There are several factors to consider when buying or ordering a steak including taste and level of tenderness versus cost and economy factors. Consider the Cuts of Beef which derive from the Primal Cuts and Subdivisions of primal cuts. Keep this mind. A steak or roast is in fact a muscle. Level of tenderness or toughness of a muscle is primarily related to the amount of exercise it receives while cattle is alive.
Taste is generally related to the amount of fat marbling (flecks of fat) that is distributed within the lean portion of a steak. The better tasting steaks typically have more abundant marbling. Of course taste can be quite subjective and differs by person. Generally, steaks with more marbling are the best steaks to grill. There are exceptions such as the tenderloin which has very little fat, but is the most tender of steaks and roasts. It also happens to be the most expensive cut of beef for that reason.
Assurance of Inspection
Meat products, including beef is highly regulated. All beef sold must meet rigid inspection by USDA inspectors before it can be sold. That is the law. Grading of quality by the USDA however must be requested by the packing company.
USDA Grading Levels
Meat grading is administered by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). During the grading process, graders are paying close attention to quality characteristics that indicate tenderness, juiciness and flavor. Each graded level must be certified an signified by the approved USDA label that indicates grading level.
If there is no certified USDA label, the steak or roast has not been graded. As such, you cannot be sure of the quality factors. Grading levels consider the amount of marbling and age of cattle. The more fat marbling and the younger the beef, the higher the grading. Generally there are only three grading levels that are sold in restaurant and grocers.
USDA Prime Grade. Prime is the highest grade and carries the highest price tag. Only about 2 percent of beef is graded prime and is usually sold in high-end, upscale top rated steakhouses, specialty butchers, and some grocery markets. Prime beef has the most marbling and best tenderness since cattle under 2 years-old are generally considered.
USDA Choice Grade. Choice has a little less marbling than Prime. It is widely available in grocery stores and is usually the lowest grade sold by high-end restaurants.
USDA Select Grade. Select has the least amount of marbling, making it leaner, less juicy, and less flavorful. It will be substantially less tender than Prime or Grade making many cuts tougher to chew.
All other grading levels are used for processed meats, canned meats and beef found in some frozen dinners.
Read more details about USDA Grades of Beef.
Aging of Beef
Beef aging is a natural process that enhances tenderness of steaks generally associated with cuts of beef from the Rib and Short Loin Sections of beef. Look for steaks that include the words “rib” or “loin”. They would include Ribeye, New York Strip, Porterhouse and T-Bone Steaks. Tenderloin usually does not require aging because it is naturally the most tender cut and doesn’t need aging.
Most tenderizing will occur in the first 7 to 10 days of the aging process when natural enzymes in beef breakdown connective tissue in the muscle fibers. There are two methods of aging beef including “wet and dry aging”.
Wet Aging Process. The most common method of aging beef takes place in airtight sealed bags under refrigerated temperatures between 32 to 34 degrees Fahrenheit. Aging is up to 21 days and produces a traditional beef flavor.
Dry Aging Process. The least common method of aging beef and takes place uncovered. It is hung under refrigerated conditions at the same temperatures as wet aging with humidity controls. Aging period is up to 28 days and produces a roasted beefy flavor. Since it is a more complex method that requires resultant trimming, dry-aging is typically more expensive.