Creating Great Tasting Steaks

How to make a great tasting steak (or pork or lamb chop):

  1. Start with an animal genetically inclined to produce a high-quality product.

Genetics + Environment = Phenotype

Basically, the genetic background of the animal, plus the environment it is raised in determines its physical appearance, or phenotype. Meat quality and quantity is a portion of that phenotype.

Utilizing genetic data, farmers and ranchers can select for specific quality traits for their livestock. For example, using ultrasound, measurements of a bull’s ribeye can be taken to estimate its size and marbling score.  Knowing these numbers can provide an estimate of what the offspring will look like and be able to produce.

2. Feed the animal correctly to let it reach its maximum genetic potential.

The environment portion of the equation can consist of the animal’s surroundings, diet and lifestyle. In order to best maximize final product quality, animals need to be fed a high energy diet. Doing so will allow the animal to meet its full genetic potential.

For example, say twin steers each were fed different diets. One of them was fed a low energy, forage (ex. grass) based diet, while the other was transitioned to a high energy, grain (ex. corn) based diet.  Both animals have the same genetic background, but their environment can have a major impact on the final product. Likely, the steer fed the high energy diet will produce a ribeye that has more intramuscular fat (marbling), which is associated with a higher quality product.

3. Keep the animal stress free and comfortable.

Stress can have a major negative impact on final product quality. Stressed animals can produce product that has color defects, limited ability to retain moisture, and tenderness problems. All these things can devalue the product, hurting the bottom line of the producer and the processor.

4. Harvest the animal efficiently.

Effectively rendering the animal unconscious and correctly exsanguinating it are imperative for maintaining product quality as well as ensuring humane handling. If the animal is not exsanguinated quickly and effectively, an increase in blood pressure can cause the capillaries within the muscle to burst, leading to splashes of blood within the meat. Not only is this unsightly to the consumer, but it also can poorly impact taste and can shorten shelf life.

5. Age the meat to allow time for natural tenderization to occur.

Storing the meat in a refrigerated environment for a period of time prior to cutting retail cuts allows natural enzymes found within the meat to breakdown protein and improve tenderness. Optimally, beef is aged for approximately 14 days, but can vary due to cut, demand, and storage space at the processing facility.

6. Cut steaks and keep them free from contamination that could impact taste and safety.

Meat can pick up contamination on surfaces as well as absorb off odors and flavors. Because of this, it is necessary to keep the environment clean and controlled. Contaminants can impact taste but can also be a food safety concern.

7. Package and store correctly.

Poor packaging and storage can lead to meat that can quickly develop off flavors or become rancid. Oxygen and light exposure can impact the color and flavor of meat products. Storing cuts in packaging that limits exposure to both is important to maintain a high-quality product. Additionally, keeping meat frozen and only thawing it as you need it is also a great way to keep quality and safety in check. For the best, safest eating experience, plan and thaw meat products in the fridge rather than on the counter or in the microwave.

8. Don’t overcook it!

Undercooking meat products is a food safety concern; however, overcooking them can lead to a product that is tough and dry. Using a meat thermometer is your best bet for a safe, high quality eating experience.

Who would have thought something as seemingly simple as a steak could be so complex? All these steps can add up to create a great tasting product. Similarly, an error at any point can hurt the final product (ex. great quality product that gets forgotten on the grill and is overcooked). One of the exciting things about careers in meat science is that we are constantly studying ways at every point throughout this process to try to improve the final product. We want to ensure a great eating experience every time that product is consumed!


Considering Color

Imagine you are buying steaks for your family. You walk up to the counter at the grocery store to try to decide which package to buy. What do you look for?  For many people, one of first things that is taken into consideration is the color of the product. In fact, one of the primary factors for discounting meat products is discoloration. Although the product may be perfectly safe, nutritious and delicious, off-color is off-putting to many consumers.  Variation in meat color can be caused by many different factors.

Meat gets its color from the myoglobin that is present in muscle tissue. During life, myoglobin carries oxygen throughout the muscle and is what is responsible for the red color primarily associated with meat. When meat is thawed, myoglobin and water are released creating purge, a liquid often confused with blood. Different muscles have different amounts of myoglobin depending on their use.  The more active they are, the more myoglobin present as the muscle requires more oxygen. The level of myoglobin within the muscle can vary based on muscle fiber type and maturity of the animal.

