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Jan 30, 2010 11:56 AM

What's wrong with LOWER grade meat?

I've been baffled by this for a long time and can't seem to find a solid answer anywhere, so I hope some hounds can enlighten me: I can't figure out why lower USDA graded beef is bad!

The way I understand it, USDA grade refers to the amount of intramuscular fat (aka marbling), the more fat, the higher the grade, with 11%+ of fat in Prime and 2.5%- in Standard (below Select!)
(see chart here: so MORE FAT=BETTER.

Well, what if I don't like fat? I personally can't stand Kobe beef, blekh! it feels too filmy in the mouth because of all the heavy marbling; I would much prefer a tenderloin or even a much less tender round cut (which I can still make very tender when i have the patience.) Isn't the USDA grading more of a personal choice-reference then? (i.e. steer away from Prime if you don't like fatty-buttery meet)?

What is even more confusing to me is all the praises/marketing ploys sung about the grass-fed beef containing less fat, so now LESS FAT=BETTER?

I just remembered another thing: when you buy ground beef, 75% lean is always many times cheaper than 97% lean. so again, LESS FAT = BETTER.

I guess I mostly wanted to point out the contradicting ways meat is marketed to consumers, but I do have one concern and I hope people know more about this subject: what is so bad about lower-grade meat other than the lack of fat (which to me is a good thing)?

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  1. The point of the fat is for flavor, and less for the sake of fat in itself.

    Grass fed has a beefier flavor, so that offsets the lower fat content.

    1 Reply
    1. re: jaykayen

      Jaykayen has a good point about the beefier flavor in grass-fed beef, but it's a totally different flavor than the kind of flavor you get from heavy marbling.

    2. Taste them side by side. I made the mistake of buying a select rib roast once (the price was so tempting), I dry aged it for a week and roasted to perfection. The end result was still dryer and less flavorful than a regular choice rib roast, not to mention chewier. I can't comment on prime because I've never tried it, or seen it, but I can assume it is like jaykayen says, not fat for fat's sake, but fat for flavor and tenderness.

      1. I ask my butcher for beef fat trimmings so we can add it to the chuck we grind at home. Dialing in the correct beef/fat ratio is a trial and error thing but the end result can be a juicy, flavorful burger that puts most of the local burger shops to shame. After dealing with the beef/fat ratio, the next challenge is proper seasoning. Selecting the right bun is the last piece of the puzzle.

        Life is too short for crummy burgers.

        18 Replies
        1. re: steve h.

          correct beef/fat ratio = ?

          help for the spring please

            1. re: steve h.

              No...jfood was looking for your guidance on what ratio you like...sorry for the crypticism

              1. re: jfood

                More than 20 per cent fat is a starting point. Work incrementally to 22-23 per cent fat and see where your personal sweet-spot is. It's not science since the fat content of every fresh chunk o' chuck is different prior to the grind. Incorporating the fat is not a slam dunk, either. It takes a bit of practice: a thicker grind is better than a finer grind. I did the "undershoot/overshoot" thing with the fat so I could establish some measure of bandwidth.

                It's not rocket science, just takes a bit of experimentation. I'm a fan of Judy Rodgers so I lean toward her Zuni Cafe direction. Seasoning is very important. Her pickled vegetables are the best and work well with a steve h. burger. I buy buns from an outfit in Bridgeport that distributes throughout lower Fairfield County. I like bleu cheese and maybe some caramelized onions on the top, too.

                ...and there you have it.

                1. re: steve h.

                  I've found that it's helpful to ask the butcher for some extra fat - trimmings from steaks s/he's done. Always free. Then when I'm grinding I'll always have some I can add if I feel it needs it. I can never know the exact amount of fat:meat ratio cause I don't trim the chuck before grinding. We no longer order burgers in restaurants. Disappointing.

            2. re: jfood

              According to Julia Child, about 85/15. Personally I'd go a little more toward 80/20.

