Beef: What’s Grading? (and How to Cook Various Steaks)

Grade A-5 Kobe beef

Beef, it’s what’s for dinner! Known largely as an American slogan from the early 1990’s by the beef market, this phrase still has strong roots today in many areas. Why does it do this? Because beef (like most proteins) is a very versatile product that can be altered greatly by seasonings and paired ingredients to work perfectly in many different scenarios. 

But is all Beef Created Equal?

Simply put- no. If all beef isn’t the same, what makes some beef better than others- and what makes different cuts more tender or flavorful? The answer (more or less) is SCIENCE… and a bit of anatomy, really. To break is down, there are Gradesof beef, there are various Species/Breedsof cattle used for consumption, and of course, the Anatomicalcomponent. There’s also a lot of other factors that are important to the perfect serving (such as cooking, seasoning, and proper resting times for the meat), but we’ll focus on these three areas today.

Grade of Beef

Beef grading cut at the 13th rib; photo by Canada Beef INC

Let’s start with the basics of grading. Simply put, grading is split two ways: musculature and marbling. Musculature is more or less defined as the firmness or looseness of the muscle. Marbling is defined as the striation of intramuscular fat that dots (or runs like veins through) the meat that you’re looking at. Fine marbling is often nicer to see, but marbling in general is the amount of these fats that are deposited through the muscles. The grade of each animal is decided by looking at the marbling between the 12thand 13thrib of the carcass, as it is a healthy approximation as to what the rest of the animal has in store. Typically American grading is broken down into 4 grades: Prime, Choice, Select, and Standard. Canadian grades are similar, but have slightly higher standards: Canadian Prime, AAA, AA, and A grades are available (see the diagram below for comparisons)

Canadian VS US grading system

PRIME

The best meat is a firm musculature and is high in marbling. In the US, we (and the Canadians) call this grade PRIME.The firmness of the musculature is what allows the steak to hold together while being handled and allows for greater control while cooking. If the meat holds together and stays the same thickness as it was cut, it makes sense that the heat will be accepted more evenly throughout whatever you’re cooking. Marbling is considered ‘abundant’ at this level. These steaks are fantastic and exceptionally flavorful and tender- the juices are also in great excess for a wonderful jus. Typically found at high end markets and in hotels/restaurants.

CHOICE

Two high choice grade rib eye filets

The second highest grade of beef used in the US. Technically it is broken up into three 100-point categories (low, mid, and high grade choice); but that makes it more complicated than we need today. Choice is denoted as having high quality and being produced in high quantity. It has less marbling than choice, which we call ‘moderate’ marbling. The steaks and roasts, especially those of the rib and loin sections, will be very tender and flavorful. These steaks make great grill steaks and wonderful roasts. Can be found at many stores throughout the US- though not all will have the higher grades of choice.

SELECT

Select grade top sirloin steaks; loose musculature.

Beef that is leaner than Prime and Choice grades; thus having less marbling. Some lacks tenderness, flavor, and juiciness in comparison to its higher graded brethren. Select meats are the cheapest variety in stores (typically; though some exceptions exist) and typically benefit from slow-cooking or from long-term marinating prior to being grilled or broiled.

Standard/Canning/Commercial/No Roll

These grades are typically sold as ungraded “no roll” beef. The “no roll” classification denotes meat that does not carry any variety of grade designation. It is likely to not be tender, flavorful, or have any level of juiciness- especially in comparison to other graded products such as Prime, Choice, or Select. Often used by large companies to cut the cost of their products during manufacturing ready-to-eat meals. With proper preparation, these meats can be used- but without it, they are likely to be tough and unpleasant to eat.

What about Wagyu and Kobe?

Wagyu cattle in Japan

If you’re interested in the foodie revolution that has been surrounding Kobe and Wagyu beef for years, feel free to read the below- if not, skip to the next section; this topic is very murky and needs concentrated explanation to properly understand- so it will be written out in full-length below.

Kobe and Wagyu, especially “Imported Wagyu” are dangerous words in the beef-eating community and are often very complicated terms to understand. While the term Kobe can truly denote a superfluous level of excellence (the best product in the world, really), many restaurants use the term without proper knowledge. Or, of course, they could be banking on YOU not knowing enough about it to pay for something you’re not actually receiving. 

First things first- Kobe and Wagyu are not interchangeable terms as many would have you believe. Quite literally, Wagyu means Japanese cow, of which typically 4 breeds are accepted. American markets and restaurants will sell “American Kobe” or “American Wagyu” for top dollar referencing that it is ‘of Kobe grade’. While some of the “American Wagyu” and “American Kobe” produced is of good quality, it does not match the grading in any way of the real deal from Japan.