Type 1 muscle fibers are used for long term locomotion (cross country runner) and have higher amounts of myoglobin. Cattle have predominantly type 1 muscle fibers. Beef are locomotive animals and often are consistently walking to reach water and feed sources. The high levels of myoglobin within their muscles create a bright, cherry red colored meat.

Type 2 muscle fibers are used for short bursts of energy (sprinter) and have lesser amounts of myoglobin. Chickens have predominantly type 2 muscle fibers (there are varying degrees of type 2 fibers, but we won’t go into detail on those today). Typically, chickens only need short bursts of energy to make it to their roost or to run for a short period of time. Due to the lower levels of myoglobin, their muscles will have a lighter colored, pinkish tint.

The muscle structure within animals is not strictly one muscle fiber type or another. They can have a combination within they system based on their use (white vs. dark meat). Even breed and production style can cause differences. For example, farm raised turkeys are not required to be very mobile and don’t need sustained locomotion to get food, water, etc.  Wild turkeys, on the other hand, will cover a lot more ground and engage their muscles a lot more.  They produce a meat that is much darker in color compared to their farm raised counterpart.

In addition to muscle fiber type, maturity can impact final product color. As an animal ages, more myoglobin (what carries oxygen to the muscle and makes it red) is present and gives meat a redder color. This is especially evident in beef animals. Veal, or meat produced from a young calf, will often be a pinkish color. Meat from a traditional market steer is traditionally the bright, cherry red color that we are used to seeing at the retail counter. Meat from old cull cows or bulls, is a darker, deeper, red color that is not as appealing to the consumer.

Additionally, preharvest factors, including diet and stress can impact color. When an animal is harvested, the muscle goes through natural changes to convert to meat. One major change is the pH, or acidity level. Living muscle tissue has a nearly neutral pH of around 7.0.  When an animal is harvested, the pH declines, making the meat slightly more acidic (pH of ~5.4).  Stress prior to harvest can affect the rate and level of pH decline, causing variation in color. In beef, long term stress can lead to dark cutters (product that is almost purple in color). In pork, stress leads to a product that is pale in color, soft (doesn’t hold shape) and exudative (losing moisture). Keeping the effect of stress on carcass quality in mind is important when handling livestock at home.

In addition to these factors, genetics, sex, harvest methods, oxygen exposure, etc. can all impact product color. Although not all variation in color is a negative thing (muscle fiber type), some may be an indication of a problem in production (preharvest stress). Understanding the production process is important to be able to identify the cause of color variation and determine if it is necessary to implement a change in production.

The Beef with Burger King

Last week, Burger King released an ad toting the beloved (at least by me) Walmart yodel kid singing a song about cow farts releasing methane and leading to green house gas emission. This video quickly went viral and was met with a lot of jokes and some mixed reactions, from annoyance, to frustration, and honestly, a lot of confusion. Personally, I fell within the confused group.  On one hand, I was glad that Burger King was still using and promoting real beef on their menu.  On the other hand, the video seemed to provide a lot of misinformation that did not represent the beef industry well. I couldn’t be angry, but it certainly didn’t make me crave a Whopper! 

Since then, Burger King has pulled the ad and has enlisted the help of Dr. Frank Mitloehner of UC Davis who specializes in air quality to ensure accuracy of their advertisements. I had the chance to hear Dr. Mitloehner speak at the International Livestock Congress at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo earlier this year and was so impressed by his presentation on the impact of livestock on the environment. Prior to the BK video release, Dr Mitloehner was active on social media sharing his insights and experience.  Since the video dropped, more scientific information about the impact of livestock production on the environment, and people are listening.

This info graphic was produced by UC Davis and was shared on Twitter. It explains the role that livestock play in the carbon cycle.

It is encouraging to see a company like Burger King make the decision to work alongside the livestock industry to accurately promote a product.  Admitting that their claims weren’t what they initially thought and being willing to stop the distribution of costly advertisements is a huge step.  In the future, I hope to see more companies work with experts in animal science, whether that be farmers and ranchers, faculty at Universities, or others in the industry from the beginning to ensure factual advertising.  This could go a long way to promote their product, accurately represent the ag industry and build consumer confidence in the food they eat.      

