Megan Webb small

It is important to have a powerful toolbox of beef connoisseur skills when it is time to impress guests this Holiday Season. Beef grading, selection, and cookery skills will win over the most trivial guest’s mind and palate! Here are some handy tools:

USDA Beef Grading

Just like being a good steward of the land, recognizing beef attributes responsible for influencing eating experience is critical. Beef products that have been voluntarily USDA quality graded are marketed by marbling superiority as USDA Prime, Choice, and Select. The majority of U.S. beef products are graded USDA Choice (70.7%), Select (17.9%), and Prime (7.9%); the other 3.4% is ungraded or called “No-Roll” (USDA, 2018). When grading beef, the USDA grader evaluates carcasses between the 12th and 13th rib for lean maturity, firmness, texture, and color as well as the amount and distribution of marbling.

Marbling, or distribution of white flecks of intramuscular fat, is important because increasing levels result in improved beef palatability and flavor. Any product labeled as Average to High Choice or Certified Angus Beef has a degree of marbling between Modest to Moderate. Whereas Low Choice requires a Small degree of marbling and is only assigned to animals 42 months of age or younger. The USDA Prime quality grade also has variations in the degree of marbling ranging from the lowest, Slightly Abundant to the highest, Abundant.

The second most important characteristics when determining USDA quality grade is carcass maturity. However, less than a year ago, the USDA grading standards allowed dentition or age documentation to supersede the skeletal ossification to determine animal maturity or biological age. The “A” maturity carcasses are the youngest classification being 30 months of age or less. They can be classified in any of the aforementioned USDA quality grades dependent on marbling. The “B” maturity carcasses are between 30 to 42 months of age and can be graded as USDA Prime, Choice, and Standard. Carcasses with dentition or documentation showing maturity 42 months or more can be classified as C, D, or E maturity and can only be either USDA Commercial, Utility, or Cutter with decreasing degrees of marbling.

Selecting for Satisfaction

family at beef counter

With so many options in the retail case, it is important to have a plan for your desired meal and there are many options to fit within a budget. When developing this plan, first consider the amount of time available for cooking. For faster meal preparation time, select steaks from muscles that are used for support such as the rib and loin that have a low amount of connective tissue. These steaks can be cooked quicker using dry-heat methods at temperatures of 350F or higher including: broiling, grilling, oven roasting, skillet cooking, and stir frying. Cooking with these methods causes browning or a caramelized reaction combining heat, amino acid proteins, carbohydrates or sugars.

Retail Cuts for Dry-Heat Cookery

There are several types of steaks desired for this cooking method including: flat iron, porterhouse, T-bone, top sirloin, strip, and tri-tip steak. My personal favorite is the ribeye steak because it is a tender, flavorful cut currently retailing around $8.00 per lb. (USDA, 2018). A leaner steak option is the Filet Mignon from the tenderloin roast. It is 170 calories per 3 oz serving, is the most tender cut in the carcass, and retails around $15.00 per lb. (USDA, 2018). All beef provides 10 essential nutrients that support a healthy lifestyle and are packed with protein, zinc, iron, and B vitamins.

Retail Cuts for Moist-Heat Cookery

If more time is available for cooking, utilizing muscles from the chuck or round can be used. These cuts are used for locomotion and inherently have greater amounts of collagen that will need to be broken down. The “low and slow” cooking method cooks products in a closed container with liquid. The steam produced in the closed container transitions collagen to gelatin and results in a tender, moist product. Examples of moist-heat cookery include: braising, pot roasting, and stewing. For slow cooker recipes visit:

Table of temps for beef cooking

Retail Cuts for Moist-Heat Cookery

Examples of these cuts include: chuck roast, short ribs, bottom round roast and steak, and brisket. The brisket, tri-tip roast, and whole ribeye with external or seam fat remaining are ideal for smoking to lock-in moisture. For information about all cuts of beef, recipes, cooking, and nutrition visit:

Thermometer beef

Avoiding the Biggest Missed Steak, Improper Degree of Doneness After all the selection and cookery advice, the most critical component is the final step, determining the desired degree of doneness for the consumer. Of course ground beef is an exception, which needs to be cooked to a minimum of 160F to ensure no potential pathogenic bacteria exists due to greater surface area exposure. Since steaks are whole muscle cuts and are sterile on the interior, they can be cooked as low as 145F. In addition to food safety, identifying the desired temperature for each consumer’s palate will ensure a satisfiable eating experience. The only way to consistently target the desired degree of doneness is to use a meat thermometer. The chart below is helpful to correspond temperature with degree of doneness:

When Using a Thermometer Lift the product off the heating element and from the side, place the thermometer into the thickest part of the burger or steak. This will avoid an inaccurate read from the tip of the thermometer being too close to the heating element. Check product temperature periodically and pull the product off around 7-8 degrees (variable by product thickness and temperature of the heating element) prior to the end target temperature. The product will continue to cook, so leave the thermometer in the product, and allow the product to rise to the target temperature. Once met, allow the product to rest 4 to 5 minutes prior to cutting. This will allow the moisture to redistribute and retain greater juiciness. Happy Eating!