Understanding Grades and Cuts of Meat
The quality of meat available varies wildly depending on what cut you buy, how you cook it and where you buy it from. There is a great deal of information available now to inform the consumer about the issues that affect the meat industry and your enjoyment of the products, so here are few snippets to help you make an informed choice.
Beef is the most popular meat in the world, especially across North and South America, Europe and Australasia, with chicken coming a very close second, if you include poultry. Younger animals are more tender and are used for all of the cuts of meat, with older animals, once they are no longer useful for milk or breeding, tend to be used for tougher types of meat such as mince for pies, burgers and chilli, rather than the more costly types of fresh meat.
Cuts of MeatThe same cuts of meat tend to have different names in different countries, with some unusual cuts also being found, depending on local preference. For example, in France the slighter tougher, more fatty cuts are popular, with leaner, larger t-bone steaks being popular in Italy.
If you are looking for a particular cut when in another country, look for the cut you recognise, rather than assume it is called the same. It is also a good rule of thumb to look at the cost of the cuts in relation to each other, so you can work out what is likely to be the cut you need and the right quality meat.
Cuts of meat start with the ‘primal cuts’ – the large initial cuts to the animal after slaughter, after which the more specific cuts are generated. The meat will be more tender the further away it is from the areas of the animal that do the most physical work, such as the leg and neck muscles.
The front of the animal yields the chuck and shin, commonly used in relatively long slow cooking with added liquid for moisture, such as casseroles and Cornish pasties. The middle of the animal has the most succulent cuts as it is the furthest away from the muscular areas. Here, you will find the sirloin and flank with the best ‘quick cooking’ steaks such as fillet and rib eye coming from this area.
The back of the animal has the quality, slow roasting cuts such as top side and silver side, both popular choices for a good Sunday roast.
Grades of MeatDifferent countries have various different grades of meat, with their purpose and relevance depending on the sector of the meat industry in which the organisation operates. There has been a great deal of greater awareness recently about the importance of responsible rearing and slaughter of animals, so there is also greater knowledge about the quality marks to look out for.
In the UK, the Freedom Foods stamp marks an animal or cut of meat that has been fairly treated and humanely slaughtered.
The United States operates a voluntary meat grading scheme, which its critics say leaves it wide open to abuse. Their grades, from ‘Prime’ to ‘Commercial’ for food consumption with ‘Utility’ and ‘Canner’ at the very bottom - with rather dubious levels of meat content and handling regulations.
If you are looking to cook a particular dish, especially if it is for a special occasion, it is certainly worth your while buying the best quality meat you can afford and the cut that is most suitable to the dish. Your local butcher, if you are still lucky enough to have one, will be able to give you a wealth of information on how to get the tastiest results for your money.