This video produced by UC Davis is a great resource explaining how methane from livestock impacts the environment and makes it easy to understand. I highly recommend a watch!

The Differences in Ground Beef

This weekend I was walking through the grocery store and stopped to browse the meat counter.  My family raises cattle, so growing up we were fortunate to be able to fill our freezer with home-raised beef.  I try to look at the meat counter whenever I get groceries to be aware of what products are offered, and how much they cost.

While perusing the beef section, a few packages of ground beef caught my eye.  There were three options of ground beef, all selling for a different price and appearing to be a different color.  Today, I would like to discuss the differences in fresh ground beef in terms of color and price.

Looking in the meat case, there were three options of fresh ground beef:

  • 93% XX-Lean Ground Beef ($5.08/lb)
  • 85% X-Lean Ground Beef ($4.08/lb)
  • 73% Regular Ground Beef ($2.98/lb)
Left to Right: 93% XX-Lean Ground Beef, 85% X-Lean Ground Beef, 73% Regular Ground Beef. The XX-Lean product is noticeably more red than the regular product due to the lean to fat ratio.

When I first saw the product, the first thing that stood out to me was the differences in color.  As you can see in the photo, there is quite a variation in redness between the XX-Lean Ground Beef, and the Regular Ground Beef.  This difference is due to the fat content.  The name of the product is describing the percent of lean (actual meat, not fat), within the product.  For example, the XX-Lean product was 93% lean meat, and 7% fat; while the Regular product was 73% lean meat, and 27% fat.  Being that lean beef is a bright, cherry red color, while fat is white, the different blend of meat/fat leads to color differences.

The second thing that stuck out to me was the difference in price.  $2.10/pound is quite the difference!  Driving the price is once again, the ratio of lean to fat.  Although fat has a lot of benefits in terms of flavor, juiciness, ease of cooking, etc., it is often seen as a waste product.  If you brown the ground beef, or make hamburger patties, a lot of that fat will cook off and be discarded.  Because of this, it is seen as a lower value product.  In the 1.25 lb package of Regular ground beef, there is approximately 1/3 lb of fat.  In the XX-Lean package, there is only about 0.08 lbs of fat, making it a higher value product.

Now, all three of these ground products are a good option to take home, depending on what fits into your budget and how you intend to use it.  No matter what blend you choose, remember that beef is an excellent source of protein and 9 other essential nutrients.  It’s a healthy option that will leave your family full and satisfied.

Graphic produced by the Beef Checkoff

If you come across anything interesting at the meat counter and have questions, please send them my way!  If I don’t know the answer, I’d love to do some digging to help find it!

Hormone Havoc

A few months ago, I met a woman on an airplane who was on her way to a yoga retreat.  After visiting for a while, I told her I was studying meat science.  She proceeded to ask lots of questions (as many people do, and I very warmly welcome).  We got on the topic of hormone usage in livestock.  She told me that she was worried that excess hormones in meat were causing her grandson to develop womanly features.

Hormone usage in livestock production is a common source of curiosity and insecurity of consumers that are not tied to the industry.  It is totally understandable.  If I didn’t grow up involved in the industry, I would question it as well.

Hormone implants are used in growing livestock (specifically, cattle) to help them be more efficient in converting feed to muscle.  Hormones are also known as repartitioning agents.  Meaning, they take the energy from the feed and rather than the animal accumulating excess fat, they use that energy to build muscle.  That muscle is what turns to meat after the animal has been harvested.

Implants are very small and administered in the form of a small pellet under the skin in the back of the calves’ ear.  This allows for slow release of the hormone, and since the ears are discarded, ensures that the pellet does not end up in human food production.  The FDA (Food and Drug Administration), is active in ensuring that meat from animals implanted with hormones is safe to eat.  If it was a concern for human health, the practice would not be used and the meat would not be allowed on the market.

Now, some people ask, “do hormones used end up in the meat.”  It is important to note that every food has naturally occurring hormones.  Including beef.  My favorite example to compare this is beef vs. cabbage.

One, 3 oz. serving of implanted beef has approximately 1.9 nanograms of estrogen, (compared to 1.3 ng of non-implanted beef).

One serving of cabbage contains 2,000 nanograms of estrogen.

