By Chef Eamon Lee, CEC
A great beef dish starts with a great product, and flavor is paramount. When positioned properly, premium beef provides high impact and perceived value on the menu and on the plate, invariably leading to increased profitability. When choosing a beef program, it’s critical to balance the right quality with the right menu price and the right cooking method.
Generally, beef grades reflect the age of animal and the ratio of fat to lean or occurrence and distribution of intramuscular fat, particularly in the rib-eye. Marbling makes all the difference in the world. When fat is heated, it melts and lubricates the muscles, essentially bathing surrounding muscle, moistening mouth feel, and blanketing the palate. Naturally well-marbled cuts are the most flavorful — and usually the most expensive. On one end of the spectrum, you have select meat, which speaks to the cost- and fat-conscious consumer. Using USDA terminology, USDA Select marbling is slight compared to USDA Choice, where it’s modest to moderate, and USDA Prime where marbling is described as slightly to moderately abundant. USDA Choice beef is what most consumers are looking for, and most beef produced in the United States is USDA Choice. Some of the programs Maines offers are Creekstone Farms, Excel Premium Beef, Indian Ridge Provisions, Esposito, IBP and Angus Pride. Creekstone Farms provides a higher-end USDA Choice and USDA Prime graded beef, Angus Pride offers USDA Choice only, and Excel Premium includes about two-thirds USDA Choice as well as some USDA Prime. IBP covers the whole gamut.
No-roll describes beef that has not been graded by the USDA, as grading is optional. Generally, no-roll beef can grade anywhere on the USDA spectrum, but tends towards leaner muscle with less flavor. With no-roll, you’re not paying to have the beef graded — but as the old industry joke goes, you’re taking a gamble, so there really is a “roll of the dice!” When you invest in one of Maines beef programs, you will know exactly what you’re getting, and with your reputation at “steak,” there’s too much at risk to leave the quality of your beef to chance.
When all things are considered, it’s really a tightwire act. For instance, if you are going to roast or grill, the product needs to be able to stand on its own, so the fat content and tenderness of muscle are critical. When smoking and barbecuing, moisture is critical too, but do you need USDA Prime? No. USDA Choice will produce exceptional barbecue, but make sure your menu pricing and market can absorb it.
Economical cuts can be used for braising, brining and curing, and sautéing, and grading may not be as critical. Braising adds moisture and flavors thanks to aromatics and a long and slow cooking time. The marbling you pay for with USDA Prime meat would be lost through braising and you would never get a return on your investment. The same can be said for brining and curing; these methods change the meat so much that USDA Select or Choice is adequate.
The balance of grade, cut, cooking method, menu price, and culinary skill is delicate at best, and when done improperly can be catastrophic. The guidelines set forth in this article should help to simplify the task, and when all else fails, invoke the knowledge of your Maines Territory Manager, Product Specialists, vendor partners, and chefs — we’d love to help! Above all, we as chefs need to challenge ourselves to handle our investments with respect and care. A great product can be ruined in seconds if improperly tempered, seasoned, cooked, rested, or served. Solid fundamentals are essential to performing all of these tasks perfectly, and only then will you maximize the potential of a great cut of beef. Craftsmanship and technique coupled with the right Maines beef program will always pay!