No, not all beef is created equal. And one of the most important aspects that can affect the quality is steak marbling.
It's a term you might have heard before. But there's a lot of misconception surrounding what it is and how it impacts a cut's quality.
So to help make sure you're bringing your dining experience to the highest possible level, let's take a look at what it is, what it is not, and how to spot the perfect marbling in every cut you buy.
What Is Steak Marbling?
So one of the biggest misconceptions about marbling is that it's the fat content present in the steak. While this definition is partially correct, it leaves out some key information.
Crucially, there is more than one type of fat that you can find in a cut of beef. Intermuscular fat, for example, is a type of fat found between the muscles of the cow. This is not the kind we're looking for. While some cuts do feature a strip of intermuscular fat, it doesn't do as much to help flavor the cut and some diners find the taste unpleasant.
Intramuscular fat, by contrast, is fat that's found inside the muscle.
If you take a look at New York Strip steak marbling, for example, the layer of fat you find on the outside is not a part of the marbling. It's intermuscular fat. Similarly, the chunk of fat that sits in the middle of a marbled ribeye steak is intermuscular fat and not part of the marbling.
Instead, what you're looking for are the thin, almost spiderweb-like streaks and small flecks of white. That's the intramuscular fat that makes a marbled steak so special.
How Does Marbling Impact a Steak's Quality?
Flavor and tenderness are the two most-prized qualities in a steak, and marbling has a major effect on both.
This is because when the cut is cooked at a temperature of at least 130 degrees, those small fat deposits start to meltdown. They coat the surrounding muscle fibers and give them a rich, buttery quality that compliments the steak's stronger, beef flavor. This attribute is considered so important to a steak's quality that marbling a major consideration in USDA Beef Quality ratings.
There is an important caveat, however.
As we said, marbling will only melt at temperatures of 130 degrees or higher. Below that it actually has a negative impact on the beef's flavor, being that they're extraneous chunks of fat that you have to chew through. This is why well-marbled steaks are a poor fit for slow-cooked recipes and blue steak.
If you've ever had filet mignon, you might already understand the idea. As a lean cut, there's almost no marbling to melt, so overcooking will ruin the steak. Instead, it's best-served seared on the outside and very rare on the inside.
A well-marbled steak on the other hand benefits from more thorough cooking.
Types of Marbling
Not all marbling is of the same quality. Cuts are subdivided into three categories: fine, medium, and course.
Fine, as you'd probably expect, is the most highly-sought of the three. It's a cut that's full of those fine, small flecks of fat that we mentioned earlier. If you've heard of Kobe or Wagyu beef but didn't know what made them special, it's because they have such a high concentration of that fine marbling.
Medium and course are steaks with fewer of those small fat deposits and are not considered as desirable. It's worth noting that there has been some push-back against the idea that different textures of marbling are truly superior or inferior, so your mileage may vary.
But the conventional wisdom is that if you have two cuts with the same amount of marbling but different textures, the one with the finer texture will always be the better one. This is because the larger fat deposits in the courser beef take a longer time to fully dissolve. So if you take your steak medium-rare, the result may be chunks of partially melted fat left in your steak.
How to Spot a Well-Marbled Steak
The easiest way to gauge the amount of marbling on a steak is to look for the USDA shield. They grade all the beef produced by a single carcass all at once, using the ribeye muscle between the 12th and 13th ribs as their metric. Only cows with sublime marbling may qualify for the USDA Prime designation, the highest grade awarded.
Restaurants are aware of this, and will sometimes try to co-opt that prestige by using the term "prime" without the USDA label. alternatively, they might call their beef "premium" or say that it has been rated "in-house". These are common tactics to cover up the fact that they use sub-par beef.
You should also be wary of artificially marbled beef.
These cuts have had fat injected into the muscle to try and emulate a higher-quality steak. The results can look very convincing, even better than the genuine article, so it's almost impossible to tell the difference at a glance. Fortunately, the USDA demands strict labeling of such products, usually saying something like "fat injected” or “fat enhanced."
Finding the Finest Marbled Steak Cuts
Learning to pick out the cuts on your own based on steak marbling is an art. And sometimes, you simply don't want to deal with it.
If you want to take the trouble out of shopping for steaks but still make sure to get the finest cuts every time, why not outsource the selection to the experts?
A meat subscription box makes shopping easy without forcing you to compromise on quality or personal preferences. To find out how to find the right subscription for you, check out our guide on picking out the best meat subscription box.