After having a discussion with some food pals about beef marbling scores for Japanese beef, I realized that there’s a lot of confusion surrounding the subject. As such, I figured it was time for a more detailed article about this shit. Here goes…
There are three things to understand when it comes to marbling scores:
In many ways quality and marbling overlap each other, since it usually follows that highly marbled beef is also high quality beef. But lets break it down here one at a time.
(1) The A-B-C’s of Yield
I like to think of this as the quantity component, as opposed to quality. A yield rating is a percentage figure that objectively describes the cutability of an animal, or the amount of the animal that can be harvested from a particular area of the carcass.
In particular, this score is determined by carefully measuring shit once a cut is made between the 6th and 7th rib, on the rib eye. The score is assigned after plugging four measurements taken at that cut into a “multiple regression equation.”
The four measurements are: rib eye area; rib thickness; cold left side weight; and subcutaneous fat thickness.
Raters score wagyu as either A, B or C in Japan. A has the highest yield, at 72% or more. B is 69-71%, and this is the most common yield. C is under 69%.
From a business and sales standpoint, it’s better to have higher yields on your animal. So A is better than C in many ways on that angle. For example, a carcass can get knocked down from A to B if the band of outer fat (not the marbling) is too thick, because it lowers the cutability yield (makes the actual rib eye meat smaller). Farmers and ranchers who raise the animals will want to select and breed for good yield traits.
From a consumer’s or diner’s standpoint, however, the yield isn’t, or shouldn’t really be, much of a concern. While a rating of A, B or C makes us instinctively think A is better than C, that would kinda be wrong in this case.
The C grade really just means that, before the meat got to our plate, more of the extrenal fat had to be trimmed away, the rib eye was small, or there was less of that particular cut of meat to harvest from the animal. Or something like that…
Quality grades describe the meat’s marbling, color, brightness, firmness and texture. It also describes fat quality, color and luster. This score is assigned as a value of 1 to 5, with 1 being the lowest quality and 5 being the highest. A lot of detailed analysis goes into this score.
As you can see, marbling, meat color and brightness, meat firmness and texture, and fat quality, color and luster are all evaluated on separate scales before being plugged into the overall quality score of 1-5. Pretty intense.
Some of the measurements are now starting to be done with cameras and digital image analysis software (like in the US), to more objectively determine the quality scores.
(3) Beef Marbling Standard (BMS)
The beef marbling stardard assigns a score to the meat based on how much intramuscular fat (IMF, or marbling) it has. It is scored from 1-12, with 1 being the least marbling and 12 being the most. Here is what that looks like:
There is definitely some interplay and overlap here with the quality score, as marbling is a factor one must consider when assigning a quality score of 1-5 up above. But the BMS score is much a more specific look at the intramuscular fat. Here is the relationship between quality and BMS:
As you can see, a score of 5 covers a wide range when it comes to the BMS scale. BMS 8 is very different from BMS 12, yet they are both a 5 for quality.
You may be thinking, why the redundancy? Well, as I mentioned in the previous section, the quality also takes meat color, fat color, texture and other variables into account. BMS, again, is purely about the marbling.
Basically the best quality available is A5 BMS 12. The A means that there was very little junk on the animal, and it had a good-sized rib eye. The 5 means it’s the best when assessing all the variables relevant to quality, like color, texture and fat. And the 12 means that it has the most marbling.
But I wouldn’t shy away from B5 or C5 BMS 12 either. Remember the letter grade is more about quantity, at least it seems so to me, anyway. Actually, my sweet spot seems to be around BMS 8 or 9. Anything more than that is like foie gras. It tastes like a completely different protein.
It’s been a year since I started getting more deeply involved with beef industry professionals and writing posts that advocate on their behalf. One thing I’ve noticed is that lots of people don’t realize how many different professions are involved in the beef industry.
It’s not just farmers, butchers and chefs. It starts, of course, with the animals themselves, the cattlemen that raise them, and the farmers that grow their food.
Like humans, cows have a nine month gestation period. For the first few months, a calf is raised on its mother’s milk (colostum – for key nutrients and immunity). After maybe six or eight months, a calf is weaned off of mother’s milk and put out to pasture. At that time decisions are typically made about whether the animal will be sold off or kept for breeding.
The feed yard is typically the next location for the animal (when the animal is about a year old). This is where they get fattened up for market.
Grain finished animals stay in a feed yard for about 120-180 days. The grain mixture they eat is typically representative of local agriculture. For example, in California there may be almond hulls mixed in with the standard corn or wheat. In New York, there are sunflower seeds mixed in. In Idaho, there is some potato mash.
