worth digging through the selection and shopping around to find the better looking cuts.
- The highest grade of meat. Very difficult to find in local grocery stores. (Not to worry. You can order prime steaks online and have them shipped right to your door.)
- The most densely marbled steak in the USDA lineup, either “slightly abundant” or “abundant”. If it’s USDA prime, it’s roughly in the top 5% of all meat graded in the country.
Young cattle aged 9 to 42 months.
- Bottom line: When you taste a prime steak, the superior texture and tenderness will make you a believer. In our opinion, a premium grade is worth a premium price.
The reality is that getting a flawless steak depends on more than just marbling. You can start with a high-end prime steak but if you perform some horrific experiment with grandma Sue’s famous barbecue rub or if you cook it well done because you “don’t want your food to moo”, you’ll destroy it and embarrass yourself in the process.
But the grade does matter, and while we will often enjoy a lovely USDA Choice steak, there’s truly no comparison: the USDA Prime grade is heads and shoulders above their other two grades, and the only one with the potential to become a truly flawless steak.
American Wagyu Beef: The Wildcard
So we’ve learned that the USDA grading system measures Intra-Muscular Fat (IMF), and that only steaks with the USDA’s highest-recognized level of marbling (what they call “abundant” marbling) is eligible for the USDA Prime seal.
But what if there was something even better?
Well, since you asked…
Meet American Wagyu. Typically cross-bred between an Angus and a Japanese Wagyu, the steer are genetically pre-disposed to copious amounts of IMF. Generally, these heavily marbled steaks have 50-100% higher IMF than USDA Prime. This makes them incredibly juicy and tender. If it’s not already there, a Wagyu steak should be placed firmly ahead of skydiving on your bucket list.
Wagyu beef is not a USDA grade; it is relatively unregulated in the US. Considering that it’s one of the most expensive steaks you can buy, it’s really important to buy Wagyu beef from a trusted source. When we’re in the mood for one, we go to Snake River Farms. We love them because we’re buying from the same people who actually breed and raise the cattle in the high plains of Idaho. There’s no middle-man, so we have a lot of confidence that we’re getting a great product every time.
At the end of the day, marbling matters. Heavily marbled steak from a young steer give you the best experience. Thankfully, grading systems are there to make your life easy. If you want a flawless steak, go with USDA Prime or splurge on a Snake River Farms American Wagyu steak. You will be ruined for anything else.
A Few Tips:
Marbled Steak Selection Tip #1:
When examining the marbling of the meat, imagine the red meat is land and the fat content is water. You’re looking for a piece of meat that looks like wetlands or a river delta. If you’re staring at a piece of marbled steak in the grocery store and it reminds you of the everglades, take it home and grill it up. You won’t be disappointed.
Marbled Steak Selection Tip #2:
Find a grocer or butcher shop that consistently gets good quality, heavily marbled steak. If you can’t find USDA prime or wagyu beef locally (which is very common because of how rare these grades are), we highly recommend ordering from a premium steak supplier such as The Chicago Steak Company or Snake River Farms.