It would take 1,052 servings of beef to get the same amount of estrogen as 1 serving of cabbage.  That is 197 pounds.  The average American consumes approximately 57 pounds of beef per year.  Following those numbers, it would take 3.5 years to get the same amount of estrogen from beef as one serving of cabbage.

Image from a previous post written for South Dakota Farm Families, Farmer’s Daughter Segment.

Now, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t eat cabbage.  One nanogram is equal to one billionth of a gram.  One billionth.  That is trace amounts. I am a huge supporter of having a well-balanced diet, including beef and cabbage.  Yes, there are other hormones besides just estrogen used in beef production; however, similar examples as this can be found to demonstrate the trace amounts passed to food for human consumption.

There is so much regulation done to ensure safe, high quality food is making it into the hands of the consumer.  Whether that be beef, cabbage, or any other item you choose to purchase at the store. If hormone implants caused a food safety risk, let me assure you, it would not be a practice utilized by any producer.


Meatless Monday

Recently, a private University in my home state of South Dakota  announced that they will be implementing a “Meatless Monday” program.  This is supported by their claims that plant based proteins offer more nutritive value than meat and that meat is generally more expensive than plant-based proteins.  I’d like to take a little time today to talk about these two points and see how they really add up.

Plant based proteins offer more nutritive value than meat.

The South Dakota Beef Industry Council shares this graphic and I think it is really eye opening.  I’ll admit that it is easy to assume that plant -based proteins will offer more protein per calorie than meat.  But in all reality, when looking at the quantity of these products that need to be consumed to reach the protein level provided by one serving of beef, we quickly see that it is not the case. 

Per 25 g protein:

Quinoa: 666 calories

Peanut butter: 613 calories

Beef: 173 calories

In addition to being low calorie, that one serving of beef provides 10 essential nutrients- Protein, Iron, Choline, Selenium, Vitamin B, Zinc, Phosphorus, Niacin, Riboflavin.  It offers an incredible amount of nutritive value!  

Meat is generally more expensive than plant-based proteins.

In addition to an animal science degree, I also received a bachelor’s degree in agricultural business.  The business side of me always perks up when I hear claims of ‘more expensive’.  It is time to crunch some numbers.

I have heard a lot of talk recently about the Beyond Burger, so I thought that would be a great example to look at.  When initially comparing the Beyond Burger pricing vs. the ground beef patties, it appears to be less expensive.  However, looking further we see that on a per pound basis, the Beyond Beef patties are almost twice the price of both ground beef patties (the difference in the patties is the fat content.  80% lean vs. 93% lean.  The 93% lean is more expensive on a per pound basis because it has a lower fat content).   Don’t let the face value of a product lead you astray.  It is important to judge actual economic value of a product not on the simple  dollar value it receives, but price per pound basis.  It is amazing how much of a difference that can make!

Image and Price from

One other thing that I think is interesting to point out about the Beyond Burger is the ingredient list.  Consumers continually demand a high quality product with a clean label. Looking at the Beyond Burger ingredient list we see that it contains over 15 ingredients! 

“Water, pea protein isolate*, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, rice protein, natural flavors, mung bean protein, methylcellulose, potato starch, contains 1% or less: apple extract, salt, potassium chloride, vinegar, lemon juice concentrate, sunflower lecithin, beet juice extract, pomegranate fruit powder, lycopene color (from tomato).”

Now let’s compare that ingredient list to that of the ground beef patties:

“Ground Beef and Natural Flavorings.”

Two ingredients!  That’s it!  The Food Safety Inspection Service allows spices and seasonings such as black pepper, onion powder, and garlic to be defined as natural flavorings.  It is a simple product that offers so much to the consumer. 

Simply put, animal based proteins are a relatively low calorie, low cost option that are supported by a clean label. Protein takes up a large portion of the grocery budget.  We all want to feed our families a high quality product.  When thinking about it in that sense, meat offers the most bang for your buck. For that reason,  I plan to keep meat in my diet on Mondays, and every other day of the week!

Let’s Talk Quality

Last week we talked about meat inspection, which is based on wholesomeness and safety Quality grade on the other hand, is focused on determining palatability; determining how tender, how juicy, and how flavorful you can expect the meat to be.  While inspection is a legal requirement for all meat that will be sold and is supported by tax dollars, quality grade is optional and paid for by the packer.  Whether or not quality grade is used depends on the goals of each operation.