Grass finished animals stay on pasture or hay for seven or eight months longer, on average, than grain finished animals. They do not eat grain. It generally takes longer for them to get to market weight.
After that, it’s off to the slaughter they go, where we have people who work at processing plants for slaughter and packing. The Humane Slaughter Act of 1958, updated in 1978 and 2002, governs how all of this is done.
At the packing plant, the beef product is broken down into primal and sub-primal cuts:
Primal: chuck, rib, round, loin.
Sub-Primal: bottom round, top round, eye round, round tip.
Then, the meat is shipped off to grocers, butchers, restaurants and other end-user locations, ultimately ending with diners like you and me gobbling up all of that delicious meat.
Veterinarians, animal care specialists, scientists and government inspectors are present at each step during this process, from farm, to feed yard, to slaughterhouse, to distributers, to grocers, restaurants and butcher shops. And, of course, law makers and beef industry professionals have helped put together all of the guidelines and regulations that govern and run the industry.
It’s a very complex and well-monitored process, so don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that beef is somehow unsafe. The industry also provides for countless jobs, and that stimulates the economy. Last, and most importantly, they all help to put steak on our dinner plates.
I just got home from Nebraska, where I went on a beef tour that explored the entire life cycle of cattle from calving, to grazing, to the feedyard, to the packing plant.
Why Nebraska? I’ll tell you.
Nebraska’s economy is driven by corn crops, feed yards and cattle ranching. There are nearly two million people in Nebraska but nearly eight million cattle. It’s the number one red meat production state in the country.
Half of the beef produced in Nebraska goes overseas as export, to the tune of one billion dollars worth per year. The US is the third or fourth biggest exporter of beef in the world, but we also happen to be the number one importer (why we import is a topic for another day). India, believe it or not, is the number one exporter, likely soon to be bested by Brazil.
But enough of that. Let me get down to the nitty gritty of this incredible tour.
We made four stops: three in the first day, and one on the second day.
Stop 1: Knobbe Feedyards
While this was the first stop on the tour, it’s really the last phase of the animals life cycle before being sent off to the packing plant for harvesting/slaughter.
A feedyard is a place where cattle are fattened up to market weight over the course of four to six months.
Harry Knobbe (pronounced like Obiwan’s last name) and his family get yearling cattle (roughly a year old), weighing around 750lbs. The animals are generally there for 130-180 days, until they hit 1400-1500lbs, which is a good market weight. Doing the math, that means they generally reach this weight at 15 to 18 months of age, and the animals gain just under 4lbs a day. Each animal eats about 25lbs of food and 100lbs of water each day. Fatties!
The feed given to the animals changes as their time there passes. In fact there are six stages of feed with decreasing roughage/grass content and increasing corn content as time goes by (with stage one containing the most roughage content of the six). The animals are coming off of a mostly grazing/grass diet, and need to be acclimated to the corn-rich diet over time.
Just what’s in that diet? Aside from the roughage and grasses that are always mixed in to some percentage, the feed consists of mainly two byproducts or waste products from the corn industry.
The first byproduct comes from the sweetener and corn syrup industry, and is referred to as “cow candy,” because they love it so much and it smells sweet like candy.
The second corn byproduct in the feed comes from the ethanol fuel industry. Ethanol plants would otherwise discard this substance, which is similar to the mash left from spirits alcohol distillers.
As a general number, the feed gets about 20% of each in the stage one feed, with the rest being roughage.
This particular feedyard has a capacity of 5000 head. That’s about average in terms of size. Their large, semi-shaded pens have ample water and space for the cattle, at 250-350sq ft per animal.
Oddly enough, the living conditions for cattle don’t change much as feed yards scale up to 10k, 50k or 100k heads; they just sprawl out more.
Kbobbe loses seven tenths of one pecent to death, which is a very good statistic. The animals come from all over the place, from different climates and states. Some locations have a higher incidence of parasites, like the wetter climate of Mississippi, for example. As such, the animals are dewormed and vaccinated when they get to Knobbe as a precaution. After all, sick animals tend not to grade as high as healthy animals.
Fun fact that I learned here: it’s cheaper to bring cattle to corn as opposed to bringing corn to cattle. Based on the numbers I quoted here, it would require ridiculous amounts of corn truckloads to be moved to cattle ranches for finishing. Thats why animals come from all over the country to finish in Nebraska; all the corn is right there. It also makes sense why Nebraska is such an important place for the beef industry.
