Selecting the Best Beef Grades for Your Pellet Grill

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You too can make the best tasting smoked meals on your pellet grill with the best beef grades. Learn more about the different grades of beef available on the market. Are they all worth it or not? Find out everything you need to know.

There are few things better than the luxurious and the decadent feeling you savor, when you chew on well-smoked beef. Be it steak, briskets, ribs or any other mouthwatering recipe, the tenderness of the meat and the surge of delicious juices is simply beyond description. Yes, beef is harder to cook than other meats, but words cannot do justice to describe the tantalizing flavor of perfectly smoked beef.  

Before you can enjoy any of this, you must have the best possible cuts of meat and the quality must also be up to par. Without the requisite quality, such an experience will be nothing more than a distant fantasy. There is no joy in slaving away for hours at the pellet grill only to end up with dull, dry and bland meat that is as tough as boiled leather.  

You certainly deserve better than that.

An understanding of beef grades will put you in prime position to smoke meals that will please one and all.

Marbling and Beef Grades

Beef is made from both heifers and steer (female and male bovines respectively). Mature animals yield the best beef. Meat from older animals is not that good since it is tougher. Older animals are therefore more suitable for ground beef. Calves and younger animals make for high-quality veal.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) started grading beef in 1926. USDA inspectors use the age of the animal and the fat content as guidelines for grading beef. Inspectors determine marbling by checking the level of fat besides the muscle tissue between ribs number 12 and 13.

This fat is referred to as marbling for a very simple. The fat content appears just like the striations that streak the length and breadth of marble. With more marbling, that is, a higher fat content, the taste is much better and the meat is more succulent. However, contrary to popular misconception, marbling tells you little about the tenderness of the beef.  

Marbling is very important because fat is the key factor behind rich flavor and juices. If you want to smoke beef that melts in the mouth to ooze the most delectable juices, then you should go for high marbling.

However, marbling does not come cheap if you look into the science behind its formation. Considering the manner in which it develops, there is little doubt that marbling is the costliest fat in bovines. As with humans, fat first goes to the gut. Subcutaneous fat, that is, fat under the skin ranks second in priority. Intramuscular fat comes in next. This is fat between the muscles.

Marbling ranks right at the very bottom. It is the last priority as far as fat deposits are concerned. The animal must obviously be well fed to develop a high level of marbling. You will have to pay for it. Well-marbled meat also shrinks more since fat drips off during the smoking process to reduce its size. You must buy a larger and heavier cut to ensure that the final meal size is appropriate. You must also pay for this extra cost.    

Although marbling is important in its own right, it is not the only factor in play. Other factors also have a big impact on the taste, quality and the tenderness of the beef. Food scientists reckon that storage conditions, post-slaughter aging, slaughter conditions, animal age, feed, exercise and breed all have an impact on quality.

To understand the quality of different grades of beef, you can try looking at various grades of the ribeye cut. These boneless pieces of meat have a weight of around 12 ounces.

With close inspection, you will see that compared to Prime, Wagyu has more marbling. Prime, in turn, has greater marbling than Choice. The Dry Aged cut appears smaller than others since it is aged and, therefore, dehydrated. It also has a darker appearance.

Even within the same grade, there will be big differences between different cuts. For instance, the strip and the ribeye have greater marbling than flat iron and the Denver cut.

Here are beef grades starting from the lowest.

Different Beef Grades

USDA Canner, Cutter, Utility Beef

Since this grade is the lowest in terms of beef quality, you won’t find this variety in most grocery stores. Processors use this as the cheapest grade to make sloppy Joe’s, canned chili, soups and other foods.

USDA Commercial or Standard Beef

The level of marbling is so low that it is virtually nonexistent. Labels often don’t show this grade. So if you find a cut whose grade is not mentioned, you can be almost certain that it is commercial or standard grade beef.   

Thanks to their 2% fat content, standard or commercial grade beef is suitable for ground meat and stews. However, it is a terrible choice for smoking on your pellet grill.

