If you're going to eat red meat, here's how to get the most out of it
Americans have a love affair with beef. In 2007 alone, we downed 28.1 billion pounds of it—despite a bevy of studies reporting that too much red meat is unhealthy and can lead to heart disease. While there is evidence that eschewing beef altogether is best for optimum health, most of us aren't quite ready to take that step. Luckily, when eaten in moderation, beef is still a good source of protein, zinc, vitamins B6 and B12, niacin, and iron.
Using a meat thermometer is a good way to gauge how done your meat is.
Very rare: 130 degrees
Rare: 140 degrees
Medium rare: 145 degrees
Medium: 160 degrees
Well done: 170 degrees
Very well done: 180 degrees
But moderation is another issue: Though the recommended serving size for meat is 3 ounces—the size and thickness of a deck of cards—the typical restaurant burger ranges from a half pound (8 ounces) to a pound or more. In other words, there's a problem of proportion. "Beef isn't supposed to be the only thing you're eating," says Aliza Green, chef and author of Field Guide to Meat. "The beef is there to give flavor. It's on the kabob, but onions and peppers are there, too. It's in the stir-fry, but you have bok choy and snow peas."
If you're going to indulge, you might as well make sure you're digging your fork into the best beef you can afford. Several factors—including the cut, cooking method, and type of beef—affect how juicy, tender, and flavorful your meal will be.
Read on to find out how to pick and prepare the best beef.
All beef isn't created equal. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a system that grades an entire animal carcass based on its most notable characteristic: marbling, the white swirls of fat within the meat. Cuts with little of the white stuff are labeled "select"; those with medium fat are marketed as "choice"; and cuts with rivers of fat are stamped "prime" and typically sold to restaurants and hotels. Though prime cuts are prized for their tenderness (fat gives the meat flavor and juiciness), they're also the least healthy. But that's not the whole story: Some choice cuts are closer to prime (and are therefore fattier) while others resemble select. For the leanest meat, "pick the red [cuts] and stay away from the white fats, and you'll be good nutritionally," says Dan Hale, PhD, professor and Texas AgriLife extension meat specialist in the Department of Animal Sciences at Texas A&M University.
The Food and Drug Administration considers 29 cuts lean because a 3-ounce serving of them contains less than 10 grams of total fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol. These include the eye round roast and steak (part of the round, which sits at the top of the cow's leg), top sirloin steak (a portion of the sirloin, which is at the cow's hip), chuck shoulder roast (part of the chuck, the cow's shoulder muscle), and tenderloin steak (a portion of the loin that includes filet mignon and sits in the middle of the cow). "The reason the shoulder, the front part [of the cow], and the rear part are leaner is because they're used more [by the animal]," says Green. In contrast, you should approach barbecued ribs with caution: Meat from this area is the highest in fat.
Highly marbled meat is juicy and tender, but that doesn't mean lean cuts are dry and tough. "Having a little more fat in the muscle can improve the tenderness, and it can improve the flavor. But what really impacts the tenderness is the muscle fibers' tenderness themselves," says Hale. Relaxed muscle fibers result in a more tender piece of meat than do contracted fibers. Another aspect affecting tenderness is the amount of connective tissue, made of the proteins collagen and elastin, which can toughen the meat. Connective tissue surrounds every muscle fiber, but in some parts of a cow's body there is more connective tissue than in others. Cuts from the round or chuck have a good amount of connective tissue, so they're generally tougher than cuts from the tenderloin, an area with little connective tissue. If tenderness is a main concern, pick cuts like the filet mignon, the most tender cut of beef, shoulder center steak (also called a ranch steak), top round, and shoulder tender.
What's in a Name?
Most slabs of meat you buy at the butcher or grocery store are marked by cut—sirloin steak, prime rib, bottom round roast, and so on—but that's not the only label you'll encounter. Many markets carry Angus, Kobe, antibiotic-free, and aged beefs as well. Wagyu (sold under the name Kobe) and Angus are types of cattle raised to produce meat that's well-marbled, flavorful, consistent in size and texture, and usually more expensive than that of other breeds.
You'll also pay more for beef that is wet or dry aged. Both wet aging (bagging the meat and storing it for 21 days in a refrigerator) and dry aging (storing meat under UV lights in a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment for 21 to 40 days) maximize the tenderness and give the beef a richer flavor. Look for these types of meat at specialty or butcher shops.
