Beef is the term used for meat from various species of bovine livestock, collectively known as ‘cows’, regardless of their gender. They are also referred to as ‘cattle’. Cattle are ruminants, meaning they must process their food, which consists primarily of various grasses, several times for digestion. They have 4 stomachs. When the cow eats, it first chews the tough grasses just enough to swallow them. These go to the first 2 stomachs and are stored there for short periods of time. After the cow is full, it will regurgitate the partially-processed grass pulp and re-consume it, which goes to the last 2 stomachs, this time, for final processing. Messy? Absolutely, but it works, and that is all that matters from an evolutionary viewpoint. Grasses are tough and have little nutrition, so cattle must spend anywhere from 7 to 10 hours a day just eating and drinking (grasses also take a lot of water to process…). A rough calculation is that it takes around 27 pounds of grass, 200 gallons of water, and around 300 square feet, to produce 1 pound of beef.
We’ve Been Eating Beef For A Long Time…
Humans have been eating bovines for longer than we have been humans…certainly as far back as Neanderthals, and possibly even as far back as Homo Erectus., or over 1.5 million ago. The earliest cave paintings indicate that the techniques for successfully hunting bovines were well established by that time. Keeping and raising livestock probably began around 12, 000 years ago, when we switched from being hunter-gatherers, to agrarian and urban societies.
There are many good reasons for why we started keeping cattle, rather than larger things like mammoths, mastodons, Cape Buffalo, or other things like antelopes, deer, etc… The larger animals would’ve been much too dangerous to try to domesticate, plus the fact that they tend to be migratory, making them difficult to contain and keep track of. Antelopes and deer tend to roam, and can jump almost any obstacle, making them very difficult to contain. They are also incredibly fast, making round-ups virtually impossible. Bovines were perfectly suited to livestock production, because they stay in a herd and do not tend to wander, even when threatened, are not particularly fast, compared to most other animals, and as a rule, somewhat docile.
Beef is the third most-consumed type of meat in the entire word. The average American consumes over 50 pounds of beef per year. The largest beef producers in the world are India, Argentina, and Brazil, with Australia, the United States, and Canada a close second. Beef production is a vital part of the economies of many countries.
Beef is considered a ‘red’ meat, meaning it has significant amounts of myoglobin. There are those that advocate limiting the consumption of red meats because they say studies show that eating red meat is linked to a higher risk of heart disease and diabetes. However, there has never been an uncontested ‘causal’ link established beyond a reasonable doubt. Since beef has been a major part of the human diet since before we were even humans, and since we are not extinct, obviously there are other factors at work here. It is more likely that the increased risks are more associated with over-consumption, poor lifestyle, and possibly a predisposition to those particular health issues. It’s just this author’s opinion, but barring other health issues, I think it is unlikely that you will ever die just from eating beef.
There are hundreds of breeds of bovines, but in the US, there are 5 breeds that make up most of the beef we consume. They are:
These are all European breeds that are famous for producing top-quality beef. These 5 breeds constitute around 90% of all the beef used in the US. The remaining 10% consists mostly of cross-breeds, such as Brangus (Angus/Brahma), Beefalo (usually Angus or Hereford/bison), and others.
How Beef Is Graded
Sometimes, beef is ‘Certified’, meaning a veterinarian or other trusted person has attested to the fact they have checked the herd, genetically, or otherwise, the animals have been bred true, and raised properly. Some of the Certifications are Certified Angus, Certified Hereford, and Certified Organic, which means the cattle were produced without the use of hormones, pesticides, excessive antibiotics, etc… Does it make a difference? Well…some say, “Yes”, and some say,”No”. Personally, if you were to blindfold me and put a slice each of Certified Angus, and Certified Hereford, or Organic on my plate, and they were cooked the same way, I doubt if I could tell the difference. You probably couldn’t either, but it’s your money, and you can certainly spend the extra nickel if you want.
What does make a difference is the Grade of the beef you are buying. Meat is graded by trained USDA Inspectors according to very strict guidelines. The flavor and tenderness in beef comes from the fat, or marbling, and the Grades reflect that. The grades are:
- Prime – You will never see Prime Beef in a supermarket. These cuts usually go to restaurants and hotels. It has good marbling, very tender, and tastes wonderful. Since they have plenty of marbling, they are outstanding for dry-cooking methods such as grilling, and broiling. You can purchase Prime beef from specialty distributors.
- Choice – This still has plenty of marbling, just a little less than Prime, and is still wonderful. This is the top-grade at many high-end markets and butcher shops.
- Select – This is the upper-end of what you will find in most supermarkets. It has less marbling, is less tender, but still not bad, especially when properly prepared. You can grill and broil it, but it really shines with wet cooking methods such as steaming, frying, and braising.
- Standard, or Commercial – This constitutes most of what you will find in most supermarkets as store-brands, or unbranded. It has less marbling, can be tough due to being very lean, but is perfectly acceptable when proper cooking techniques are used. When using dry-cooking methods, fat needs to be added in the form of oils, butter, margarine, or lard. When fat is added, Standard tastes perfectly fine, and will remain somewhat tender. And, of course, it is excellent for wet-cooking methods.
