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USDA classifications


jhlurie
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Honestly, what do you think of the USDA classification system? Is there real value to it? Can it be improved?

Also, are there particular times when you find yourself using "lesser" classified meat, and for what? I mean they describe the classifications (Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter, and Canner) in some confusing ways. It's a measure "quality" but also "wholesomeness", but also "fat content". Huh? How does this all work out with changing and confusing notions of proper fat content, where maybe on sites like this we want fatter meat, but everywhere else the public is always begging for "leaner" meat?

Jon Lurie, aka "jhlurie"

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Jhlurie,

There's two things to remember about the USDA system. One is that its criteria for prime are subjective and have changed over time. Not just marbling, but color, firmness, and other qualities go into determining what is prime and choice. Primarily, though, it's about the marbling. In 1950, the USDA started its long history of defining deviance down by collapsing Prime and Choice into Prime, and calling what had been "select" Choice. Today's Choice is probably the Select of the 50s, and only Kobe meat really resembles the prime beef Jack Dempsey and Jackie Gleason used to enjoy.

Almost all the meat you buy in restaurants is either prime or choice; unless it's stew beef or ground meat of some kind -- and that would be in a seriously divey restaurant. In supermarkets of the kind I shop in, like C-Town, you see Select meat. But that's about it. I'm actually fascinated by the concept of Utility, Cutter, and Canner meat, which I've never seen, but which must be truly awful. And remember that all USDA grading is voluntary -- plants have to pay to get their meat graded. So you can only imagine how bad some of the stuff that doesn't get graded is. (Inspection, as opposed to grading, is mandatory.)

As for lean-meat pathology, that usually comes up more with cuts than with grading. People will buy choice or even prime filet, round, ground sirloin, and other lean cuts; but whether they wouldn't do just as well with lower grades of the same unmarbled meat is open to question.

To sum up: what they call prime today is a crime, but we can all agree that the more marbling there is, the better the meat.

Does that make sense?

Yours,

Mr. Cutlets

Mr-Cutlets.com: your source for advice, excerpts, Cutlets news, and links to buy Meat Me in Manhattan: A Carnivore's Guide to New York!
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Best thing to do is use your eyes and learn to recognize good meat. Learn what a good piece of chuck looks like, a good strip or porterhouse or T-bone - a good T-bone is better than a mediocre porterhouse. Same with pork - look for pink rather than red - and make sure there's some nice white fat around the outside. The only thing better than crispy pork fat is the duck fat right under a crispy skin. Just my humble opinion.

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