Beef lovers will tell you that the difference between a good steak and a great steak dinner is meat marbling. As a grill chef myself, a well-marbled steak is a reason for excitement. It means I will get to serve a delicious juicy steak dinner.
You may be wondering what marbling is and why it’s such a highly regarded quality by restauranteurs and beef aficionados. Well, in this article, I will explain in detail why meat marbling is such a big deal and how it impacts the flavor of your steak.
Marbling refers to the streaks and flecks of intramuscular fat interspersed within the muscle fibers of a beef cut. These appear as white threads running all throughout the lean fibers of the meat making a steak resemble a marble pattern hence the name.
This kind of fat or intramuscular fat is different from intermuscular fat, which is found between the muscles of the animal or at the edges of a cut and is usually trimmed off before cooking.
Simply put, marbling adds flavor. Marbling, which is also called intramuscular fat, melts into the steak during cooking making it juicy, tender, and flavorful.
The fat also keeps the meat moist when cooking. This prevents the meat from losing its natural juices and drying out which would result in the steak losing its tenderness and texture. The greater the amount of marbling the greater the flavor of the steak.
Ribeye is the cut of beef with the most marbling. It also has fine marbling which is the best kind of marbling beef can have.
A cut can also have medium marbling which is not as great as fine marbling. medium marbling is not as well distributed as fine marbling which may interfere with the doneness of your steak as well as the flavor.
Coarse marbling is the least desirable kind of marbling and makes cooking a steak successfully very difficult.
Wagyu beef has the best beef cuts out there and is highly prized for its quality-grade steaks that have extensive marbling.
The breed of cattle affects how well marbling will develop in its muscles. Some cattle breeds simply have the genetic traits necessary to create more marbling in the meat.
The premier globally recognized cattle breeds for meat production and specifically, marbling is Wagyu and Tajima, both Japanese species carefully bred for Wagyu and Kobe beef. Their meat is the most expensive in the world.
An optimal diet is arguably the most important factor that affects meat marbling apart from the breed. Even Wagyu cows have to be fed on very specific diet regimens to attain the kind of marbling that they do.
Cattle feeding programs and their effects on beef are a complex part of meat science which is further complicated by the fact that different animals metabolize feeds differently.
There are three main feeding programs and all three have different effects on marbling. We have:
Grass-fed cattle are not likely to develop extensive marbling since marbling is essentially fat.
Grass pellets are often used in industrial feedlots and the cattle are still labeled grass-fed. This may not be accurate considering natural grass and fodder has a host of substances and nutrients absent in grass pellets.
Strictly grain-fed cattle put on too much weight and could gain a large amount of fat. This may affect meat quality if the lean mean quantity is too low.
This is a combination of the first two and beef producers claim it is the optimal feeding program for achieving a well-marbled carcass. In this program, cattle are started off on grass and finished off on a grain-based diet.
This is called a grass-fed, grain-finished regimen which is popular among seasoned beef producers.
This way, grain-finished beef has maximum nutritional value as well as a sufficient degree of marbling that does not overwhelm the meat.
The particular part of the animal that produces the cut also affects marbling. Cattle tend to develop intramuscular fat in areas that are least exercised for movement and posture which is why the ribeye is the most marbled cut of meat.
The rib section of the steer is a region that does not get used much, which explains why the ribeye muscle has this much marbling.
This may not apply to the entire animal since tenderloin steak is different. Tenderloin steaks have only slight marbling or none at all yet the region is also fairly under-worked.
The age of the animal can impact marbling by determining how much fat content it has acquired. If the cow is slaughtered while it is too young it may not have acquired the necessary marbling.
If the cow is too old at the time of slaughter, the meat will produce a tough steak and lack flavor.
There is no standard age for slaughtering steers for beef but the USDA recommends that cattle between 30 – 42 months possess the optimal qualities of beef.
Most beef producers, however, slaughter their cattle at the age of 12 – 24 months. This is often to maximize profits by cutting down on the cost it would take to feed the animals for a longer time.
There is no consensus on the best time to slaughter cattle but a range of 12 – 30 months means the steer is neither too young to be tasty nor too old to be tough.
The USDA grading system rates the quality of beef based on marbling, and USDA prime beef has the highest marbling score. There are eight different grades and more marbling means higher marbling scores.
The USDA grades beef in descending quality as follows:
You probably only see the first three or four grades in supermarkets and butcher shops because the rest would not be desirable for everyday meals. This meat is often used for ground beef.
Yes. Unlike many other types of animal fat which are saturated fats, intramuscular fat is good for you. Marbled fat is considered unsaturated fat which is an important part of a healthy diet. Wagyu beef contains oleic acid which has been shown to improve heart health.
That being said, the essence of a good and healthy diet is also a matter of quantity. Consuming high amounts of fat, no matter how healthy is often counterproductive. Healthier fats must also be consumed moderately.
Well, unfortunately, you do not get to make beef marbling. It would be awesome if we could do that. Beef marbling occurs naturally well before that cut of beef arrives at the supermarket for you to take home with you.
Beef marbling is achieved on farms and is affected by a number of factors such as the diet of the animal and the breed. The only way to enjoy a beautifully marbled steak is to buy prime steak.