My Meat Department Tabloid

I was raised in the meat business. My father had a slaughter-house and meat cutting and packing plant that I worked for several years when not in school. After being discharged from the military I worked in the logging industry for 18 years. When that company shut down and we were all laid off, I decided to get back into meat cutting and purchased a meat market which I owned for 14 years. I also worked a couple of years cutting meat in a Piggly Wiggly store. Bottom line, I do know something about cuts of meat, and will share a few facts one might find interesting.

1. What makes some beef tender or tough? There are two factors. One is which part of the animal the meat is coming from. The more muscled the meat, the tougher it will be. So the parts of the animal most heavily used from day-to-day are going to be the tougher cuts. For instance the front shoulder and neck area where the chuck roast and chuck steaks come from are going to be tougher. The same with the rear legs and rump area where the round steak and sirloin tip come from. Now the area along the back between the front and rear is the least used part of the body, so in turn the less muscular and the more tender. That is where the rib steak, t-bone steak and sirloin steak are located. And by far the least used part of the body is the inner part of the t-bone steak, which is the tenderloin.

A second factor that makes meat tender or tough is how it is fed. If meat is not continually putting on weight, the meat turns to muscle, some parts of the body faster than others. And muscle means tough. New meat means tender. So if a beef is continually putting on meat and fat it will be tender. If it quits gaining weight over an extended period, or, worse yet, loses weight, its meat will be tough.

2. Why do some meats have good flavor while others are…well, blah? It is totally in what they are being fed. A big craze right now is “naturally fed” or “grass-fed.” Healthier? I don’t know. What I do know is a beef that was totally raised on grass, in my experience, has little or no flavor. “Bring on the steak sauce!” But an animal that has been heavily grain fed at least the last month has wonderful flavor. Which brings us back to tenderness. Grain is high in calories, and puts on weight in a hurry. Of course, grain is far more expensive to feed than grass or hay. So, hence, the shortcuts. But the end result is not good. Like I said, “Bring on the steak sauce!” Corn-fed beef also has a wonderful flavor. Unfortunately, corn-fed beef produces yellowish fat, which the retailers do not consider appealing to the eye of the consumer.

3. When shopping for meat, what is the best value? If there is one thing that jumps out at me when scanning the meat section of any given supermarket is how many new and fancy names that have been given cuts of meat since I was in the business. Back in the 60’s one basically picked from, at most, 15 cuts of beef. Today, just in the chuck roast or chuck steak section alone I can find at least five different names given to this one cut of meat. Sheesh!

4. So how did all these different names for basic cuts come about? God’s honest truth! I saw it done. In many cases the manager of a meat department stared at a basic cut of meat and said to himself, “How can I make more money from this one cut of meat?” (I’ll give one of the more blaring examples.) The t-bone steak. Now visualize this, if you care to. The tenderloin runs along the inner side of the back where the t-bone steak is located, and tapers down to a point toward the end. What is called the porterhouse steak is usually the first four to five cuts off the t-bone steak where the tenderloin is at its largest. Got that? With that in mind, the meat manager says, “Hey, if I cut from the bone the large portion of the t-bone steak and give it a fancy name like…let’s say…new york steak, I can sell that at far more than a t-bone steak. Then I could take that round tenderloin part of the steak and give it a fancy name like…let’s say, filet mignon. And then charge the living bejesus out of the customer. And that end portion of the t-bone where there is little or no tenderloin? That also becomes a new york steak. And you know what is sad? In the last few years I’ve noticed the supermarkets are now even leaving the bone in the new york steak, and still charging the same price. Sorry, I am not fooled. I always buy a porterhouse steak and give the filet mignon to my wife and I take the new york steak for myself, not to mention having a bone to gnaw on. We are both happy…and at two-thirds the cost. There are numerous other examples.

5. Let’s talk ground beef. In most meat sections you have the choice of regular ground beef, lean ground beef, and extra lean ground beef. Of course the obvious difference is fat content. Here’s something I bet you didn’t know. Most cuts of meats in a supermarket are graded “USDA Choice.” So a common belief is the ground meats are all “USDA Choice.” Not totally true. Because the fat trimmed from steaks and such would be money lost, a common practice used when making regular ground beef is to take all the fat trimmings from the USDA Choice cuts and mix them with “bull meat.” Though “bull meat” is a slang term, it can mean exactly that, or it can be an old Holstein cow past its milk producing prime, or any beef healthy enough for human consumption; bottom line, any beef that is super lean with little to no fat content, no matter what its breed. But whatever the case, that meat is graded “Economy Grade,” which is the lowest USDA grade, its only value being meat for grinding. Bull meat comes to the meat department in 50 lb frozen blocks. Once thawed it is mixed with the fat trim; hence regular ground beef. Lean ground beef is about the closest to all natural as can be expected, usually being the normal meat trimmings from quality meat. Extra lean, on the other hand, can be the same trimmings used in lean ground beef, with the added kicker of more bull meat.

6. And speaking on the subject of ground beef. If you ever see ground beef labeled as “ground round,” or “ground chuck,” or “ground sirloin,” it’s okay to be a little skeptical. The meat grinder is the common denominator. Any ground beef is usually “wonder meat.” You wonder from what part of the animal it came from, no matter what the label might say. Myself? I usually purchase “lean ground beef.” Unlike extra lean, which can be dry, blah and crumbly, lean ground beef has enough fat to give flavor and moistness, not to mention have a far better chance of being 100% grain-fed grade choice meat. Sound good to you? Sounds good to me.

I didn’t write this post to scare people away from beef. No matter what the USDA grade, it is still all healthy, as far as red meat is concerned. There’s just a few aspects of the subject the meat cutter would be reluctant to divulge.

I hope you meat lovers out there learned something.