“Meat quality” is not the mystery some make it out to be. Understand some of the terminology and you will get a better understanding about what to look for, and what to expect, when you buy beef. You probably know most of this stuff anyway, but here’s a handy guide.
- “A” stands for meat that has very little ‘marbling’,
- “AA” has more ‘marbling’,
- “AAA” has the most ‘marbling’ of the three grades. Some retailers, like M&M meats, sell some “non graded” beef products which means they are purchasing beef from ‘off shore’ suppliers – from animals that have not been graded by your federal government. In order to achieve product consistency the beef may be further processed with commercial marinades or spices.
- Dry Aging: Is the traditional way of achieving natural tenderness. At the butchers, the chilled cooler provides a perfect aerobic environment to allow the natural process to develop and to tenderize the beef from which your steaks and roasts are cut.
- Wet Aging: Cryovac aging is a modern trend that sees the carcasses broken down into smaller cuts and wrapped in air and moisture-proof plastic bags. The wrapping protects the meat from bacteria and mold, and prevents weight loss due to drying. Cryovac-aged meats often lose more weight in cooking than do dry-aged meats. Aging in a cryovac bag is inferior because the natural aerobic process can not happen. Its aged but lacks the true development of the beef flavour and texture.We only know of provincially inspected butchers (like ours) who have the space and attitude to age beef in the cooler.
It’s important to know what the animal has been fed. There used to be an ‘Alberta Red Brand’ beef in stores, say 40 years ago. It had a great following, was so well known and liked that even today we still get asked about it. What made it special was that Alberta had the same genetics (British breeds), see below, but used barley as the main finishing diet. There is a difference in the flavour of the meat if it was finished on grass, barley, corn, or feeds like carrots or potatoes. So, if you can find out what diet was used to finish your beef then you will get to know which flavour of which finishing diet you like best.
- British genetics include Hereford and Angus
- Exotic genetics include Limosine, Charolais and Simmental.
The basic difference in the breeds is:
- British genetics have more marbling, won’t grow as big and use less grain to finish
- Exotic genetics provide more lean growth, have less marbling and need more grain to finish.Most producers have a cross of these main breeds on their ranches. Again, the more you know about the breed or the crosses, the more you will know what you like and the consistent your BBQ results will be.
When you go out and buy your steak or roast, you can only expect consistent results if you know:
- Grade (very important),
- Aging (very important),
- Diet (important),
- Genetics (less important) and
- Age of the animal (less important)
When a store advertises “…cut from “A” or “higher grade”, it really means it is a crap shoot as to what you are getting. Consequently, your cooking and taste results will vary.
We like to compare it to your internet service. When you want to get online and you don’t know if you will get ‘dial up’, ‘cable’, ‘high speed’, or ‘satellite’ service, your results will truly be inconsistent. Most stores do not know (nor can they) what age of animal their meat comes from, since most meat is sold through brokers and can not be ‘source verified’. As with farmers markets and smaller local stores, management makes it their business to know who is growing their vegetables or is raising the meat they sell. Quality will be more consistent because they know the producer, who is ultimately directly responsible, and accountable, to you. As always and with everything, knowledge empowers. As always, cook roasts with a meat thermometer for best results.