It's becoming more common for terms like "organic" and "all-natural" to appear on beef packages. Certified organic beef comes from cattle fed 100 percent organic feed without the use of growth hormones or antibiotics. Organic cattle must have access to pasture, but since temporary confinement is considered OK, most American-raised cattle meet this requirement. To be considered natural, beef can't contain artificial colors, flavors, or chemical preservatives, and it shouldn't be more than minimally processed. The phrases "no hormones" and "no antibiotics" may be approved by the USDA if a producer can document that cattle didn't receive growth hormones and antibiotics.
Against the Grain
Most cattle in the United States are fed grain for a number of reasons: Grain like corn is abundant and cheap; it helps cattle gain weight faster than a strict grass-only diet; and not all regions in the United States have suitable types of grass and ideal growing seasons.
Still, an increasing number of ranchers are raising cattle that spend their days in grassy pastures. Grass-fed cattle (also called grass-finished) are raised on a grass diet and, instead of being "finished" on grain, they remain at pasture until they're slaughtered. "We used to feed cattle on grain," says Don Davis, owner of Bandera Grassland, a ranch an hour outside San Antonio. "What's a natural feed for cattle? Ruminants are not set up for grain. Their rumen [a compartment of the cow's stomach] is designed to convert grass to fat and muscle." According to Davis, grass-fed cattle have a richer, fuller flavor. And, he says, concerns about animal welfare have influenced the grass-versus-grain debate; most grain-fed cattle are confined to feedlots while grass-fed animals roam freely.
Proponents of grass-fed meat also cite human health benefits. A 2008 study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that cattle that grazed naturally had higher levels of health-promoting omega-3 fatty acids than their grain-finished counterparts. A study published in the Journal of Animal Science in 2000 reported that a high intake of grass resulted in cattle with greater concentrations of conjugated linoleic acid, a component of animal fat that has been shown in rodent studies to reduce atherosclerosis and have anti-cancer properties. But grass-fed beef's nutritional advantage is still up for debate among researchers. "You're looking at a [small] difference in fatty acids from one beef product to another," says Hale.
Cooking method also makes a major difference in beef's taste and tenderness. Tough cuts plump up with juices when roasted, braised, or cooked in a stew. Other cuts stay tender when cooked with dry heat from a grill or broiler. For instance, rib eye steaks can be broiled, grilled, or stir-fried, but rib eye roasts are best grilled or roasted. Top round steaks are best stir-fried but, if marinated, taste delicious grilled or broiled. Ground beef—get the healthiest meat by picking packages that say "95 percent lean"—can be grilled, broiled, or roasted. Braising, a type of slow cooking in liquid, is best for many cuts of chuck and brisket, and for the shank crosscut. (If you need some help, the beef industry Web site has a handy chart.)
To get juicy burgers and steaks, let cooked meat sit for three to five minutes once it's been removed from the grill; doing so will distribute the juices throughout the meat. Author Green turns out restaurant-style burgers by using pre-shaped ground beef patties—forming your own can toughen the meat and leave a telltale hump in the center of your burger. If you must hand-form, try her trick: Use a spoon to indent the center of the patty. As the burger cooks, it will puff up into a flat patty.
Another tip: Slice marinated skirt steak, sear on the grill, and serve over a salad or as fajitas. The loose grain of this cut, says Green, allows it to pick up marinade flavors quickly, so you don't have to soak it overnight. For the most tender bite, cut flank, skirt, and hanger steaks against the grain. As the weather cools, try chunks of chuck shoulder roast in beef stew. The slow cook time and low temperature required of the dish tenderize the meat.
If you're eating beef in smaller portions, you are likely to have leftovers you'll want to freeze. "The rule with freezing is: Freeze it quickly, defrost it slowly. If it defrosts slowly, more of the juices stay inside," says Green, who moves frozen beef into the refrigerator until it's thawed. Before cooking, let the meat sit on the counter. "You want it to be at room temperature when you're cooking it," Green says. Doing so will help the meat brown and cook evenly.
Any time you handle raw meat, safety should be a priority. Avoid cross-contamination by using separate plates and utensils for raw and cooked meats, and make sure the meat is cooked long enough to kill any bacteria. According to Hale, steaks and roasts should hit at least 144 degrees, the internal temperature at which pathogens die. Ground beef, which has more surface area as a result of its processing, has a greater chance of having bacteria throughout—not just on the surface, like hunks of meat. Hale recommends cooking ground beef patties to well done (about 170 degrees). For more cooking temperatures, see "Perfect Timing" above.
It doesn't matter if you crave straight-from-the-grill steaks or juicy pot roast: Following these guidelines will help you truly savor the occasional beef dinner. So grab a lean cut, whittle your portion down to the recommended size, and enjoy.