A Rare High Steaks Blog

A cow, most likely a delicious one.Ever been to a steakhouse and see labels like “Angus,” “Prime,” or “Kobe” and wonder what they really meant?

Does it really matter if a steak is Angus Certified?  Is it worth $75 for a USDA Prime filet?  It would be a “mis-steak” (okay, no more puns!) to say that steak grades are not frequently misunderstood.  And many steakhouses take advantage of that confusion to unload a subpar steak on the unsuspecting diner.  This week, switching gears from our usual blogs related to accounting and finance, I thought I’d delve into the world of steaks, and shed some light on the most commonly seen labels in steakhouses and grocery stores.

UDSA Prime- Top 1-2%.  Prime is produced from young, well-fed cattle.  The meat is abundantly marbled and is most commonly found in hotels and restaurants.

USDA Choice- The next 50-52%.  Choice is high quality, but exhibits less marbling than prime.  Less tender cuts are perfect for braising, roasting, or simmering.

USDA Select- Select is uniform in quality and leaner than prime or choice.  With less marbling, Select is not as juicy or flavorful as higher grades.  Good for marinating or braising.

Lower Grades- These grades are not generally recommended for steaks.  Standard and Commercial are mostly sold as ungraded or store brand meat.  Utility, Cutter, and Canner grades are rarely sold at retail, and come from older cattle.

“Certified Angus”- Primarily a marketing tool.  “Certified Angus Beef” was created in 1978 to promote the idea that Angus beef was of higher quality than beef from other cattle.  The label “Certified Angus” only declares that the beef comes from Angus cattle, as defined by basic criteria, although the breed typically has a moderately higher degree of marbling than others.  Ultimately, the USDA Prime/Choice/Select label a steak receives is the true gauge of the steak’s quality.

“Kobe” – True Kobe beef is produced in Japan in the Hyogo prefecture, from a particular breed of Wagyu cattle. Contrary to popular belief, Kobe is not the name of the breed of cattle.   There are very strict standards cattle must meet to earn the Kobe designation.  As a result, only around 3,000 head of cattle per year qualify as Kobe.  Kobe beef fat has a lower melting point than typical beef fat, and their cattle are fattened longer, 26 to 32 months versus 18 months for U.S. beef.  Like Angus, Kobe only labels the source of the beef and is not an actual grade, although Kobe beef is known for its flavor, tenderness, and well-marbled texture.  Prior to 2012, Kobe beef was not exported outside of Japan.

“Wagyu” – Wagyu is a breed of cattle, originally from Japan, which is genetically predisposed to intense marbling.  Like Angus and Kobe, Wagyu identifies the source of the beef, not the grade (incidentally, the Tajima strain of Wagyu is the breed used for Kobe beef).  In the United States, most Wagyu beef is labeled “American Style Kobe” or “Kobe-Style” (see below).

“Kobe-Style” – Unlike true Kobe beef, “Kobe-Style” beef is usually sourced from U.S. bred Wagyu cattle crossbred with Angus.  These cuts tend to have darker meat and a bolder flavor than standard U.S. sourced beef, but still have a flavor profile familiar to Americans.

Ultimately, the true “quality” of the steak mostly depends on the USDA grade.  If a steakhouse is advertising a steak as Kobe or Certified Angus, but they don’t list the USDA grade, approach with some skepticism.  Armed with knowledge, you’ll be able to find the quality steaks while avoiding the duds.

USDA Beef Grades

Image Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture

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