Kobe beef is graded at an entirely different level than any standard beef we spec out in the US. Instead of being graded on a 4-level scale (Standard, Select, Choice, Prime), Japanese Wagyu and Kobe are graded on a 12 level scalethat is based upon four characteristics of a carcass before it is harvested. Prime beef from the US may rank in the 4thtier or perhaps the 5thtier on a good day. Japanese Wagyu and other countries hybrids are often graded between 6-9, but real Kobe must be rated at least 10 to be graded and accepted as Kobe beef. The scores are all combined at the end of the grading process to give it a final rating between A-1 to A-5; where A-5 is the best Kobe beef in the world. By the best, we mean the monosaturated fats have a low enough melting point that it will quite literally melt in your mouth. It tastes like nothing else on the market.

The extensive grading scale for Wagyu and Kobe beef

True Kobe and Wagyu beef from Japan are on the next level when it comes to bloodlines, purity, and exceptional siring of livestock for their meats. In fact, the legal situation for Kobe beef state that the steer must be: 1) raised only in the Hyogo prefecture, 2) 100% Tajima, a strain of black Wagyu, 3) born within the prefecture, and 4) must have ever ancestor of the steer known and documented- sometimes dating back for hundreds of years. Compare that to our standards for the Angus we sell in the United States. Our siring and documentation process for Angus (the most prevalent ‘quality beef’) in the US has been so diluted that the USDA definition doesn’t even require a single drop of pure genetics to the namesake of the forerunner of our steers (originating in Aberdeen)… The animal must merely be of the same body-type and musculature as the Angus cattle and have at least 51% of the saddle and hide to be black in color.

Of the Japanese cattle, Kobe is the most highly regarded over the rest of their Wagyu (which is still fantastic). The other famous regional Wagyu are Matsuzaka, Omi, Sendai, Mishima, Hokkaido, and Miyazaki. While rumors state that the animals listen to classical music, drink beer and sake, get massaged (while it can be done and is done in some places) is not a requirement for the animals and is often overstated in conversation.

In regards to Kobe, however, the Hyogo government keeps the 12 highest-statured bulls in a special facility to utilize their semen to inseminate all hopeful cows for siring. Every single ounce of Kobe eaten in the entire world was fathered by one of these perfect specimens of Kobe brilliance. Not that there is much Kobe to eat worldwide, however. After grading, processing, and harvesting, only perhaps half of the Tajima cattle are able to qualify as Kobe. That means as little as 3,000-4,000 steer are available for consumption- moderately less than even a single mid-sized ranch in the United States.

Some documentation for Kobe beef as seen on koubegyuu.com.

To put that into perspective, this amount of product is enough to satisfy the average beef consumption of less than 80 American eaters. Indeed, the rarity of this meat means that the board behind distribution of Kobe beef licenses individual restaurants (which hold special certificates) in the US to furnish their product- of which less than 10 are presently sanctioned. No Kobe beef is ever sold in retail stores or markets in the US (or likely any other markets around the world).

Local Kobe Beef sliders… I don’t think so.

Of course, this likely means that your Kobe beef sliders and Wagyu burgers you’re likely finding at local restaurants are complete bunk. However, since the US still doesn’t really have a set marketing regulation and marking scheme, even domestic Wagyu or the hybrid form wangus (angus and Wagyu cattle cross-bred), they may simply utilize the name for otherwise nominal beef (and it is completely legal presently). As another precaution, if you’re hoping to consume Japanese Wagyu in the US… know that (to the best of my knowledge) it is only legal to import BONELESS Wagyu- so don’t be fooled into buying ‘imported Wagyu’ T-bone or Porterhouse steaks. 

A news clipping from Forbes from a few years ago

You can always ask where a restaurant has procured its ‘imported Wagyu’ from or who they imported it through as well as to see their certificates- as all Japanese beef comes with certificates that feature seals and even (sometimes) nose prints of the animal the meat came from. However, these can always be faked or from someone else’s product. Even if it is authentic though, it is likely that you wouldn’t be able to make sense of it. In regards to of all of the above in regards to these rare and illusive beef offerings… If you think you’re being scammed for Kobe or imported Wagyu, you likely are.

Breeds of Cattle

When most of us think of cows, we’re thinking of those white cows that we see on the farm with black spots. However, those cows are likely Holstein Friesiancattle- and are typically used for dairy production; not food. Each breed of cattle has its own uses in farming or in the beef industry. Some can field both, but typically cattle are designated to produce dairy or to be harvested. Some cattle are simply better for beef due to their life cycle and their natural bovine myology, or cattle-based anatomy/structure. 

