How to Pick ’Em: The Skinny on Beef

In the reign of skim milk lattes, fat has become a nutritional villain. And the chemical cocktails found in many convenience foods also are viewed as suicidal. So, back off beef—right? On the other hand, just listen to proponents of the Atkins Diet.

So, what to eat? What’s the true story?

Fact is, beef has changed in recent years, as producers have listened to consumer concerns. It’s decidedly leaner. Today, 29 cuts meet government guidelines for “lean,” including tops of the pop chart like sirloin and tenderloin. Even ground beef has slimmed down. (And, by the way, half the meat’s remaining fatty acids are monounsaturated, just like olive oil.)

OK, it’s lean. But what about antibiotics and the growth hormones rumored to send you to the cancer ward? All beef today is safe from doctoring with additives, thanks to USDA rules and inspections—but if you prefer your cattle raised on 100-percent organic feed as they freely roam in pastures, choose beef labeled certified organic. (Of course, it costs a bit more.) All beef is equally rich in nutrients, so it’s up to you.

Well, what about the beef called “natural,” then? All this indicates is that it’s minimally processed, and contains no additives like artificial flavors. (In other words, it’s simply an unregulated advertising gimmick.)

Then, grass-fed versus grain-fed, another confusion for the poor consumer. Relax: It’s simple. Grain-fed is the most widely produced type, but these animals actually spend most of their lives eating grass in pastures before moving to a feedlot where they end their days on a diet of grains. Meanwhile, grass-finished beef (a tough challenge in the United States, where the growing season is often short) have munched solely on grass or forage. The USDA must approve claims such as “free-range” and “grass-finished” before they can appear on a label.

But, you’re asking, cut to the chase: Just tell us which tastes better. Well, there I sat in the test kitchen of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, waiting to find out.

In blind tastings, I couldn’t detect a difference between organic and regular beef. Grain-fed, the most widely produced, definitely had a juicier, “beefier” flavor than grass-finished, which bore a cleaner, sweeter taste. All were equally tender. The real difference, turns out, is in the grade of meat, not what it had for dinner.

The prestige of beef never went away. Consumers love the taste. But now, they’re asking, how can I choose and cook it?

Prime—the cut with the come-hither marbling of fat—is what you’ll pay big bucks for in a fancy steakhouse; little reaches the supermarket meat case. There, you can choose either choice or select. Choice, the most widely used grade in the market, bears a little less marbling. Select has the least fat, but—flip side—is also the least juicy and flavorful. This grading—to aid buyers—is optional, not mandatory.

Whichever you choose, pick up beef just before you hit the checkout line, and if you plan to linger at Starbucks on the way home, pop it in a cooler in your car. Once in the kitchen, refrigerate or freeze it ASAP. Use refrigerated ground beef within a day or two; stew meat or kabobs in two to three days; and steaks and roasts in three to four days. If frozen, defrost in the fridge, not on the counter.

If you plan to flavor or tenderize with a marinade, tender cuts take from 15 minutes to two hours; less tender, six to 24 hours. When done, make sure to pat dry before grilling, or you simply will steam the meat. When cooking, turn it with tongs or a spatula, so as not to lose the tasty juices.

What cut to buy and how to grill it? Here’s where Joe Home Cook starts to panic. Not to worry. Hans Aeschbacker, of Smith & Wollensky, Chicago’s primo steakhouse, has just stepped into the phone booth to slip off his whites, and emerge as Superchef. The man is responsible for close to $70,000 worth of beef in his cooler—a veritable Fort Knox of steaks—so he’d better know what he’s doing.

“Our most popular cut is the ribeye—one with a little more fat,” Aeschbacker begins. Other best-sellers include the Kansas City and sirloin.

To prepare it: “Simple,” the baron of beef asserts. “Just slap it on the grill.” (Wait! First clean it with a little nonstick spray on a paper towel.)

Heat one side of the grill hotter than the other, and use it to achieve those sexy cross-hatched grill marks. Then, cook an 8-oz., 1 ½-in. thick steak to 115 degrees on your meat thermometer for rare; 120-125 for medium rare; and beyond that, feed it to the dog. Burgers must reach 160 degrees for medium-doneness.

“Beef is number one in popularity. Steakhouses will never go out of business,” according to Aeschbacker, who relishes Manny’s when in town here, and has high regard for Byerly’s, where he has conducted demos: “They ‘get’ it. They give you great quality at affordable prices,” he notes. And that’s another nice thing about beef: It comes in every price range.

Beef producers also insist that beef always will be in style—though the style of beef has been altered over recent years.

Scott Stone, owner of Yolo Land & Cattle Company in California, reports, “Now, we’re selling the whole picture: our environmentally-focused lifestyle, happy cows and healthy products, both grass- and grain-fed. Some visitors arrive as vegetarians, but aren’t vegetarians when they leave.”

Times were tough in the early ’80s, his colleague, Gary Teague, owner of Teague Diversified, Inc. in Colorado, recalls: “Beef consumption was dropping, so we had some decisions to be made. Americans told us they wanted uniformity, consistency. That’s the feedback we got—and, lean and convenient. So, we found ways to do it. We learned the genetics so we can actually do that, and deliver consistency 365 days a year.” Those improvements saved the family business for him and many a cattleman. “Now,” he reports, “beef consumption is way up every year, and steakhouses are packed. Beef is a wonderful product, and people love it.”

Ask Teague his favorite cuts, and they reel off his tongue: filet mignon, New York cut, and ribeye. “Sirloin is the best of both worlds: lean, but still tender and juicy. But there are only x-many steaks per animal, and we’ve got to sell the whole animal. So, we’ve got to interest the consumer in other products,” he’s quick to add.

Teague’s got an ally in Bucky Gwartney, who uses his PhD in meat science as the Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s Executive Director for Product Enhancement, “to make it taste better, and offer better quality.” For a show-and-tell, we patrolled a typical supermarket’s meat case, noting that steaks are trimmed far more closely than in the past (23 percent leaner than in 1991). These days, more single-muscle options are out there, too, like the flatiron steak (more quality, less fat, more tenderness). OK, steaks: What’s not to like? But we were talking about “other” parts.

Ground beef, for instance. Gwartney demonstrates that nowadays, it’s leaner, too. And for young and busy novice cooks who don’t know a rump roast from a round steak, and get hives just thinking about it, no need for charts and dictionaries—there are no-fail options. Beef now comes precooked, as in Tyson’s beef pot roast and frozen burgers; Lloyd’s barbecue; Hormel’s meatloaf; Beef tips; Meatballs; French dip; Shaved beef; and the list goes on.

Bottom line: You love the taste, admit it. And now, no guilt: Atkins dieters or anyone simply reading the fat content on labels can relax: “Even chicken would tell us how lean beef is, if it weren’t for the language barrier.”

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