What's your Beef?

Your guide to selecting and enjoying the best beef.

Beef rarely needed explaining- it was medium-rare, medium or (ugh) well done. 

Now you have start asking your guests for more and more beef decisions for their lunch or dinner. Grain-fed or grass-fed? Australian wagu, american wagu, japanese wagu or Kobe? Is Wagyu worth the investment? Should your guests expect to pay for dry aging? What cuts would you prefer?

Is this necessary, or a needless complexity and just plain snobbishness, or pure marketing hype?

For those who specialize in beef, such as steak-houses, the need to differentiate themselves has cause some increasing complexity, overseas. Maybe your savvier diners demand all the details. No matter what side you’re on, complicated menus have become nearly impossible to avoid. For the less expert in beef here is some guidance.

If it’s from the US; look for prime. A basic designator of high-quality meat, prime is the U.S.D.A.’s top grade (followed by choice and select), representing less than 5 percent of the beef sold in the United States. The grading system is largely based on “marbling,” or how fat is distributed throughout the muscle, and the better the marble, the higher the grade, the tastier the steak you end up with.  

Grass- and grain-fed do taste different. But one is not better than the other. All cattle eat grass for the majority of their lives, but grain-fed animals, typically from the US are “finished” in feedlots. Grain feeding, produces fattier, richer-tasting meat. Grass-fed cattle, once imported from Australia, NZ and Argentina yield a leaner, chewier beef.

Natural or organic? Only “organic” signals that the beef was raised on antibiotic and pesticide-free feed. That might please your environmentalist guests but is unlikely to have an impact on the taste of the beef. Antibiotics and hormones (also excluded in organic meat) makes beef cheaper to raise, but also leads to tougher, blander meat.

Do I want aged? Many chefs agree that dry aging—hanging a side of beef in a humidity-controlled cooler for up to three weeks—is essential to a dynamite great tasting steak. Meat is tenderized in the first two weeks. After that, dehydration concentrates the flavour into a rich, pungent beef taste. As the meat hangs, the enzymes naturally occurring in the beef start to break down the connective tissue, so the beef becomes more tender. The process of dry ageing allows fungus such as thamnidium to grow on the outside of the meat, which adds really good flavour and, as with enzymes, also breaks it down, helping to tenderise it. The slightly gamey taste of properly dry-aged beef is thanks to these little microbes growing on the carcase — though this is not a fact that many butchers will advertise.

But aged meat can lose almost 20 percent of its weight to evaporation hence the much higher price. Storage space, cooling costs, and the butcher’s attention also contribute to the price.

While there’s no consensus about the perfect aging time, 14 days is generally the minimum; 21 to 28 days is standard. Some say 42 days is perfect and after that the beef tastes gamey or musty. Beef can be hung too long. These days it is trendy to hang the meat for over four weeks, so you can get meat that tastes almost cured, with too much of the “high” taste from the thamnidium and nothing of the taste of the beast itself.

Wet ageing involves vacuum packing each cut of meat for a day or two until rigor mortis eases off. Modern, fast-growing breeds of beef that haven’t developed a good covering of fat have to be wet aged, and never taste as good as dry-aged meat, where the meat is hung in a vast fridge with the carcase split down the middle.

How many cuts. There are so many ways to subdivide a steer and many cuts of beef have multiple names (tenderloin equals filet mignon equals chateaubriand). Typically a steak-house will have rib, short loin, and sirloin beef from which you can get cuts like strip, rib eye, filet mignon, and porterhouse. Porterhouse is interesting it’s a combination of an aromatic, juicy “strip” section and a lean, super-tender filet mignon. Strip is called New York strip (thicker), shell, club or Delmonico steak. The T-bone is a porterhouse with a smaller filet portion. I prefer a New-York-cut strip (about 2 inches thick) grilled rare and sliced or hearty, heavily marbled scotch fillet, which has more taste than a normal fillet as it has more fat.

One simple cut is skirt- chared and served rare has great flavour as less cost.

Wagyu, Kobe, Aussie Wagyu? To be called Wagyu beef, it the meat should be from Japan and Kobe beef is Wagyu raised in Kobe. Wagyu cattle are raised to maximize marbling and the tender care in Japan some say repays the price and is a very high fat cut. Consider Wagyu a luxury like caviar and foie gras—worth the price, but meant to be eaten sparingly.

Know what to ignore from your customers. Just the country of origin won’t tell you anything about the quality of the cattle. There are high-quality and poor-quality cattle farms everywhere, and merely mentioning a country doesn’t guarantee quality unless your supplier knows the farm the beef was raised on, then maybe this can be promoted. And for most guests tell them to ignore aging time: beyond three or four weeks, the proper aging period depends on the piece of meat and again your supplier can assist.

Beef Yield… just in case you buy the live steer or a dressed carcass;

With an average market (live or on hoof) weight of  525 kgs and the average yield of 62.2%, the typical steer will produce a 325 kg. (dressed weight) carcass.

The dressed beef (or carcass) will yield approximately 260kg. (further details below) of red meat and trim (take home meat - which includes the average weight of 12 kgs of specialty meat: liver, heart, tongue, tripe, sweetbreads and brains) and 66 kgs of fat, bone and loss.  This is roughly a yield of 80% from the dressed or hanging weight - this is for a VERY LEAN Beef steer.  A High Quality, USDA Choice Beef will yield you approximately 70% of the Hanging or Dressed Weight.  Thus yield of usable or take-home meat weight from the live weight of the (VERY LEAN) steer is approximately 50%.

Diagram credit- 

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Dean Loh