Typically when we think of breeds of cattle for beef production we’re thinking of some of the following:

  • Hereford – widespread cattle that live in many climates across the globe.
  • Shorthorn (one of the possible dual breeds; genetics and siring of this breed determine whether it’s a ‘beef shorthorn’ or a ‘dairy shorthorn’.
  • Charolais – a French variety of steer that produces good beef; often crossbred with Angus cattle.
  • Galloway – an old breed of cattle named from the area in Scotland they came from. Became popular around the world in the mid-1800’s when Scotland started exporting them.
  • Simmental – quick growers that can serve as a dual-purpose herd; though the US typically uses them for beef due to their natural ability to bulk up quickly.
  • Texas Longhorn – a good choice when looking for leaner beef
  • Brangus – a crossbreed between the ancient super-breed Brahman and the highly desired Angus cattle. 
  • Chianina – a very large breed that originated in Italy. One of the largest you can raise today; used for beef.  
  • Beef Master – large cattle bred for beef (duh). Crossbred since around the 1930’s; typically a cross between Hereford or Shorthorn and a Brahman.
  • White Park – another large breed (heifers weight 1400 pounds; bulls 2200). Very high quality meat.
  • Beefalo – A crossbreed between Bison and domestic cows. Definitely a different taste than standard beef.
  • Angus (Aberdeen)– One of the best quality beef-specific steers. This breed is well known for many reasons and comes in two varieties (Red and Black).
  • Kobe – The most illusive form of beef available on the market today (we’ll discuss this one more later). Incredible flavor, exceptional marbling, and produces steaks that melt in your mouth.

This list is by no means complete, as there are far more breeds of cattle used in beef production than we can list in one article. These names are merely to give you an idea of the scope of how large the beef trade really is in the world, and how carefully each rancher must select which breed they are looking for based upon climate, region, and feeding capacities at their disposal. 

Anatomy Plays its Part

A standard breakdown of a steer

Bovine Myology, the study of cattle-based anatomy and structure, is an important aspect of choosing your steaks. However, most consumers think of this as a ‘cut’ of beef or an individual steak. The breakdown of a steer is a pretty serious component, as you can all but assure the level of tenderness you’ll get from your meat (so long as it is properly cooked) provided there are no imperfections to the muscle you’re using and given that the grade of meat is also decent.

The daily life of a steer is what allows each muscle to be cooked or prepared in a certain way. The muscles that see more use on a daily basis are those which need to be slow cooked or braised in order to bring out their potential. The longer it cooks at a low temperature, the more the connective tissues decompose and the more the fat is able to render down into flavorful fats that help baste the meat as it cooks in its own natural jus (or whatever else you’ve put in the pan or crock with it).  Meals such as beef shanks, chuck roasts, and bottom round/rump roasts are good examples of this cooking style.

If you know the muscles, you also need to know the bones.

Meats that need less preparation time over the flame are muscles that find far less work in the steer’s natural life. Some muscles (such as the hanger steak) serve little to no purpose for the animal’s life, which is why it can be such a delicate and flavorful morsel when cooked properly. The filet mignon, also known as the most tender steak in the animal, is also hardly used due to a steer’s quadrupedal lifestyle. Due to the fact that the muscle doesn’t find much use, it saves itself from becoming a worked muscle (such as the shank or heel meat). 

To put it simply (and without having to read a mound of text), here’s what cuts you’ll want for various types of cooking:

Braising or Slow Cooking/Crock Pot

  • Chuck Roasts: Slow cook; super flavorful and juicy.
  • Short Ribs (bone-in and boneless): Tender, flavorful, fall-off-the-bone
  • Country Style ribs (more or less short ribs): Flavorful, fall-apart tender
  • Top Round Roast: Lean meat; needs extra flavor
  • Bottom Round Roast: Lean meat; needs extra flavor
  • Rump Roast *See above; comes from same piece as Bottom Round
  • Eye Round Roast: VERY lean meat; should be flavored and must not be overcooked- otherwise you’ll have leather for dinner…
  •  Brisket: Cook for many hours on low temp; fall-apart tender, juicy, and very flavorful meat. Can be lathered with various sauces or rubs for wondrous effects. Can also be smoked.
  • Rib Roast/Prime Rib Roast (or boneless rib roast): Great flavor, exceptional tenderness; cook fat side up, bone side down (if this applies to your roast) to allow the meat to baste itself in its own fat as it cooks. This protects your roast from drying out and keeps it flavorful. These roasts can be tied by your butcher for ease of carving later- typically at no additional cost.
  • Tenderloin: A very lean roast that the most tenderness out of any roast on this list. Typically cooked rare, medium rare, or medium at the highest level of preparation. I find that the best way to prepare them (unless you are just buying the center cut portion) is to have the tenderloin trimmed and tied by your butcher (this will have them butterfly the tail and tie it onto the main body of the tenderloin; thus allowing the overall shape and size to be more uniform throughout. This also makes it fit into your pans easier while allowing that section to also cook slightly more for your guests that want their meat cooked closer to well done).
  • Shank Meat: Can be cooked/braised slowly to allow the juices from the marrow to impart into the cooked product. Time is your friend with this piece, and the meat is often used for stews or soups later- so save that jus and the meat alike to pour into your next stock and stew.