As for the output of Knobbe, they see about 2-5% of their animals grade at prime, 75-80% choice, and the rest select.
Stop 2: Peregrine Ranch
This second stop was really the first step in the life of the animal. Don Peregrine runs a third generation calving ranch near Fullerton. This area of Nebraska is near what is known as the Sand Hills region, which generally separates what’s considered eastern Nebraska from western Nebraska.
The east is characterized by rich, lush soil that’s perfect for growing corn. The west, on the other hand, or the Sand Hills, consists of a topography that’s not good for growing corn (think 50 bushels per acre as opposed to 250).
The Sand Hills quite literally is a region of hilly topography that’s like sand dunes beneath the grass. While this is not ideal for growing corn (or much of anything, for that matter), it IS ideal for grazing cattle.
Don Peregrine’s land butts up right against the beginning of the Sand Hills region, so he consider himself a grass farmer as much as a cattle rancher.
He’s also got some river bed land, which poses a unique set of challenges in addition to those already faced in the Sand Hills. River bed land can cause hoof rot if the animals hoofs are too wet for too long.
Aside from his expertise with the land, Don has developed a unique and hands-on hybrid breeding method, with animals that have been selected by him for 40 years. One particular cow we met was 14 years old and had already given birth to 14 calves.
He employs herd management techniques like ear tagging (done early), topical dehorning (dries the horn and prevents it from growing without having to grind, saw or burn the horn down), and fence barrier weaning. These all exemplify humane, low stress practices.
In addition to grass, Don supplements the animals’ diet with minerals, “cow candy” from ethanol and sugar production, and other additives like E.P.T. for development.
Stop 3: Ryan & June Loseke, DVM
This family not only raises corn, soybeans and alfalfa, but they also run a 3500-head feed yard and a veterinary practice. Amazing!
The corn and soy beans make up 1700 acres of their land, with 40 acres of alfalfa nestled near the family home.
Technology makes it more efficient for them to run and manage their farm. Sprayers and planters are guided by GPS, which allows them to maximize the use of their land and to plant straight rows. It even tells them when less water or spray is needed in certain areas, based on topography and water tables.
I was here during corn planting season. In fact Ryan was racing to get corn planted before some forecasted rains. Sure enough it rained a lot later that night and into the morning. Good thing he got that corn planted otherwise he would’ve lost time waiting for the ground to be right for planting again.
They’re also vets for large and small animals, including pets as well. This is great, since they’re also running a feed yard and can apply their knowledge of veterinary science to their own animals.
They promote Certified Angus Beef cattle in their feed yard. They sell to Cargill, Greater Omaha and Creekstone packing plants (among others).
They even host local kindergarten students from the area schools to teach them about agriculture.
Stop 4: Cargill Meat Solutions
This was probably my favorite part of the tour, since it’s where the animals are harvested into delicious and nutritious beef!
Unfortunately cameras are not allowed inside the facility for business proprietary and employee privacy reasons, so that’s the only shot I have.
Cargill has been in business for 150 yeas, with this facility being open since 1968. They have facilities in multiple states.
They employ about 2200 people at the plant, who hail from 28 different nations but all live in the region. They boast a 40-45% female work force, many of whom are on the fabrication floor engaged in employment that was historically only thought of as men’s work.
They’re obsessed with safety and regulatory compliance. They’ve got two labs on site to take samples of air and drainage. There’s also a third party lab engaged for pathogen testing.
There are cameras everywhere, with a video room to watch the cattle knocker and the various floors. Quality Assurance personnel watches 100% of the time to monitor both the employees and the beef. They can focus in on people to make sure they’re following various requirements, dressing the beef properly, handling knives and sterilizers the right way, etc. If they see something, they can radio a supervisor that can address the situation immediately. There’s also a red button to stop the production line if all else fails.
Not only is safety a priority for the Cargill meat supply, given all the USDA and inspectors/auditing folks there all the time, but they’re also always looking out for their employees. They have nursing staff on hand for heat, icing, massage and soreness treatments. They even have hydraulic floor lifts that raise and lower cutters to be at the appropriate and safe work height for butchery.
There are two 8-hour processing shifts of work, and one cleaning shift of work each day. The plant processes 5300 head of cattle a day, which is the largest operation in the area.
To give you an idea of scale, this comes down to 6.1 million 8oz servings of beef per day, and 3 million pounds of ground beef per week. Impressive.
