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Beef Up Your Knowledge: Meat Marbling 101

An infographic illustrating beef marbling. Selecting the right USDA grade of beef for your dish will help guarantee culinary success. Click to see a larger version.

An infographic illustrating beef marbling. Selecting the right USDA grade of beef for your dish will help guarantee culinary success. Click to see a larger version.

Grilling season is upon us.  It’s time to enjoy that wonderful smell of meat cooking across neighborhood backyards. With so many choices available at your store and meat counter, choosing the best cut of meat for your dish can be overwhelming. With a bit of beef knowledge, you can avoid that problem, and be the king or queen of the barbeque.

We’ve covered the basics of USDA beef grades, explaining the difference between USDA Prime, Choice or Select. This time around, we’re going to look at the marbling – or fine threads of fat – within different grades of meat.  Marbling is what gives beef its flavor, juiciness and tenderness.  USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) employs 200 highly-skilled beef graders who, sometimes with the help of electronic monitoring, evaluate several factors that determine the grade, including the amount and distribution of marbling.

Selecting the right USDA grade of beef for your dish will help guarantee your culinary success.  When beef is cooked, the degree of tenderness is mostly dependent on the amount of fat in the meat.  USDA Prime beef has the highest marbling score or fat content, followed by USDA Choice. USDA Select has only slight marbling.

Beef cuts with less marbling, such as USDA Select, can be cooked on the grill just like USDA Choice or USDA Prime grades but may need to be monitored a little closer and cooked a little less to keep it as tender as possible.  Cuts with more marbling, such as USDA Prime, may be grilled with high heat to a medium or medium rare for excellent results in flavor and tenderness.  Certain cuts, such as the tenderloin (filet) and top blade (flat iron), may naturally be more tender –regardless of the degree of marbling or the USDA grade.

The USDA grade shields are regarded as symbols of quality American beef.  Large-volume buyers such as grocery stores, military institutions, restaurants, and even foreign governments use the quality grades as a “common language” within the beef industry, making business transactions easier.  The shields also mean you can shop with confidence, knowing that your beef will have the quality and consistency that you count on to make your dishes delicious.

The next time you visit the supermarket or your favorite steak house, apply your beefed up knowledge on marbling, tenderness and grades to grill your beef to perfection!

3 Responses to “Beef Up Your Knowledge: Meat Marbling 101”

  1. Mathews says:

    I’m in South Africa and would like to do business with you starting Africultural projects

  2. Zimaishi Miji says:

    How does USDA Prime beef compare with Japanese A5?

  3. Ben [USDA Moderator] says:

    Great question, Zimaishi. Although no official correlations have been established or recognized between the U.S. and Japan, most USDA Prime would fall within the A4 Japanese grade and extend into the A5 category. Because USDA Prime has an open-ended top level of marbling, meaning there is a minimum it must meet but no limit on the top end, most Japanese A4 and A5 would be classified as USDA Prime. – Craig A. Morris, Deputy Administrator of the AMS Livestock, Poultry and Seed Program

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