Wanna start a food fight? Just get some grill jockeys arguing over the best beef and food will be flung freely within five minutes….or less. And with beef prices at historic highs (with ground beef hitting record prices earlier in 2015). Some analysts suggest that as the price of corn declines, beef prices will start dropping in the next couple of years, but until that time, how does a savvy consumer get the most beef for their buck? But there really is a best beef, as we will be describing below. There are two prime factor about beef that any cost-cutting chef must make: the cut and the cooking.
BEEF: The Cut
In the United States grades are prime, choice and select, with prime being at the top and select being the bottom. Actually, the lowest rated meats are not for general retail distribution and become things like meat by-products. Prime grade beef makes up about 2% of all the beef produced in the United States and typically ends up exported or sold to fine restaurants. What you will normally find on the shelves at the store is choice and select. Since prime is difficult to find, your best option is to purchase a choice cut. We will sometimes buy prime beef at Costco but choice also works for most cuts of beef. In fact, we’ve found that prime tenderloin is probably overkill given the natural tenderness of that particular filet. Starting soon, some supermarkets will start offering beef that is graded with new USDA-approved designations: “tender” or “very tender”. Some shoppers may find this new designation useful also if you read further, you likely don’t need this marketer-driven designation. With beef costs having gone up in the last few years, marketers are trying to find new ways to justify the increasingly premium prices.
Basically, your typical “high end” steaks are the tender ones. The most tender cut of beef is the tenderloin. From this area you will get cuts like chateaubriand, filet mignon and tournedos. Though, these cuts are tender they are less flavorful. The rib-eye, or rib steak are less tender but far more flavorful. The same holds true about the sirloin cut. However, all of these cuts are currently costing well over $10 per pound (and often, close to $20). Unless you are rolling in dough, you need to consider some alternative cuts of beef.
For overall value and versatility, the winner of the “best beef” designation is the flatiron cut, which comes from another inactive muscle at the front of the animal. This cut of steak is from the shoulder of the steer (preferably grass-fed, hormone-free angus) Some butcher shops and meat markets call it a “top blade” roast. Steaks that are cross cut from this muscle are called top blade steaks or patio steaks. As a whole cut of meat, it usually weighs around two to three pounds. The entire top blade usually yields four steaks between eight and 12 ounces each. Flatiron steaks usually have a significant amount of marbling, imparting lots of great flavor. Some shoppers are put-off by what appears to be a thick seam of gristle going down its center. Actually, that’s not gristle, just a gelatin-type substance that melts away when you cook it. If you have a local butcher who will custom cut for you, wait until there’s a sale on cross rib roasts, which happens frequently. Then ask your butcher to carve a flatiron roast for you out of the cross rib. Have him cut the flatiron into boneless country-style ribs. They barbecue just as well as short ribs, but you get more for your money because there’s no bone.
The flatiron is one of the most versatile pieces of beef. It takes to a marinade like no other, it’s tender beyond belief, and you can cook it with much success in many methods. Plus, it’s not as expensive as the more expensive loin cuts. You can grill it, braise it and saute (pan fry) it. For more about the cut of beef itself, here’s a handy video.
Unfortunately, the flatiron cut is often not available at supermarkets (the few remaining local butchers can generally cut it for you). However, there are a number of lower-cost cuts that are more available and quite excellent. For example, beef strips that one might use for fajitas and stir-frying are usually overpriced cheap cuts of beef. But if you buy a rump roast (the cut that butchers often use to make prepackaged beef strips) and slice them into thin strips, you’ve got yourself some decent fajitas at a reasonable price.
For consumers who love ribeye steak (and, really, who doesn’t?) but don’t want to pay $10-12 per pound for their meat, consider the chuck eye. It is virtually the same muscle as the rib eye, but it is the section that extends into the chuck shoulder of the beef. Ask your butcher to cut about a four-inch roast off the front of the boneless chuck. Then ask him/her to peel out the chuck eye and cut it into steaks.
BEEF: The Cooking
There are four primary ways of cooking beef: oven roasting, pot roasting, pan-frying and stewing.
Oven roasting involves cooking a cut of beef, thicker than two inches, that is suitable for cooking by dry heat on a rack in a shallow open pan in the oven or in a covered grill (indirect heat). Premium oven roasts include expensive cuts such as rib, ribeye, top loin and tenderloin. These are good for special occasions or holidays. For the more informal beef roast, the round and bottom sirloin cuts are leaner and economical. Moderately priced roasts include tri-tip, round tip, rump, bottom round and eye round.
Pot roasting involves covered, slow-cooked roasting of cuts thatcome from the fore- and hindquarters of the carcass. Moist-heat cooking takes more time, but the results are worth waiting for. The beef becomes fork-tender and develops a savory depth of flavor unique to slow-cooked beef. Pot roasts from the chuck have more fat, and thus more flavor, than those from the round, but many beef chuck and round cuts can be used interchangeably in pot roast recipes.
Pan-cooking beef requires cutting beef to thin, uniform size pieces to ensure even cooking. You may save time by purchasing packages of pre-cut beef, but it may more economical to slice your own. Almost any tender beef cut, such as sirloin, top sirloin, tri-tip, ribeye, top loin or tenderloin may be trimmed and cut into the appropriate size strips for use in beef stir-fry recipes. Even some less tender cuts, such as flank, top round and round tip steaks, are suitable for stir-frying. One cooking tip: place the beef in freezer for thirty minutes and it will be easier to cut into thin slices.
Finally, you can stew beef. Beef brisket and/or boneless short ribs are perhaps the most tender and flavorful cut It is best prepared by using braising or stewing techniques. Brisket is also processed into corned beef, a technique that brines the meat. All the brisket cuts have a layer of fat that can be trimmed, but don’t trim too much, as it adds to the flavor and tenderness of the final cooked dish. Aside from brisket, boneless, pre-cut cubes from the chuck or round can be stewed with vegetables to create a tender and flavorful stew. Stewing beef needs some fat and cartilage which breaks down during slow cooking and tenderizes the meat. Packs of such beef are usually sold as such in the supermarket; look for a pack with plenty of fat marbled through the meat.
But let’s go back to our favorite: the flatiron steak. Our favorite preparation is placing the cut in a large resealable bag. along with some olive/avocado/grapeseed oil, garlic, parsley, rosemary, chives, Cabernet, salt, pepper and mustard powder. Marinate in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 hours and you’ve got yourself some beautifully marinated beef to fry in a hot iron skillet or on a preheated grill for 3 to 4 minutes on each side. These steaks taste best at medium rare. For a video that shows a quicker but tasty preparation of this versatile cut of beef, check this out.