I was told that 64% is a good yield for an animal carcass for edible beef protein. But nothing really goes to waste. Hides, offal, etc. are all utilized in some way, whether it’s rendering or bone gelatin. There truly is no waste. Well, everything is used except for the tail switch (bristle hairs at the end of the tail) and the “moo” (snout).
Cargill is still growing, but it’s also modernizing. They’re one of two major packers who use a camera system for grading. A special camera captures an image of the rib eye, then a computer runs an algorithm to generate a scoring number that assigns the a grade to the side of beef. This system makes meat grading less arbitrary and more consistent across their plants.
Speaking of grading, Cargill sees about 3-6% prime grade, with most of the rest being choice and select.
Cargill is also excelling on the environmental and sustainability side of things. They employ state of the art methane recovery and water conservation and purification techniques. This reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 30%.
They’re also involved with the Sands County Foundation, which recognizes excellent rancher environmental practices with the “Leopold Conservation Award.”
Being such a massive employment force in the area, they also like to reinvest in the local community. Cargill Cares, United Way and various school programs all exemplify ways in which Cargill gives back to and helps enrich the community.
So what are the details of what actually happens at a slaughterhouse or packing plant? Here’s a breakdown of the carcass’ movement through the Cargill facility:
Step 1: This is the unloading of animals from the trailer onto lots. This typically takes place at like 9pm or 10pm the night before the beef is harvested. Once checked, the animals will stay there for 4-6 hours.
Step 2: The animals are walked through “the serpentine,” which is a specially designed passageway from the lots into the harvesting floor that minimizes stress. Once the animal is “knocked” it is rendered desensitized. It can no longer feel anything and is unconscious. The first knock happens just after 6am, I believe.
Then the animal is cut to bleed out, its hide is removed, it’s eviscerated (offal removed), the head is removed, and then it’s split into two sides. After all that, it is given a ticket with info for the next parts of the process. This step takes 32 minutes.
In certain stages of this phase, there are high pressure carcass washes to get mud and hair off, and to trim off any visible stuff that needs to be removed.
Steam vacuums are used for bugs and stuff that you can’t see. A 180 degree carcass wash is used to kill E. coli. An organic acid cabinet is used post-evisceration to further these precautions. There is a neck wash, and spinal material is removed with a special bladed vacuum according to directives relating to Mad Cow Disease. There’s also a steam pasteurization cabinet that exposes the carcass to 201 degree steam for nine seconds. This is also done to kill bacteria or parasites.
After some of these hot washes, the carcass is immediately chilled again. Remember this is all within 32 minutes!
Step 3: The carcass is chilled with water to bring down the temperature. This takes 28-32 hours.
Step 4: The bodies move to the sales cooler, where graders look at the rib eye. The special camera that I mentioned above is used here, and a marbling grade is determined. It’s stamped with the grade and then sorted. This takes 12 to 48 hours.
Step 5: Once the carcass hits the fabrication floor it takes just 22 minutes to put the final cuts into a box. It’s here that cutters will butcher the various parts into all the commercial cuts, according to whatever is on the order sheets from Cargill customers.
Step 6: The Cargill distribution and shipping center is almost 100% automated. The beef can be here for anywhere from 2-36 hours before it goes onto trucks for delivery. Cargill has capacity for 70,000 boxes, all individually shelved without stacking on top of one another.
The total time that the animal and end product beef is at Cargill is about 4-6 days.
I hope this gave you some insight into how beef is produced; where it comes from, what it eats, how it’s raised, and how it’s broken down for consumption. I really learned and experienced a lot on this tour, and I hope to go on another one soon to learn more about butchery and cuts. Texas A&M’s “Beef 101” course is on my hit list.
In my effort to educate you dingbats about all-things-beef, I figured this would be a nice little primer on what’s going on in the industry around the Beef Checkoff Program.
In 1985, the Food Security Act, aka the “Farm Bill,” established something called the Beef Checkoff Program. The program, which later became mandatory in 1988, takes $1 per head on the sale of live domestic and imported cattle, in addition to a comparable grab on imported beef and beef products.
The dough is collected by state beef councils, which retain up to half the amount collected. The state councils give the other half to the Cattlemen’s Beef Promotion and Research Board, which oversees the national checkoff program, subject to USDA review.
There are 100 members of the Cattlemen’s Beef Board. They’re nominated by fellow beef producers and appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture, and they represent all segments of the beef industry.
Beef Checkoff was designed to get people to sell more beef and motivate consumers to buy more beef. This is accomplished through advertising, marketing partnerships, public relations, education, research and new-product development. The Beef Act defines six program categories: (1) promotion, (2) research, (3) consumer information, (4) industry information, (5) foreign marketing, and (6) producer communications.
