The Steak Glossary 2020 Needs
In our 2020 Best Steakhouses list we throw around a lot of names, like Creekstone and 44 Farms, and terms like wagyu and grass-finished. You’ll see these terms on most steakhouse menus as well. And you may be wondering, what’s the difference between grass-fed and grass-finished? Wagyu, is that like Kobe? Isn’t USDA Prime something you can get at the grocery store?
I’ve been obsessing over meat for at least a decade. It started at the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn, where I met Slope Farms farmer Ken Jaffe and learned about the glories of beef raised on grass. That followed with long conversations with farmers, distributors, butchers, and animal scientists on Twitter of all places (shout out to #agchat), where I learned about every aspect of cattle raising and meat production. I spent hours on the phone with a beef rancher out on the plains of Wyoming (farming is lonely business, folks). I researched and wrote articles on the difficulties of supplying pasture-raised for restaurants and large-scale events. I did pasture-raised meat tastings.
Through it all, I’ve eaten a lot of meat. I’ve grilled it. I’ve pan-seared it. I’ve had it tartare. I’m very picky about my meat and rarely order it in restaurants. These days I get my animal protein through Walden Local Meat Co., a subscription service that sources pasture-raised meat from small local farms.
But enough about me and my meat obsession. Please allow me to share some of my learnings with you. Hopefully this will help you navigate the menu the next time you’re at a steakhouse.
USDA Prime: The United States Department of Agriculture grades the quality of beef according to the marbling, or those little veins of fat you see in a cut of meat. The more marbling, the higher the rating. The idea is that those little streaks of fat add flavor, tenderness, and juiciness to your steak. Prime is the highest rating, and it’s the kind you’re more likely to see in restaurants. Choice is what you’ll see at the grocery store.
Wagyu: This is a breed of cattle originating in Japan, where it must be 100% purebred in order to carry the name. The Japanese Meat Grading Association has its own grading system that differs from the USDA’s. Japan exports only beef with the highest two grades, A4 and A5, to the US.
But here’s where things get tricky. American brands raise wagyu here as well, but it’s typically bred with Angus. This “Wangus” only has to be 46.875% wagyu to be labeled as wagyu. So when you see wagyu on the menu, notice where it’s from. If it’s Japanese, the menu will most likely say so (and the price will reflect that). Otherwise, you can assume that it’s actually Wangus from the US or Australia.
Kobe: This is a particular type of wagyu raised only in the Yuogo Prefecture of Japan according to strict guidelines. The Kobe Beef Association awards a limited number of restaurants a license to serve the beef; currently there are 35 in the US, and you can find them on the KBA’s website.
Grass-Fed/Grass-Finished: Pretty much all cattle raised for meat feeds on grass soon after weaning. But most are transitioned to grain, which facilitates faster weight gain and is believed to result in more marbling. Cattle that continue to feed on grass in pastures for the duration of their lives are called grass-finished (though grass-fed is also common).
Grass-finished beef is more environmentally friendly than grain; pasture-raised animals often play a key role in a sustainable farming system. As far as your plate goes, grass-finished beef tends to be leaner than grain-fed, and the flavors of the meat vary according to the geography and the types of grass the animal ate; this is considered a desirable feature for fans.
Many restaurants serve grass-finished beef from Australia. It’s perfectly fine, but don’t kid yourself that you’re doing the planet any favors by eating meat that’s been shipped from halfway around the world.
Natural: When it comes to meat, this means it contains no preservatives or artificial ingredients that fundamentally alter the product. Meat from animals given hormones and/or antibiotics can still be labeled as "natural."
Naturally Raised: This is a specific certification program in which animals are raised without hormones or antibiotics, ever. Note the difference in language between "natural" or "all natural" and "certified naturally raised."
Dry-aged vs. wet-aged: Aging meat improves the taste and texture no matter how you do it. The easiest and most economical way restaurants and producers do this is through wet aging, in which cuts are kept in vacuum-packed plastic for a few days. Dry-aging, on the other hand, entails hanging whole sides of beef uncovered in near-freezing temperatures for several weeks.
Dry-aging results in more concentrated flavor and ultra-tender meat; but moisture loss from the process results in an overall loss of volume and a more expensive steak. Wet-aging lets you retain all of the volume, but you won’t get the same depth of flavor. Choose dry-aged if you’re adventurous, up for the splurge, and know you’ll appreciate the intense flavor.
What’s with all this farm name-dropping? The farm-to-table restaurant movement began in earnest about 10 years ago, though legends like Chez Panisse started it earlier. The idea was to source directly from small, local family farms -- and then list those farms in the menu. Perhaps you’ve seen the Portlandia spoof? OK. So as that caught on, word also got out that CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operation) tend to be environmentally disastrous and inhumane.
But supplying restaurants from small, family farms is expensive and logistically difficult. So a few beef producers created companies that do not pump up their cattle with antibiotics and hormones, and that practice more humane methods of slaughter -- a middle path. Some examples are Creekstone Farms, 44 Farms, Snake River Farms.