- Utility – never sold as retail, but is used to make ground beef, ground chuck, and processed meat products, like beef hot dogs, beef sausages, etc…. Recently,, one of the major uses for it was in the production of a meat product called, “pink slime”, mostly served in school lunch programs. Its popularity has diminished somewhat once the media told the public what it really is. Don’t get me wrong. Pink Slime is just as nutritious as the other types of beef, and I am not all that squeamish about using all the parts of any animal I kill for food, but the majority of the population has a much weaker stomach than I do. Utility beef is just the parts that are too lean to be useful in any other of the standard cooking methods. There is nothing wrong with using it as soup or stew meat, or grinding it for hamburger or sausages.
Once a cow or bull is harvested, there are many steps involved in transforming it into the neat little packages of beef you buy at the store. First off, there are two types of beef you need to know about. That is Young Beef, and Old, or Heavy Beef. Young Beef is what is used for the best steaks and other upper-end cuts. Young beef has more marbling, is more tender and more delicately-flavored than a full-grown animal. The majority of animals are slaughtered young, around 18 months old, or when they reach 1200-1500 pounds in weight. These constitute the bulk of Prime, Choice, and Select Grades of beef. Older animals can be slaughtered after they have bred for a few years, and are considered Old Beef. These usually end up as Standard Grade. One other category is veal production, in which unweaned calves are purposely made anemic. They are slaughtered at around 8 months of age, or around the time when they would normally be weaned.
Old beef can be tougher, stronger-flavored, and heavier in texture, but still perfectly fine to eat. In fact, there are those that prefer Heavy Beef, especially for smoking and BBQing.
Another factor to consider is aging. Unaged beef is fine, but aging improves the flavor and texture significantly. Beef is best when aged for at least 2 to 4 weeks, or up to 6 months in a deep freeze. Again, it is mostly a matter of personal taste.
When an animal has been slaughtered, it is skinned, cleaned, wrapped and hung in a cooler to wait for further processing, The carcasses must be graded by a USDA Inspector before any more processing can be done.
Once all the preliminaries have been done, the carcass will be sent to a processor. It will be then be cut into Primal sections, also called, ‘quartering’.. The carcass is separated into the main sections from which the actual cuts will be made. Usually, the legs will be separated, and the front will be separtrated from the rear , and the left sides from the right sides. It makes the carcasses easier to handle and move around. Lastly, the individual cuts are made and packaged for sale in your supermarket, or for restaurants.
These parts are further cut into individual steaks, tenderloins, roasts, ribs, and cubes. So now you know how Bossy gets to be a sirloin……..
No discussion of beef would be complete with mentioning some of my favorite parts. Beef liver is wonderful when properly prepared, and very rich in vitamins and iron. Kidneys are an acquired taste, but very popular in the UK. They are a bit strong flavored, and very musky, but not bad once you get used to them. Oxtails, which are simply the tails of cattle, make excellent soups, stews and other great meals. Sweetbreads, or Mountain Oysters , are some of the parts that make a bull a bull, and they are absolutely delicious, like the most tender and flavorful steak you have ever eaten. And, you’ve helped make a steer…… Lastly, the very best part of the whole animal is the tongue…super-tender and loaded with sweet flavor. I would rather have the tongue than the whole rest of the animal.
Beef Care and Storage
You have your beautiful cuts of beef. So, now, what do you do with them? The first thing you need to do is store them properly until you are ready to cook. The best way to store beef is to keep it in the pack it came in (if it is freezer-safe). If the package is not freezer-safe, then wrap the whole package in freezer paper. Then keep the beef frozen until you are ready to cook it. If you don’t already have a deep-freezer, you should look into one. They are indispensable. Store the beef at 0 to 5 degrees in the freezer. Vacuum-sealed beef can be stored in the freezer for up to 6 months (or more….). If you plan to cook it soon, and it is thawed already, you can keep it in the refrigerator in its wrapper for up to 1 week, depending on how long it sat at the supermarket. Your refrigerator should be at near 37 degrees.
The proper way to handle beef is to just exercise normal kitchen sanitation practices. Your prep areas should be clean and sanitized with a 10% solution of Clorox and water. Your hands should be clean. Use a plastic cutting board for meat, because bacteria can breed in scratches in wooden cutting boards. Never use the same cutting board for meat and vegetables, even if you wash it between operations. Never use the same knife to cut meat and vegetables, even if you wash it between operations. This is called avoiding cross-contamination.
When you re-wrap unused portions of beef, wrap them loosely. Bacteria can form in tightly wrapped portions of beef. Store unused beef in the deep freeze, or freezer, unless you plan on using it again in the next few days. If so, then get it back into the fridge as quickly as possible.
The best way to thaw out frozen beef is in the fridge overnight. If it is vacuum-packed, you can do a quick-thaw in cold water, which usually only takes and hour or two. Never thaw beef at room temperature, and thawing it in the microwave will ruin it.