You may have heard the slogan “Beef: It’s what’s for dinner” somewhere in your travels. That’s just one example of their success.
But fear not! By law, checkoff funds can’t be used to promote breeds or brands without USDA and Beef Board Executive Committee approval. Furthermore, checkoff funds can’t be used to influence government policy or action (including lobbying). The law also disallows checkoff money to be invested in production research that isn’t aimed at improving beef products.
The main goal of the program is to increase commodity demand, and thus increase economic growth in the industry. Most beef and dairy producers believe that their beef checkoff dollars bring value back to them. Many of my posts are a result of beef checkoff funding, actually. The MBA and Top of the Class programs in which I participated were funded by the checkoff. Do you think that money went to good use? I do!
Should the funding ever increase (to more than $1 per head, for example) the checkoff may consider putting the “Beef: It’s What’s For Dinner” message back on TV, stepping up consumer education, or increasing foreign market development.
The more I learn about farming and beef production in the US, the more I come across this thing called “Extension.” No, it’s not what happens when a young man sees an attractive woman sans clothing. Let me do my best to try to explain exactly what it is.
The Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s (NIFA) Cooperative Extension provides non-formal education and learning activities to farmers, residents of rural communities, and people in urban areas throughout the country.
The country’s more than 100 land-grant colleges and universities have a critical mission, which they call “extension.” Through extension, they bring vital, practical information to agricultural producers, small business owners, consumers, families and kids.
That’s where 4-H comes into play. 4‑H is a youth development program delivered by Cooperative Extension. You may remember the commercials that used to air in the 80’s, like this one:
Kids complete hands-on projects in areas like health, science, agriculture and citizenship. They receive guidance from adult mentors and are encouraged to take on proactive leadership roles. 4‑H touches every area of the country via in-school and after-school programs, community clubs and camps.
The Rib Eye is the most ultimate of steaks, period. It is an awesome cut of beef.
Etymology: The etymology on this is pretty self-explanatory. The “rib” part of the name is because this cut of meat is connected to a rib bone. The “eye” part of the name is a reference to the circular, more centrally located portion of the cut that is more uniform than the outer portions of the cut. You will likely see the Rib Eye steak, or rib chop, called by many names.
For example, the Cowboy Rib Eye is a bone-in version of the cut:
There’s also the Tomahawk Rib Eye, which is so named for its resemblance to a Tomahawk-style hatchet. When butchered, a long “handle” of rib is cut clean to expose the bone (it is “Frenched,” as they say), and the steak meat is left at the end of the handle to form the hatchet blade:
Here’s a shot of my buddy; he’s about to get clobbered with a Tomahawk Rib Eye by Chef Josh Capon at Bowery Meat Company:
There’s also the Delmonico cut, otherwise known as a Scotch Filet. Applying what you’ve learned here, you can probably guess that this cut is boneless (filet means “boneless” in French). Delmonico’s claims this cut as their own because they named a house special boneless cut Rib Eye steak after their restaurant, way back in the early 1800’s when they first opened.
Anatomy: The rib section of beef spans from ribs six through twelve, and, obviously, hails from the rib section of the animal.
Rib Eye steaks are mainly composed of the Longissimus dorsi muscle (the “eye” portion of the steak) and the Spinalis dorsi muscle.
The more anterior your cut, the more Spinalis you’ll find in the steak. The Spinalis is the coveted cap of meat that wraps around the fatter end of the steak and usually has much more marbling than the rest of the Longissimus eye, or interior of the steak. That “fat cap” is also called the Deckle when it is butchered away from the remaining eye.
Highly skilled butchers know how to remove it from its position across an entire standing rib roast section of ribs, so as to keep it all together as one giant cut. But then that ruins the rib chop, in my opinion, since you’re taking away the best part. Some steakhouses have taken to tying several Deckle cuts together in a spiral formation to create an all-fat-cap steak. Bowery Meat Company has one such cut, which they call the Bowery Steak:
STK also offers one on special from time to time:
The Spinalis has a more intense marbling, and, thus, much more flavor and tenderness. If you are so bold, the next time you order a Rib Eye at a steakhouse, ask for an anterior cut that has more of this fantastic Spinalis muscle.
Preparation: There are a ton of ways to prepare a rib steak. The most comon forms are searing in a pan, grilling, or broiling. Another common method of preparing this kind of meat is roasting. A “standing rib roast” is a section of Rib Eye steaks that has not yet been portioned into individual steaks.
