Bone Up on Choosing and Preparing Beef
A visit to the grocer's meat case can sometimes be baffling. There are so many choices of beef cuts, and many have unfamiliar names.
Before the meat industry made an effort to standardize the names of meat cuts, there was some confusion. A specific cut of meat might have more than one name, or be called different names in different regions of the country. Occasionally the same name would describe different cuts of meat.
Reading meat labels these days should be easier. Ideally, by reading the label you should be able to learn the kind of meat (such as beef), the area of the animal the meat comes from (such as the loin) and the common retail cut (such as boneless top loin steak).
Knowing where the cut comes from on the animal can give an indication of the tenderness of the beef. For example, a cut such as a pot roast from the chuck portion comes from a heavily exercised area of the animal, so it will be less tender.
In general, words like "chuck," "round" and "flank" connote a less tender cut. The terms "loin" and "rib" typically suggest a tender cut. Less tender cuts are sometimes made into ground beef or stew meat or are mechanically tenderized into cube steaks.
The United States Department of Agriculture grades the quality of beef by giving it three designations: prime, choice and select. Grades are determined by the amount of marbling (the flecks of fat within the meat), the meat's texture, its color and its appearance.
Prime meat, which is usually available only in fine restaurants, has the most marbling. Select meat has the least marbling while choice is in between. Less marbling means less fat; therefore, select has fewer calories. However, it may not be as tender, juicy or flavorful as choice or prime cuts.
When choosing beef from the self-serve meat case, pick packages that are cool to the touch, have little or no excess liquid and have no punctures. And always check the "sell-by" date.