            3. re: steve h.

              I'm going to demonstrate my ignorance for the second time in 3 days.

              What happens if there's not enough fat in the DIY beef/fat burger mix ? (I've only made burgers from preformed patties.) How is it different from cooking a steak without a lot of marbling ? If you cook it rare to medium rare, will it not come out pink to red in the middle and still be juicy ? Or is there a surface area or density issue I'm not taking into consideration ?

              1. re: dump123456789

                I'm not sure there is any correlation between a red/pink interior and juiciness. Juiciness, to me, is a function of fat content. Dialing-in the right amount of fat and cooking the meat to a preferred doneness is what separates us from the apes. Color has little to do with taste although seasoning is pretty important after the meat/fat ratio thing has been addressed.

                re: meat that can be tough? I'm a big fan of braises. I hate winter in Connecticut but I love braises/cassoulets/etc..

                  1. re: steve h.

                    'Dialing-in the right amount of fat and cooking the meat to a preferred doneness is what separates us from the apes. '...... Yes Steve H., that and the fact that apes don't cook...y'know that the whole opposable thumb thing..... More fat= more taste...May I have a side of bacon with mine, please??? Thank you!!!

                    1. re: BEN92555

                      jfood thought the additional bacon was the fat "leveler"? Always need to have a level hamburger

                  2. re: dump123456789

                    There are plenty of cuts of primal meat that are still tough as nails when cooked to medium rare, if the quality of the meat is not great then you can have tough meat even if it still retains juice.

                    1. re: Blueicus

                      What about a London Broil ? It's usually cooked to medium rare, but I've been told that it makes for lousy burgers because it's too lean. If you grind a London Broil to make a burger and cook it to medium rare, will it be drier than the original slab of beef cooked to medium rare without being ground up ?

                      1. re: dump123456789

                        The cuts of meat used to make London Broil are generally pretty tough cuts of meat, unless you slice them properly. By slicing them thinly and perpendicular to the grain you're making it easier to eat.

                        As to why ground meat cooked to a similar doneness would be drier than whole meat, I would say that by grinding it up you're allowing more areas where water can escape during cooking.

                    2. re: dump123456789

                      Juiciness is more a factor of handling and seasoning as opposed to the fat content.

                      1. re: Phurstluv

                        I partially agree with you :) Definitely over handling is the kiss of death. I'm not sure about the seasoning part. When I grind my beef, I put no seasoning in it and prior to cooking the burgers I put just a little s&p on them, not in. Also I was talking to a meat cutter recently and commented that sometimes ours almost (but don't) fall apart. He said that indicates they need more fat in them. Haven't ground any meat recently but will take that into consideration.

                        1. re: c oliver

                          I happen to season my hamburger quite liberally then let them sit in some Worcestershire sauce for a good bit, maybe an hour or two before grilling. I also wrap fresh patties that I've made for the freezer with seasoning & w. sauce before putting them away.

                          It's a lot like dry brining to me. When the salt has time to do it's work, it'll reabsorb much of the lost moisture, then open up the protein molecules to more moisture, making a moister product.

                          I don't grind my own, mainly do to time constraints, and buy 80/20 for burgers. And mine don't fall apart and are really juicy.

                    3. It probably matters more for steaks that you cook quickly, than for a cut like chuck that you will braise.

                      But I think the best answer is - test things for yourself, and choose accordingly.

                      1. Personally, I would not waste money on Select grade loin/rib cuts, which tend to have less flavor and be tougher and not useful for the kinds of cooking one normally does with them; even though they are not astronomically priced like Prime, they don't represent good value for me. (And I find tenderloin a waste at any price, except as dog food if I got it for free; it's tender but relatively flavorless.) However, I find grade less of an issue for cuts like skirt or chuck.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: Karl S

                          I'm with you on tenderloin. Give me a T-bone or porterhouse any day over one of those flavorless, albeit tender blobs.