USDA Select Beef

This grade has a fairly moderate degree of marbling at around 2 to 4 percent fat. If you are a skilled chef, you can make tender meat with this grade. However, you should opt for higher grades if you are not so proficient. Higher grades will also give you better flavor.

USDA Choice Beef

Choice Beef has slightly higher marbling than select beef, but it is not very high. This class of beef is a fine option for backyard grilling enthusiasts. Choice beef accounts for half of all beef within the US market.

Choice beef has 3 further classes. Only the top 2 classes are Certified Angus Beef. The ‘Choice Premium’ variety that you find in Walmart is nothing more than USDA Choice Beef. Don’t be confused with the ‘premium’ tag in Walmart’s ‘Choice Premium’. It has nothing to do with USDA Prime and more to do with marketing.

At 4 to 10 percent fat, the meat has the potential for good taste. Not only does the price depend on demand and supply, it also depends on the weather conditions since it can affect the quality and availability of feed.  

USDA Prime Beef

As the name suggests, it has a fairly high level of marbling. This beef often comes from younger animals. Prime has better taste and tenderness as compared to Choice.

Prime Beef is limited to just 3 percent of the beef supply. Restaurants are the primary buyers of this beef grade. The fat content is very decent at 10 to 13 percent. A Prime ribeye cut can cost two to three times as much as the same cut from the Choice category.

The dry-aged steak has 15 to 18 percent fat content. It is, therefore even more expensive. Prime dry-aged ribeye steak can cost at least 3 times as much as the same piece from Choice grade.

Black Angus

This cattle breed is considered to be one of the very best for beef flavor. Unfortunately, it is very hard to tell if you are purchasing Angus or not.  

Certified Angus Beef

Certified Angus Beef is a brand that markets high quality beef. Beef can carry the CAB logo only if it qualifies 10 quality standards for quality control. CAB beef can come only from USDA Prime or the top two categories of USDA Choice.

USDA Choice accounts for most of the Certified Angus Beef. CAB, as you would expect, is slightly more expensive than Choice (even if it does come from the Choice grade) since the American Angus Association takes its share from the mark up for certifying cattle.

It may come as a surprise to you that the American Angus Association does not claim that its certified beef is from the highly esteemed Angus breed. What they are looking out for is black hide.

Black hide is one of the genetic indicators of the Angus breed but not proof.

American Wagyu Beef

The bloodline of Wagyu bovines can be traced back to one or more Japanese cattle breeds. This popular breed of cattle is raised not just in the US but also in other countries as well.    

American Wagyu does not have to conform to the same austere standards as Kobe beef. As a result, American Wagyus are often bred so that they can better withstand the diseases and weather of the country. Wangus is a crossbreed that comes from Angus and Wagyu. The quality of this meat is very good.

Wagyu has very deep marbling. The extent of marbling is even higher than USDA Prime. Wagyu beef has its own distinctive taste and tenderness. However, the quality is not as high as Japanese Wagyu that has even more marbling.

All of this quality, tenderness and taste come at a price though. Wagyu is about twice as expensive as Prime. The major problem is that breeding is not being controlled. There can be a drop in the quality of Wagyu owing to this cross breeding.

Wagyu is the grade of choice that you should aim for if you have gourmet class meals on your mind. The muscle meat is heavily striated. Streaks of white fat crisscross the meat to give an appearance that looks as delicious as it tastes. This is the minimum beef grade that food connoisseurs should consider.

However, you should beware that American Wagyu hamburger may have fat content from sources other than Wagyu. This is not something that you can risk in a barbecue competition or when you are inviting guests over for the best possible barbecue dinner.

Kobe Beef

Besides the Wagyu variety, Japan is well known for another exclusive variety: Kobe Beef. Not only does the meat have a fabulous taste, it also has the price to match. Don’t be surprised if come across a 12 ounce Kobe ribeye that costs over $150.    

The Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association is the owner of the ‘Kobe Beef’ trademarked brand. This association oversees the restaurants, retailers, distributors, slaughterhouses and producers that use the Kobe Beef brand in Japan. Several rigid regulations control the quality of Kobe Beef and limit the use of the brand name. The steer has to be slaughtered and raised within the Hyogo prefecture. The cattle are to be raised on a special diet.

These bovines come from 4 cattle bloodlines that are collectively referred to as Wagyu. The word Wagyu can be interpreted as ‘Japanese cow’. These breeds are very special since they naturally have high levels of fat to muscle tissue. The beef from these unique breeds is deeply prized for its one of a kind tenderness and flavor. The fat – which is plentiful to begin with – is said to melt in your mouth. The fat also has its own superlative flavor and buttery texture that is unlike any other.

Keep in mind that Japanese Wagyu is different from American Wagyu. So American Wagyu has nothing to do with Kobe Beef.

Kobe Beef comes primarily from the Kuroge Washu breed which accounts for around 90 percent of the supply. This specialty breed is further divided into other breeds. The most well-known breed is Tajima. Much like European winemakers, Japanese villages also meticulously follow the origins of their beef to ensure sustained high quality.  Among these villages, the most famous is the eponymous Kobe followed by Omi and Matsusaka.

Japanese meat is graded across 12 standards. The highest standard (to which Kobe Beef belongs) has an astounding 50 percent fat. Some of it has to do with feed and handling. However, most of it can is attributable to genetics.

Cattle being reared for Kobe Beef are usually given grain. They are sometimes given leftover mash from sake and beer-making processes. Despite the stories that you have read, they are neither massaged nor are they fed beer. They may enjoy these perks some of the times, however, it is not how they are normally raised.

Only 4,000 cattle are slaughtered for Kobe Beef and 90 percent of it is consumed within Japan. Kobe Beef was just recently allowed in the US starting in 2012. Prior to that, all claims of Kobe beef were just plain false. If you ate anything during this time that was supposedly made from Kobe beef, then in all likelihood, it was nothing more than American Wagyu. The funny part is that some restaurants prepared ‘Kobe Beef’ meals complete with bone when, in fact, the meat is completely deboned.

Even today, just two dozen restaurants in the US prepare meals made from Kobe Beef.

Here are details on some other factors that determine the quality of the beef.

Aging

Following slaughter, chemical changes materialize due to a process called rigor mortis. The meat of slaughtered cattle consequently becomes tougher over the course of the next 12 hours. It is best to chill the carcass rapidly immediately after slaughter rather than freezing it. The tense muscles will soften up over a few days during shipment. It will then be ready for sale.   

For more tenderness, it may be aged further. During the aging process, oxygen and enzymes react with the protein to soften muscle tissue. However, the process must be carefully controlled, otherwise, the meat will spoil during the process because there is the risk of mold, yeast or bacterial attack.

Aged meat should not be confused with old meat. The two are very different. In addition, it must be borne in mind that aging is not suitable for all cuts nor is it needed for ground meat. Beef ages much better than either pork or chicken because its fats are more stable and thus do not go rancid easily.

Another point you need to be aware of is that the color is in no way an indicator of beef quality

Colorful Deception

Just because the cut of meat looks a bright crimson, it does not mean that it is necessarily fresh. Cargill and other meat packers seal the beef in an airtight container that is full of carbon monoxide. This process prevents the meat from looking stale and oxidizing. It will not go brown if you store it improperly for a long time.

So the color and appearance may be deceptive and should not be relied upon to assess freshness. You can get around this problem simply by checking the production date. But even here you will run into potential pitfalls. There are rumors about how some unscrupulous butchers change the meat label to fraudulently extend the expiry date.

It seems that the only workable solution to this problem is to buy from a butcher who you absolutely trust. It also pays to be vigilant.

Conclusion

Now that you know about various beef grades, you are well on your to selecting the highest quality beef for the big occasion.  

After all, the final meal will only be as good as the quality of the cuts that you purchased.

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