Quality grade in beef is based on two factors:

Maturity:  In order to qualify for the highest level of quality grade, the animal must be under 30 months of age.  This is determined by dentition (how many teeth they have).  As an animal gets older, the meat is known to become more tough and have a poorer color which is often seen as a turn off to consumers.  Since the packer can choose whether to use grading, carcasses that are classified as older may be determined as a “No Roll”, meaning they won’t receive a ‘rolled on’ stamp for their quality grade.  Much of the meat from this carcass will be ground for hamburger or used for jerky products, where the quality grade is not as important, rather than being used for steaks.  *Important note: Even though it may not receive a quality grade, the carcass is still inspected to ensure that it is safe to eat. *

Marbling:  The most important factor for determining quality is the level of marbling, or intramuscular fat (Fat that actually lies within the muscle).  While cooking, this fat will melt into the meat, making it juicy, tender and very flavorful.

 At the plant, the animal is ‘ribbed’, exposing the loin muscle.  Here, USDA representatives from the Agricultural Marketing Service use a camera to determine the grade.  Grades can range from:

  • Prime: Young carcass, VERY high level of marbling.  Meat should be very tender, juicy and flavorful due to the high levels of fat.
  • Choice:  Young carcass, Small to moderate level of marbling. This is the grade that is most often seen in the industry and ensures a tasty, tender product.
  • Select: Slight level of marbling but still from a young animal.  Meat in this category may still be very tender but will be less juicy than the grades above.
  • Standard: Young animal but very, very little marbling.
  • Cutter, utility, commercial: Low grades often from older animals, 100% safe to eat but may not make a tasty steak.  It is rare to see these quality grades because carcasses that would fall into this section are often not graded.

The photo on the left shows a carcass with a select grade, while the one on the right shows a choice grade. Notice the differences in marbling, or specks of fat that lie within the muscle.

To wrap this up, inspection is a legal requirement to ensure meat safety.  Quality grade is optional, but often used by packers as a method to inform consumers how palatable a product will be.  Quality grade is determined primarily by how much marbling is in the loin muscle and signifies how tender, juicy and flavorful the meat will be! 

Meat Inspection

Today, many people are concerned about the safety of their food.  We want to be certain that what we are feeding our families (and ourselves), isn’t going to cause any harm.  To ensure a product is safe, it must go through inspection and be deemed safe.

In 1906, The Jungle, written by Upton Sinclair, was published.  This book followed an immigrant family as they started a new life in the United States working in the stockyards of Chicago.  Part of the book talks about the poor working conditions for the immigrant families.  President Theodore Roosevelt read The Jungle and moved forward to pass the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906; requiring by law that all meat available for sale be inspected for wholesomeness.  Now, meat inspection is regulated by the Food Safety and Inspection Service, an offshoot of the United States Department of Agriculture.

There are a few different steps to inspection (although the process is similar in all species, these steps will be specific to beef):

Antemortem Inspection (ie. inspection of the animal prior to slaughter):  After the animal is unloaded at the slaughterhouse, it is inspected by a USDA Inspector or Veterinarian.  If any animals are deemed sick, injured, or unsafe for human consumption, they are removed from the food chain. 

The blue ink indicates that this beef animal was over 30 months of age. All neurological tissue and the spinal column will be removed and not available for sale.

Maturity:  Age of the cattle is very important in deciding how the carcass will be utilized.  Age is determined by dentition (how many permanent incisors they have).  If they are over 30 months of age, the carcass is clearly marked.  A beef animal over 30 months of age is at a higher risk of a neurological problem known as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, commonly referred to as mad cow.  Although it is highly unlikely that an animal will be infected even if over 30 months of age, extra precautions are taken just to be safe.  Meat from these animals can still be safely consumed, but all neurological tissues and the spinal column must be removed and destroyed.

Postmortem (after the animal has been slaughtered):  Once the internal organs are removed, the inspector evaluates the heart, lungs and liver to look for any signs of infection, sickness, or disease.  If all these organs pass inspection, the carcassh is deemed safe for consumption.

This is the USDA inspection stamp you will see on meat products. The number on the bottom is specific to each processing facility.