Left-over cooked beef can be stored in the fridge for a few days. Left-over beef can be used in all kinds of things, like soups, stews, and casseroles.
Lastly, wash all of your beef portions well in cold water before cooking, and make sure beef is cooked to the correct temperature to kill bacteria, which is 145 degrees internal for roasts and steaks, or 160 degrees internal for ground beef. I like rare steaks and roast beef, but I realize I am taking a chance. Heck, I love Steak Tartare, but it is illegal to serve it in a restaurant in most areas of the US. If you want to assume the risk yourself, that’s fine, but be sure to warn others if they request rare beef, so they can make an informed decision. E. Coli exposure is no picnic, and can be life-threatening.
If you use common kitchen safety procedures, you should be fine.
How to Cook Beef
Beef is a very versatile meat that lends itself to many cooking techniques. There are two main cooking methods available: Wet and Dry. Wet Cooking involves the use of liquids, such as sauces, soups, stews, poaching and similar methods. These are great for Heavy Beef, and lesser grades, such as Standard. The liquid makes up for the lack of adequate fat in the meat. As a rule, cooked lean meat = shoe leather. Most of the flavor and tenderness in beef comes from the fat. Dry cooking uses the liquid present in the beef itself to cook it, such as in grilling, frying, broiling, and dry-baking. This works best on better grades of beef like Select, Choice and Prime (if you can get it….), and Young Beef. You can dry-cook lesser cuts of meat by adding fat to them, such as in ground beef, and beef sausages. Filet Mignon is a great example, with the wrapped bacon supplying the fat to properly cook a very lean piece of beef.
The correct way to cook a steak on the stove, or a grill is to start out with a room-temperature steak. Next, let the pan heat up completely before adding the steak. You want the pan to be pretty hot, enough to immediately sear the sides of the steak, and seal in the flavor and juices. Spray the pan with a little oil, then gently lay the steak on the grill or pan. Allow it to sear for a minute or so, then, using tongs, pick it up and sear the entire edge of the steak, all the way around. Now, drop in a pat of butter, and lay the steak back down on the same side. When it cooks enough for you on that side, flip it over and do the other side. It doesn’t take more than a few minutes per side to cook a steak. After you flip the steak over, now is the time to add any aromatics you want, like minced garlic, onions, or fresh basil/thyme, rosemary, etc…
Here is an old chefs trick to judge how done the steak is. Use your thumb, fingers, and the pad of your palm right below your thumb. Here’s how: For a rare steak, place your pointer finger against your thumb, like making an ‘OK’ sign. With your other hand, feel your palm pad. This is what the steak should feel like when you gently press on it, for rare. For medium rare, do the same thing with your index finger. For medium, use your ring finger, and for well done, use your pinky. Trust me..I’ve done this for over 4 decades in some of the best restaurants in the country, and it really works. I have never had a steak returned for being cooked wrong, if it was ordered correctly in the first place.
This is about the same as grilling/pan-frying, except you can’t sear the edges, but the steak cooks so fast in the broiler that it really doesn’t matter. At most, you will cook the steak for no more than 3 minutes per side, if that much. Also, you can’t really put butter on the steak when broiling because the broiler is hot enough to ignite the butter, causing a flame-up…not exactly what you want unless you like blackened steak….
Roasting/Baking – when doing a roast, it’s a good idea to wrap it with foil, or cook it in a covered pan for the first part of cooking, both to retain moisture, and so that it won’t over-brown. You can remove the foil or the lid towards the end of cooking to get a perfect crust on it. Roasting is a great way to add things like potatoes, carrots, celery, corn on the cob, etc…., and cook it all at once.
When boiling or simmering beef, such as in a New England Boiled Dinner, add some oil to the pot and brown the onions, garlic, and the meat on all sides before adding the liquid. Make sure to deglaze the pan before adding all the liquid. One nice thing about boiling is that there is little danger o drying the food out. These same suggestions apply equally to pressure-cooking.
Don’t microwave your beef. Show it a little respect. Microwaves are only good for 2 things: reheating leftovers that weren’t that great to start with, and ruining food. Save the microwave for those nasty frozen burritos and Hot Pockets…..
Whatever cooking method you use, be sure to allow the beef to rest for at least 10 minutes before serving. When cooking, the meat fibers tighten up, and are unable to hold juice and flavor in. Resting allows the fibers to relax, and retain all their juice and flavor. If you ever cut into a steak, or roast, and juice gushes out, send it back, because it has not properly rested, and much of the flavor and tenderness will leak out as you eat it. For a professional cook, that is a major No-No. Always rest your meat before serving it.
Beef has been one of the major sources of food for people as long as we have been people, and even before. So most of the information I’ve given you is time-proven. Of course, it would be impossible to discuss every possible aspect of beef here. That could cover several large books, but this should give you enough basic knowledge to be proficient in buying, storing, and preparing beef. It is my sincere hope that you will put it to good use. Check back with us often for more great content, tips and tricks.
As always….Bon Apetit…