As a registered dietitian and culinary student, I often receive grocery-shopping questions from consumers. I was recently asked what to look for when shopping for beef.
So, I reached out to CommonGround Nebraska and was introduced to Karol Swan, a CommonGround volunteer. Karol is now retired, but she worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as a meat grader for more than 30 years. If anybody knows anything about meat quality, it would definitely be Karol.
She and I met with the meat department manager at Super Saver at 48th and O Streets in Lincoln, and then traveled across town to continue our fact-finding mission with Fred Lowell, a butcher at Leon’s Gourmet Grocer.
Here’s what I learned.
What does “fresh’’ mean?
After beef is harvested at the processing facility, it travels to another holding facility before it’s shipped to a grocer. After the meat is processed, it is available on the shelf within 30 days.
I thought 30 days sounded like a long time, but Karol explained that beef needs time to age for flavor and tenderness. According to the beef industry, 30 days of aging is extremely fresh.
The aging process is done in a controlled environment before the meat is shipped to the grocery store. Once it has arrived at the store and after it has been cut into smaller portions, the meat is only allowed to sit for 30 hours before the price must be reduced.
In fact, you can see what time it was cut by looking at the label. According to the meat manager at Super Saver, there never is a problem selling the product after the price has been reduced.
Beef labels 101
First, the labels that you see will depend on where you shop.
If you shop at a store like Super Saver, you will see the time it was cut in addition to the unit price, weight and total price. The grocer does not include the grading labels because it doesn’t want to mislabel or mislead the consumer. So you can assume that if you shop at Super Saver, you will be getting choice or select grade of meat.
If you shop at a place like Leon’s, the butcher will cut the meat before displaying it. There is no package until you’re ready to purchase. However, the shop displays the grading labels on the case like “premium select” and price per pound.
Here are the grades and what they mean:
Prime – This grade contains the most marbling, or fat, and is not found in the grocery store. According to the USDA, prime beef is from young, well-fed cattle. Prime cuts are typically sold in fine restaurants or hotels. The manager at Super Saver told me that prime is only about 3% to 5% of the beef market.
Choice – This grade is the majority of what’s sold in grocery stores. Choice has less marbling than prime, but is still delicious and flavorful. The choice grade is then divided into different categories including small, moderate and premium. When we visited Leon’s, the selection was mostly premium choice.
Select – This is the leanest of the three grades and can still be tender even though it’s lean. However, it might not have as much flavor or juiciness because of the lower fat content.
USDA Inspected – You might see this label on a package of meat. Be assured that all beef sold in retail is USDA inspected.
· Look at the price per pound or unit price instead of the total price when comparing products. You might end up with a better deal.
· Choose your cooking method based on the cut of beef you buy. For example, you should use moist heat methods like braising or stewing when cooking a less-tender cut of meat.
· Don’t be afraid of the manager’s special. This is probably one of the best deals in the store.
· If there’s something specific you’re looking for, inquire about it. The folks at Super Saver and Leon’s were more than willing to answer questions. They might have something that’s exactly what you’re looking for or a good substitute.
· When purchasing ground beef, the most economical is 80% lean, 20% fat When you brown the ground beef, you end up removing a lot of the fat. This will help retain the flavor, which makes it a good option for casseroles.
Karol Swan is a retired meat grader for USDA, where she worked for 32 years grading carcass beef in beef plants across the Midwest. Karol was a 4-H club mom and leader for many years. Karol and her daughter, Jordan, own and operate a farm near York, Nebraska.
Sirloin Steak Salad for Two
• 6-8 oz sirloin steak
• 4 cups salad greens of choice
• 3-4 mini sweet peppers, diced
• ½ cup diced cucumber
• ½ cup diced avocado
• ¼ cup diced leeks
1. Cut steak into strips or small chunks.
2. Slowly sauté the meat in 1 teaspoon of oil or butter and 1-2 teaspoons water to keep moist. Season lightly with salt and pepper.
3. Layer greens and top with vegetables and beef.
4. Add favorite salad dressing. I used Farmer Brown’s House Dressing.