It can be daunting to enter a supermarket or butchery and choose from the large array of beef cuts on display. These days you mostly find pre-cuts and pre-packed beef. If you can’t find cuts to your liking, ask your butcher to cut according to your need.
Knowing how to identify a quality cut of beef will ensure that you get maximum flavour and tenderness. Here’s what you need to look for when buying beef:
The grilling process does not make tough cuts of meat tender so ensure that you ask for matured beef for maximum tenderness. The colour should ideally be red but will vary in colour from carcass to carcass. The texture should be firm, smooth, fine and not dry, and the outer fat layer should be firm and evenly distributed. The type of feed given to the animal may influence the colour of fat (yellow maize produces a creamier colour).
An oily appearance is an indication of an older animal. Sawn-through bones are red and porous in very young animals and whiter and harder in older animals. In young animals, the ribs on the inside of the carcass show red flecks. In older animals, there are hardly any red spots. The cartilage between the vertebrae should be white and jelly-like. The absence of cartilage is an indication of an older animal. The packaging should not be damaged.
The class given to beef indicates the animal’s age, the fat cover and muscle conformation. Carcasses are classified into three primary categories, determined by age and tenderness.
The fat cover is important in the grading of beef and is measured on a scale of 0 to 6, where 0 indicates no fat cover and 6 indicates excessive fat. The optimum is a grading of 2 or 3. The fat cover grading is stamped onto the carcass with food-grade approved ink.
South Africa’s national Department of Agriculture conducts all Karan Beef meat inspections. Every reputable abattoir has its own registered identity number, which is stamped onto every carcass that leaves the plant.
Maturing or ageing is a natural process that improves the tenderness and flavour of the meat. Microbes and enzymes help to break down the connective tissue during the ageing process to tenderise the meat. Primary cuts used for grilling, frying and oven roasting, like the loin or rump, should be aged to make them more tender. Maturing can be accomplished through wet or dry ageing.
Wet ageing is the most commonly used method today and involves ageing vacuum-packed beef in its own juices in a refrigerator. The beef cuts are vacuum-packed to protect the meat from bacteria and oxygen that can cause it to spoil.
You can store vacuum-packed beef cuts in a household refrigerator for between four to six weeks. The middle cut meats like the ribeyes, strip steaks, T-bones, fillets and sirloins are the most popular for wet ageing.
Dry ageing is done in a controlled process with a whole, split or quartered carcass or primary cuts like the loin. It involves the degradation of the connective tissue and muscle proteins in the meat and should be monitored closely to ensure the growth of beneficial, harmless moulds.
Dry-aged beef is a culinary treat and is often available at the finest restaurants and butcheries. Premium beef products can be dry-aged for up to six weeks in a controlled environment. Beef cuts like strip loin, ribeye and sirloin are the most popular for dry ageing.
Beef can be hung at 0°C for 10 to 12 days under well-controlled conditions like a meat trader's cold room. Household refrigerators do not provide this constant and low temperature. The recommended temperature for ageing meat in a household refrigerator is 4°C for five to six days.
Differences between wet and dry ageing
One of the main differences between the two ageing methods is that wet ageing has no moisture loss. Dry ageing results in up to a 50% moisture loss. The two ageing processes also produce different flavours and textures.
A dry-aged steak has flavours ranging from buttery to nutty and sometimes gamey depending on the length of ageing and storage conditions. Dry-aged meat is also very tender as the ageing process is more prolonged, making the muscle fibres moister and more flavourful.
Wet-aged steaks have a fresh, metallic flavour. Wet-ageing is better suited to a lean cut of beef that has less fat marbling. Dry-aged steak is usually thicker than wet-aged steak but loses some of its mass during the ageing process.
All oxygen should be expressed, the meat packed hygienically, the wrapping not damaged and the temperature well-controlled. If these rules are applied, vacuum-packed meat can be stored for up to two weeks between 0°C and 2°C.
Beef owes its attractive red colour to the myoglobin protein, which is actually purple. When myoglobin is exposed to oxygen, it turns into oxymyoglobin, which imparts a cherry-red colour to beef.
Vacuum-packed meat has a purple-red colour due to the absence of oxygen. Once the packaging is removed, the meat will regain its attractive red colour in about 10 minutes after its contact with oxygen. This process takes place only once. Also, when vacuum-packed meat is opened, there will be an initial confinement odour. This is caused by a concentration of natural gases trapped in the wrapping. This aroma quickly disappears when the meat is exposed to air and is left open for about 10 minutes.