Finally, the carcass is evaluated for final inspection.  In the meat industry, there is zero tolerance for fecal matter, ingesta and milk.  If there are any signs of these contaminants, they must be cut off.  Any other signs of contamination are also removed as they may be a carrier to the three zero tolerance contaminants.  After any sign of contamination has been removed, the carcass is sprayed with 180 degree F water as a way of thermal pasteurization.  The carcass may also be steam pasteurized and sprayed with a low concentration lactic or acetic acid to hinder bacteria growth.

Once all steps of inspection have been completed, the carcass is marked with an inspection stamp.  As stated in my post about labelling, labels on all meat products require an inspection stamp.  All processors have a unique number specific to their location which is included on the inspection stamp.  I really like the app “USDA Meat and Poultry Inspection (MPI) Directory,” as it lets me type in the number on the inspection stamp and find out where my food came from, so cool!

This post just touches on the topic of inspection around the time of slaughter.  There are many additional points during meat production that are regulated to ensure a safe, wholesome product for your family.  We will touch on those soon!

*All the highlighted words in this and future posts will be included in a “Common Terms” post.  They are words that I know are often used in the industry but may be a little confusing! *

What’s in a Label?

Walking through the grocery store I’m often amazed at the shear number of products available.  Sometimes it seems that there are 10 different versions of the same thing with the only difference being their label.  But have you ever considered what goes into designing a food label?  Today we’re going to go through the 7 things that are required to be a part of a food label and how they impact you.

  1. Proper Product Name: This means there needs to be a name/statement on the package that gives a truthful description of the product.  It makes sense, you should be able to know what exactly you’re purchasing!
  2. Nutritional Information: I’m sure at some point we have all looked at a nutrition label to determine calories, fat, carbs, etc.  This allows you to monitor your dietary needs and make purchasing decisions that best match what you’re seeking in a diet.
  3. Ingredient List: As simple as it sounds, the label needs to include what is inside the package.  Ingredients are listed in order of quantity (ie. the first ingredient on the list is the most abundant ingredient in the product).  In addition to simply listing the ingredients used, allergens need to be made known. 
  4. Name and Place of Manufacturer:  On every food product you purchase there is a section that contains the name and physical address of where the product was made.  This allows you to trace where your food came from and allows your to contact the company if you choose to do so.
  5. Accurate Statement of Net Quantity: This tells you just how much of the product you will be purchasing.  I almost always look at this section of a label when comparing prices between two brands.  
  6. Safe Handling Statement:  Meat products are required to give you a description of how to handle the product to keep it safe for your family to eat.  This may be a statement such as; “Keep Frozen,”  or “Fully Cooked, Ready to Eat,” or “Refrigerate After Opening”.  The purpose of these statements is twofold, keeping you safe and protecting the processor from getting in trouble if the consumer misuses the product. Picture this: It’s a beautiful, sunny, 80 degree summer day.  A woman is having friends over for a picnic and is planning to grill hamburgers. She goes to the grocery store and picks up ground beef, buns and pickles, which she then leaves in her car for a few hours while she runs other errands.  Once she is home, she leaves the ground beef on the kitchen counter for another hour before lighting the grill.  The party is great, but later that evening many of those in attendance become ill.  Well the buns didn’t make them sick, and it probably wasn’t the pickles, so that leaves the beef.  The ground beef label told her that she needed to keep the product refrigerated or frozen until it was ready to be prepared.  She didn’t listen to this and instead let the product reach an unsafe temperature, putting her and her friends at risk for getting sick.  Long story short, listen to the label!
  7. Inspection stamp:  All meat products are legally required to be deemed safe by a USDA inspector.  That’s right, all meat that is available for sale is legally required to be inspected for wholesomeness to ensure that the product is safe for human consumption. I hope to further discuss inspection in a later post and clarify what inspectors look for when determining product safety.

Many of the requirements of a label are there for your safety.  Knowing that your food is inspected, how to handle it, and if there are any known allergens or ingredients that you specifically react poorly too is necessary to keep you healthy.  All labels must be legally approved to be used.  What about other things you see on labels?  Certified, organic, natural, non-GMO?  We’ll cover some of these topics in future posts to help you better understand just what you’re eating!