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Choosing and Preparing a Perfect Steak

Selecting a Cut of Beef

High-quality fresh beef has the following characteristics: good texture, sufficient marbling, desirable color, and lack of excess juices. The more firm and fine the texture of the meat, the higher quality it is. A good amount of marbling also indicates high-grade meat because it adds juiciness and flavor. Beef is best in flavor and texture when cattle is between 18 and 24 months old. At this age, beef will have a rosy red color. (The characteristic pink or red color of meat is due to myoglobin, a protein that contains iron. The
amount of myoglobin varies with the age and species of the cattle.) 

In order to make it easier for consumers to select quality meat and be assured that they are getting their money’s worth, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has developed standards to grade beef. USDA experts grade all meat before it is shipped from packing plants. They stamp the grade on the meat with a harmless vegetable dye and use a roller stamp so the grade will appear on all the principal cuts sold in stores. Fresh beef is graded according to the following characteristics: conformation, finish,
and overall quality. USDA grades take the guesswork out of buying quality beef. There are seven USDA grades of fresh beef: Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Utility, Cutter, and Canner. The standards for each grade are as follows: 
  1. USDA Prime: Beef of this grade is highly acceptable and palatable. The cattle that produces this grade of meat is young and has had careful, intensive feeding. Prime grade cuts have liberal marbling and are, therefore, juicy, tender, and full of flavor. Loin steaks of this grade are exceptionally tender.
  2. USDA Choice: Because this grade is high-quality and has less fat than Prime beef, it is the most popular among consumers. Choice beef is, therefore, the most highly produced grade and the most abundantly available. Choice roasts and steaks from the loin and rib are tender and juicy. Cuts from the round or chuck are more suitable for braising and pot roasting. Choice cuts should be tender with a well-developed flavor. 
  3. USDA Select: Beef of the Select grade has little fat and a high degree of quality. Cuts of this grade lack the juiciness of higher grade meat with more marbling. Many people prefer Select beef, however, because of its tenderness and high proportion of lean to fat. 
  4. USDA Standard: Standard grade beef is lean and of an acceptable degree of quality. It has a lesser degree of tenderness and flavor than the top three grades. It is a good choice for thrifty consumers. 
  5. USDA Commercial: This grade of beef lacks the tenderness of higher grades because it is produced from older animals. Most Commercial cuts require long, slow cooking to make them tender and to develop the rich flavor of mature beef. Cuts from such cattle have almost no marbling. 
  6. USDA Utility: Utility grade beef is produced from older cattle. It, therefore, lacks natural tenderness and juiciness. Utility cuts carry very little fat. They are good for pot roasting, stewing, boiling, and ground meat dishes. Long, slow cooking is essential. 
  7. USDA Cutter and USDA Canner: The lowest USDA grades of meat are used in processed meat products. They are not sold as cuts in stores. 

Preparing a Steak

After choosing the desired cut and grade of beef, the consumer brings it home. If the meat will be cooked within six hours of purchase, it may be left in the package it came in. The object of safe meat storage is to let air circulate and keep the meat’s surface somewhat dry, inhibiting the growth of bacteria. If the meat will not be cooked until more than six hours later, it should be unwrapped from the Styrofoam and plastic wrap and stored wrapped loosely in wax paper in the coldest part of the refrigerator. It can be stored for up to three days. It can also be wrapped airtight and frozen for up to six months. To defrost a cut of beef, it should be placed in the refrigerator or allowed to stand at room temperature just until defrosted. 

Cooking a Steak

Beef can be cooked in many ways, depending on the tenderness, size and thickness of the cut. There are two basic types of heat -- dry (without liquid) and moist (with steam or liquid). 

  • Dry heat is used to cook more tender cuts while moist heat helps tenderize tougher cuts. Methods of cooking with dry heat include roasting, broiling, pan-broiling, sautéing (pan-frying), and rotisserie cooking. 
  • Moist heat cooking methods include: braising, stewing, soup-making, and pressure cooking. Because the filet mignon is one of the most tender cuts in the carcass, it is cooked using dry heat. It is usually cooked quickly by broiling, grilling, or sautéing. A slice of bacon is often wrapped around the edge of a filet mignon steak to give it flavor. 

The length of time that a steak is cooked affects how done it is when served. Steaks can be cooked to three basic degrees: rare, medium, and well done. 

  • Beef that is cooked so that the middle is still quite pink is called rare. It has the most flavor and juiciness, but is not entirely safe because it has not been cooked long enough to kill all bacteria.
  • Medium beef is still a bit red in the middle but is cooked more fully than rare steak. It has flavor and tenderness and is safe to eat. 
  • Well-done steak is thoroughly cooked with no pink color left. It has less flavor and tenderness than rare and medium steak, but is the safest to eat.