I can honestly say that my favorite class in culinary school was meat-cutting. I loved my chef, he was brilliant, but strict, and taught me everything I'd ever want to know about meat. Not only did we learn to break down chickens, French racks of lamb, fabricate entire pork loins (I mean ribs, tenderloin, the whole shebang), and break down primal cuts of beef (and other animals), but we learned to identify the differences between various cuts of meat, what part of the animal they derive from, their grain/texture, how to differentiate quality, etc. It was notoriously one of the toughest classes in the entire culinary program, and I loved it! Although this education took place a while back, I would love to share a few tidbits of knowledge that will be perfect to keep in mind as you fire up your grill this summer.
First of all, cut does not determine quality. A choice or select tenderloin is of lesser quality than prime chuck. Regardless of the cut of meat, the quality of that meat is determined from the entire animal. A whole beef carcass (or lamb or pig for that matter) has the same USDA quality rating in all of its parts. Quality is usually determined by the amount of fat and marbling in an animal's meat. The more marbling the better (Wagyu and Kobe beef is insanely marbled, resulting in the hefty price tags). This results in a juicier product, if cooked correctly. This doesn't mean you must always buy prime quality meat in order to have a good steak, but it's just a reference. Choice is a perfectly good option. Beware heading further down the totem pole. And for the record, the dish "prime rib" is a misnomer. It suggests that the rib is prime quality, which it is not necessarily. It could be a choice or select quality rib. The rib is a primal cut of the animal, so really it should be called "primal rib" and not "prime rib."
Here is some info on meat grading to keep in mind as you purchase non-poultry proteins for your cookouts. Anything lower than select, standard, and good are unlikely to be found in a supermarket, and are generally used for processed, ground or manufactured items such as meat patties or canned meat products like dog food (think Big Mac... yeah, I know! Apparently processed beef patties are often treated with ammonia to kill off "bad things" so the meat will be safe for consumption. Do you really want to put that in your body?). I once ordered veal parm at a restaurant and was asked if I wanted the real veal or the veal patty. A scary question. Think about what you're eating... and for the record, grading is voluntary, not mandatory. If it isn't graded, it doesn't mean it's bad necessarily, it just didn't go through the process of being graded (smaller producers and farmers will likely not get their meat graded, but that is in no way suggesting you shouldn't buy from them).
- Prime (only steers and bullocks, not cows)
Veal and Calf
Ovine (Lamb and Mutton)
- Cull (only mutton)
Pork (grading not a major factor)
- No. 1
- No. 2
- No. 3
- No. 4
Not only is it important to understand the quality of the meat you are buying (to know it will taste good, and also ensure you aren't getting ripped off for lesser quality meats), but to understand the difference between various cuts of meat. Each of the aforementioned animals has very similar anatomies. We extensively studied primal cuts of beef before we ventured into the others, because as it turns out they are practically the same, but with some different vocabulary. I can go on and on discussing every cut of meat and its counterpart in each animal, but I won't. That information is commonplace these days, and I've already gone off on a tangent.
I will share one of my favorite pieces of trivia I learned in the class, though. Something that no one else I know could answer until I told them. What is the difference between a porterhouse steak and a t-bone steak? If both are from the same animal, which is more tender? Both types of steak are cut from the short loin. The short loin contains the strip loin (or top loin or contre filet) and part of the tenderloin (the butt tenderloin--thickest part of the tenderloin--is in the sirloin). Porterhouse and t-bone steaks result from slicing the short loin into steaks, bones and all. So why the different names? Well, when the steaks are cut from the rib end, they result in a smaller piece of the tenderloin (minimum width 0.5 inch). This is a t-bone steak. The further you move to the rear of the animal (the sirloin end), the bigger the pieces of tenderloin in the steak are (minimum 1.25 inches). Those steaks with the larger tenderloin are called porterhouse. So which is more tender (if cut from the same animal)? You would assume the porterhouse, wouldn't you? Because it has a larger piece of tenderloin? Well, you're wrong!! The further you near the rear of the animal, the closer you get to the working muscles, meaning that end of the short loin has "worked" more and could be less tender (at least in theory) than the steaks cut from near the ribs (and I never see cows doing crunches, do you?). Less working muscles nearby equals more tender meat!! Tada!!! Both cuts of meat are fantastic, and I'm not really suggesting one or the other, just informing you of the difference. A porterhouse steak isn't tough by any means, but just could potentially be less tender than a t-bone from the same animal.
It's shocking, and you don't have to believe me. I only graduated from culinary school with a perfect 4.0 GPA. Happy grilling!!
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