Meats for the Skillet or Grill

  • Ranch Steak: Mid-grade meat that can be seasoned or tenderized to bring out a better eating experience.
  • Shoulder Tender (and as steaks too): A lesser-known choice. Very tender choice and takes well to various seasonings. Can also be used as a lesser option for filet mignon, tips, stir-fry, or kabobs.
  • Chuck Eye Steak: More or less a discount version of the Delmonico. It comes from the small end of the chuck that butts up to the Delmonico. They don’t last long on the shelves of the store, so you’d better call ahead of you’d like them.
  • Porterhouse Steak: A New York Strip steak and a Filet Mignon steak separated by a bone. The early Porterhouses have great filet, but have sirloin cut strip steaks attached due to natural anatomical boundaries. Later cuts have center cut strips and smaller filets- but that’s where I get mine from every time.
  • T-Bone Steak: This is what happens to the Short Loin (where the P-House steak comes from) after the tenderloin section is too small to be considered a Porterhouse anymore. They are often a good value, featuring a center cut strip and a smaller portion of filet mignon. Eventually this piece is just a bone-in strip steak- so watch for that in your purchasing decision.
  • Strip Steak (bone-in/boneless): One of the few lean steaks that has good flavor and tenderness. I use savory herbs with it when cooking, but any variety of seasoning can work well.
  • Delmonico Steak (Bone-in [Ribeye Steak] or boneless): Exceptional marbling and flavor. Juicy, tender, and pretty much the best steak in the animal. Well known for many reasons, it got its name from the restaurant that originally made it famous in New York.
  • Rib Cap Steak (Spinalis): The top portion (cap) of the Delmonico. Similar characteristics, but it is a thin piece that often weighs less than one pound. These sell quickly and are a hot commodity- call ahead if you want a chance at buying these [they are often very costly, but are a great steak for a special occasion].
  • Ribeye Filet: The cut that comes from the inner-portion of the Delmonico. Essentially, it is your Delmonico if it didn’t have the cap on it or the large swirl/seam of fat that is present throughout the rib section of the steer. It features all of the characteristics of your Delmonico, but has none of the waste. Looks VERY similar to filet mignon (aside from kingly marbling), and can be used in a pinch instead. Definitely call ahead for this one if you have any hope of getting them [especially during summer months]. Many shops do not produce this cut because they have to sacrifice some of the Delmonico weight in order to create it.
  • Tenderloin Steak: The most tender steak from the steer. Marbling is often lower due to its lean status, but some locations will have tenderloin steaks with moderate to abundant marbling. Not much beefy flavor, but does take well to various seasonings.
  • Sirloin Steak: Another lean steak. Often the lowest level steak that you’ll see at a steakhouse. It has moderate tenderness and good flavor, but often needs a little help to be desired (finish with a pat of butter while it is resting or give it a light rub or seasoning before it hits the grill).
  • Coulotte Steak/Sirloin Steakhouse/Sirloin Strip: No matter what you call it, this ‘sirloin cap steak’ is an exceptional buy. Often sold at fair rates, it can be used for stir-fry, tender tips, or for some fantastic kabob cubes. Season any way you’d like, but the marbling and flavor will be good regardless.
  • Tri-Tip Steak: Popular on the West Coast, but rarely seen on the East Coast. It is similar to a sirloin cap steak, but I find it to be the lesser of the two cuts. Hard to find on the East Coast, so if you’d like it I recommend calling ahead to see what its availability is.

Thin Meats

  • Flank Steak: A popular summer steak due to its restaurant and celebrity chef praise. The meat is not as tender as a flat iron, so I would recommend marinating it for at least 8 hours (but ideally overnight) before cooking. Cut on a bias for the best result.
  • Flat Iron Steak: A favorite of many restaurants; cook and cut on a bias for best results. A finer grained meat which is more tender than the flank steak, it does not need a marinade to be grilled and remain tender. 
  • Skirt Steak (Inside and Outside): Popular meat for use in fajitas and other Hispanic dishes. It loses its brilliant shade quickly due to is high surface area. The meat is relatively course, so it is easy to see where to cut against (or with, depending on your cooking style) the grain.

Of course, there are other steaks that I have not listed, and there are many byproducts that I have not listed as well. The list is not meant to be all encompassing, but to serve as a general basis of meats that are desirable in our present culinary climate and to provide some basic knowledge of each. If there is more desire for additional cuts, put your comments below and I’ll be glad to delve into your area of interest.

Now that you’ve taken the time to learn more about some of the available meats, where they come from, and how they’re graded, go out there and enjoy yourself some delicious beef on the grill or in the oven. As they say, it’s what’s for dinner!

Burgers for some easy grilling

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