When this rack of ribs is roasted slow and low to a pink medium rare, the end product is called Prime Rib.
It then gets sliced out into portions for individual consumption. This is a mammoth cut that we got from Burger & Barrel:
I know what you’re wondering, and the answer is Yes: Prime Rib and Rib Eye steak are the same exact thing. They are just prepared differently, using different cooking methods.
Cheaper cuts of rib steaks are actually the most common type of beef found in Philly Cheesesteaks as well. The meat is cut super thin and then cooked on a flat top with cheese, onions and other toppings, then shoved into long sandwich bread (incase you’re an asshole who has no fucking clue was a cheesesteak is).
Side Bar: is a Philly Cheesesteak better than a Cheeseburger? I think so… Man… Now I’m hungry for both…
Flavor: This steak has a high fat content, and that makes it very important to have a quality cut of beef, or an aged cut of beef. In high quality and aged cuts, this fat will render out or melt away much easier during the cooking process. This will impart a tremendous amount of flavor into the steak, and it will leave the remaining flesh with a very tender and soft texture. Don’t be afraid of the fat. Fat is not the same as gristle. Fat is good. Fat is your friend. Any good butcher will get the gristle off and leave the good fat behind. And when that good fat is REALLY good, it’s like having a delicious beef jelly with each bite of steak.
As discussed above, the Rib Eye is really like having two steaks in one (The small Spinalis Deckle or fat cap, and the larger Longissimus eye). The Spinalis is soft, tender, has lots of fat flavor and sometimes develops a crisp during cooking. The eye is more dense, but still well marbled so that it retains intense flavor. The eye is more uniform than the Spinalis. So: two steaks in one, kind of like the Porterhouse. Plus, there’s a nice, meaty beef spare rib to gnaw on at the end, if you order a bone-in chop.
Since there is generally more fat and marbling in this cut across its entirety, you will get better flavors than with the tenderloin or Strip, in my opinion. Clearly, high fat content is not for everyone. If you want to avoid fats in your diet, then go with the tenderloin. I actually really enjoy the flavor of fat. Fat, now, is sometimes referred to as the sixth flavor sensation. There were always four: (1) savory, (2) sweet, (3) bitter and (4) sour. “Umami” claims to be the fifth, and is meant to encompass the earthy, funky, fermented flavor sensations that you experience with mushrooms, truffles, aged beef and blue cheese. I just dislike the word “umami,” so I use “earthy” instead. The sixth is “fat,” apparently, as decreed by various food people who get paid to sit around and do these things. I’m not sure how it works, but I seem to be able to recognize a distinct sensation on my tastebuds, along with a buttery flavor and slippery feel, whenever I eat shit like pork bone ramen or a Rib Eye steak. Maybe there’s something to it?
Anyway, I hope this was an informative and educational post for you meat minions out there. Knowing this shit, I think, is very important.
Etymology: According to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, this steak is marketed under various names, including Ambassador Steak, Club Steak, Hotel-Style Steak, Veiny Steak, Kansas City Steak and New York Strip Steak. Delmonico’s offered Strip as a signature dish way back in the early 1800’s. Due to the cut’s association with NYC, the New York Strip Steak name was born.
Anatomy: The Strip is cut from the other side of the tenderloin, across the vertebra on the T-bone or Porterhouse.
Also known as strip loin, the Strip Steak is cut from the short loin part of the animal, from a muscle that does little work, like the Filet Mignon. It is generally more tender than the similarly situated but more posterior-located sirloin section of the animal. While it is essentially the same kind of meat as sirloin, the muscles in the rear do a bit more work than the short loin, so can be a bit more tough.
Preparation: For me, the Strip is best at medium rare, to preserve the tenderness and reduce any mealy or grainy textures that can develop from overcooking. It is always best to get a really great quality cut for this chop, something prime+, as all the intra-muscular fat, or marbling, will become soft and the muscle will tenderize all over. You will often see it marinated or rubbed with spices, to impart additional flavors, but grilling and broiling in the traditional style is fantastic as well, especially with butter and herbs. It can be served bone-in or boneless. Leaving the bone in will impart more flavor and help with the cooking process, since the bone conveys heat into the center of the meat while locking in juices. At home, marinade this puppy in something like soy sauce and garlic, and slap it on the BBQ for a few minutes on each side and you will have the perfect home-cooked steak.
