Ask UNL's Food Doc: How to pick the very best beef
Ask the Food Doc

Ask UNL's Food Doc: How to pick the very best beef

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Dear Food Doc: I will be hosting out-of-towners during the holidays and want to serve them the best beef they have ever had (from Nebraska, of course). I’ve been advised to seek out dry aged beef. What makes this so good?

Answer: Before we get to the aging, let’s first discuss quality choice, are considered high quality. For the most part, it’s the marbling that makes these grades best.

Marbling refers to intramuscular fat, the fat within the meat. More abundant marbling means more juiciness and flavor. Indeed, the main difference between prime and choice is the higher marbling in prime.

But age also matters. Prime beef comes from well-fed younger cattle. The experts who grade beef rely not on age per se, but rather maturity. The latter is based on color, texture and bone characteristics. It’s a complicated assessment, but the bottom line is that less than 10% of graded beef qualifies as prime.

If you want to impress your guests, Prime is the way to go. But it may not be easy to find, and it will definitely not be easy on your wallet.

Most prime beef is sold to high-end restaurants. A few grocery stores and specialty meat shops also carry prime. But be prepared to pay more than $20 per pound for a prime rib or strip steak.

Some prime beef is also dry-aged. This process involves hanging beef sides or primal cuts in humidity-controlled coolers for several weeks.

During this time, the beef undergoes natural tenderization. It also becomes a bit dryer and darker at the surface. This intensifies the flavor and makes the beef tender, juicy and delicious.

Dry aged beef also undergoes shrinkage, due to moisture loss. Trimming also results in less yield. This is why dry-aged prime beef is tres, tres expensive.

The cut of meat also influences quality attributes. Of course, this depends on personal preferences.

If what you want is tenderness, then the obvious option is the tenderloin or filet.

Tenderloin steaks have light marbling and moderate flavor. But you can cut them with a butter knife! Spoiler alert: tenderloin steaks can cost twice as much as other Prime cuts.

For an impressive 2-inch thick steak, you might want the classic New York or Kansas City strip. These steaks have plenty of marbling and flavor.

A related cut is the T-bone or porterhouse which is a strip steak that also contains a portion of the tenderloin. Obviously, this steak has a T-shaped bone along the center, with the strip on one side and the loin on the other.

The most-marbled and flavorful cut is the ribeye. It’s the most popular retail cut in the U.S. When prepared as a roast instead of steaks, this is the same cut used for prime rib.

The least marbled and most lean cut is the top sirloin. It is less tender, but has good flavor. Of all of these popular steaks, it is the least expensive.

Old school meat-lovers might remember when bone-in versions were the norm. But now, except for T-bones, most high end steaks in restaurants or at retail are boneless.

Finally, one of the latest trends in the beef case are the variety of products from different breeds of cattle. In the U.S., Angus and Hereford are the most popular. Recently, Piedmontese have become a favorite, due to their lower fat and higher protein.

On the flip side of the fat scale, Wagyu and Kobe beef are known for their extensive marbling, even more so than prime beef. They have certainly developed a small niche market.

You may need to take out a second mortgage, however. My sister-in-law ordered the house special, a 6-ounce Kobe filet at an up-scale steak house in Las Vegas. The steak was very tender, but the $150 bill was a bit tough to swallow.

Bob Hutkins is the Food Doc. He is a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he teaches and conducts research in food science and food microbiology. Send your questions on any topic related to food, food safety, food ingredients and food processing to the Food Doc at features@journalstar.com.

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