Flavor: This cut contains fat in levels that are somewhat in between the tenderloin (virtually none) and the Rib Eye (plenty of good, melty fat). Like the tenderloin, there is little variation throughout the cut, so the flavors and textures are more uniform for the Strip Steak, unlike the Rib Eye which has varying textures and flavors from one end of the cut to the other. The texture of a Strip can sometimes be a little bit grainy or mealy, and a bit more tight than a Filet Mignon or a Rib Eye – especially if it’s cooked too much.
Etymology: Filet, in culinary terminology, means boneless. Mignon, in French, means dainty or small. As such, this is a steak ideally suited for chicks: small/dainty, and with no bone.
Occasionally on a steakhouse menu you will see a “bone-in filet.” Given what I just mentioned above, that phraseology is completely self-defeating and confusing, as it simultaneously means both “bone-in” and “boneless.” However, it seems this sort of language is becoming commonplace. If it were up to me, I would prefer “bone-in tenderloin” to be listed on menus instead. There is no wording conflict with that phrasing, and it is an accurate description of what is being presented. In other words: all Filet Mignon is tenderloin, but not all tenderloin is Filet Mignon.
Anatomy: Traditionally, a Filet Mignon was cut from the anterior end of the tenderloin. In the beef chart image below, you can see a portion of the tenderloin section highlighted in red.
That is where Filet Mignon was typically located, though most butchers label all steaks cut from the tenderloin as Filet Mignon (this allows for larger portions). The tenderloins run along both sides of the spine. They taper from thick, in the posterior of the animal, to thin in the front.
In their unbutchered form, they contain what’s called the “silver skin” still attached to the flesh. This is a thick connective tissue that is pretty much inedible. When butchering the full tenderloin, you will want to slice that off (it is NOT tender).
While this next photo is a repeat shot of a lamb vertebra Barnsley chop (the mutton chop from Keen’s), the anatomy is exactly the same for beef. This will illustrate exactly where the filet comes from. Essentially this is a double porterhouse, with a filet and a strip on each side. In addition to understanding the Filet Mignon, this image is useful in demonstrating the anatomy of the Strip and Porterhouse cuts as well, since they all come from the same place – the vertebrae of the animal:
Preparation: Preparations of this cut vary greatly. You may see this cut sliced thin and pounded flat, served raw for carpaccio. You may also see it finely chopped for tartare. A simple pan sear with butter and herbs, however, is probably the most common preparation.
Yet another style is Chateaubriand, which is a large section of the thick portion of the tenderloin that is roasted boneless, then sliced and served with a reduction sauce.
There is also Beef Wellington, which is a portion of tenderloin that has been coated with pate and then wrapped in puff pastry dough prior to cooking.
Flavor: Widely considered the most tender and least fatty cut of beef on the animal, the flavor should be uniform from one end to the other, with very tender and soft texture the whole way through. There is hardly any fat content in the standard cut of Filet Mignon. Some chefs will wrap the filet in caul fat (a lacy, fatty, web-like membrane that surrounds the stomach of an animal) before cooking. The webbing melts away during cooking and imparts a fat flavor into the meat. But it is more common to use things like butter, or to wrap a filet in bacon to add the fat flavor into the meat.
Etymology: There is some difference of opinion on the origin of the word “Porterhouse,” with several restaurants and cities claiming to have created the name. For example, Martin Morrison served large T-bones in his Pearl Street (Manhattan) “Porter House” around 1814.This history was popular in the late 1800’s, but some say a Cambridge, Massachusetts proprietor by the name of Zachariah B. Porter added his name to the steak. Still, others argue that the Porterhouse name stems from various 19th Century U.S. hotels or restaurants called Porter House, such as the Porter House Hotel in Flowery Branch, Georgia.
Anatomy: The Porterhouse is a cut of steak from the short loin portion of the animal that contains both strip loin and tenderloin meats. See the highlighted portion in the diagram below:
It is cut from a lumbar vertebra that is sawed in half through the vertebral column.
The downward prong of the “T” is a transverse process of the vertebra, and the flesh that surrounds it (spinal muscles) makes up the meat of the Porterhouse.
Essentially, it is a large T-bone steak from the rear of the animal that has two different types of meat (tenderloin and strip loin), one on either side of the “T.” In the picture below, the strip loin or Strip Steak is on the right, and the tenderloin or Filet Mignon is on the left.
The small semicircle at the top of the ‘T’ is half of the vertebral foramen, which is the name of the hole that passes through each vertebra for housing and protecting the spinal cord. They run the whole way up the back, all the way up to the brain of the animal.
The anatomy of a Porterhouse differs from that of a T-bone only in that the Porterhouse contains a larger portion of tenderloin than its T-bone counterpart.
This is primarily due to the fact that Porterhouse steaks are cut from further in the rear of the animal, from lumbar vertebrae, where the tenderloin is much thicker. Experts differ, however, on how large the tenderloin must be to differentiate a Porterhouse from a T-bone. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Institutional Meat Purchase Specifications state that the tenderloin of a Porterhouse must be at least 1.25 inches thick at its widest, while that of a T-bone must be at least 0.5 inches.
Here is a shot of a short loin with multiple vertebrae still intact and not portioned out into individual Porterhouses and T-bones.
You can see on the left there is a good sized, thick portion of tenderloin. That thins down as you move the the right, and seems to disappear by time your eyes reach the far end of the cut.
Just to drive home the anatomy a little more, here is a great excerpt and image from Russ Cooks:
“Up close and personal, this is where the T-bone fits.
The black line across the top of the two T-bones pictured here is the outside (top of the back) of the steer. You can see the T-bone in the schematic illustration higher up on this page as the topmost part labelled Rib. Above the ribs, what you touch if you pat the steer’s back, is the New York strip. Beneath the ribs is the tenderloin from which a filet mignon is often cut. T-bone steaks cut closer to the shoulder are known as Porterhouse while those cut closer to the loin are just T-bones.”
Preparation: Most times, T-bones and Porterhouses are either grilled, seared in a pan, broiled or blasted with high heat in specialty steak ovens made for charring the outside of the meat without over-cooking the inside. Butter is essential, and heavy seasoning is important as well. Herbs and garlic help boost the flavor too.
Flavor: Since this cut contains both the Filet Mignon and the Strip Steak, I refer you to the flavor sections for those cuts below, with a notation that the bone being left in often adds a more robust flavor while helping to retain tenderness and juiciness. These are very popular items at steakhouses because they can be cut large enough to feed anywhere from two to four people. Additionally, with two different types of meat in one steak, one can vary the flavors that one experiences with each bite.
I recently had dinner with a friend of mine who had just gotten an angioplasty. If you don’t know what that is, it’s when surgeons open up blocked arteries and restore normal blood flow to the heart. If your arteries stay clogged, you can have a heart attack and die. Duh.
My friend’s doctor obviously cautioned him to avoid saturated fats and bad cholesterol. That doesn’t mean he can’t have a steak once in a while, and that’s exactly what he wanted for dinner on the night we hung out. I have that effect on people…
So there were two steaks on the menu; a NY strip and a skirt. My buddy asked the waitress, “which one is more fatty?” She said the strip, which, all things equal in terms of grade and cooking prep, is completely false. I informed my buddy why she was wrong after she stepped away, so as not to embarrass her. But I figured I would share that knowledge here with you guys, too. Here’s why she was wrong:
NY strip steak is a strip loin cut of beef, which is the most prized part of the sirloin. Sirloin is considered a lean cut of beef. In fact, any time you see the word “loin” in describing a cut of beef, that means it’s lean. The one caveat I’ll give is that fat content also depends on the grade of beef, not just the location of the cut. Prime has more intra-muscular fat (marbling) than choice, for example, and something like Kobe has more than prime.
The term “lean” means that the beef has 4.5g or less of saturated fat per serving, and 10g or less total fat per serving. About 66% of beef cuts are considered lean cuts. That’s pretty fucking good!
Skirt hails from the “plate” or diaphragm muscle of the bovine anatomy. It’s not listed above because it isn’t within the definition of lean. It has more fat content than a strip steak, especially after a strip is trimmed by a restaurant. Most of the fat on a sirloin lies on the outside of the muscle, as opposed to the inside marbling (which, by the way, contains “good fats,” like olive oil and avocados do). But when external fat is trimmed away, you’re down to low fat content.
The real question, then, becomes: How is the steak prepared? Does it come with a cream sauce? Is it cooked with tons of butter? Is it simply seasoned and grilled? All of this matters tremendously in terms of calculating the total fat content of a particular dish.
Why do I mention this? Because the method of cooking could flip these fat levels very easily. If the strip is being cooked in a pan filled with butter and then smothered in a cream sauce, while the skirt is simply seasoned and grilled, then maybe it’s best to get the skirt if you’re trying to be mindful of overall fat content. It all depends, like adult diapers.
My advice: don’t ruin good beef with a sauce. I love the flavor of beef, so I don’t like to mask it with sauces of any kind. Simply season and fire it up. If you live by those rules, then you can take the fat content of lean cuts at face value and be confident that you’re eating a low fat, lean beef meal that’s both nutritious and delicious.