Marbling is a key determinant of a steak’s quality. Experts judge the condition of a piece of steak based primarily on its marbling meat. The heavier the marbling, the better the beef.
How To Define Beef Marbling
Let’s start with the basics. Marbling refers to the fat that is found inside a cut of beef. You’ll recognize it as the white parts of any meat you purchase. Another term for marbling is intramuscular fat. This term is not to be confused with intermuscular fat, which is the fat in between the muscles of a cut of beef.
Heavy marbling is typically achieved by feeding cows grain pellets while restricting their movement. As years have gone by, this method is increasingly seen as antiquated and cruel. Fortunately, there have been alternative methods developed in recent years that have produced heavy marbling without animal cruelty.
While having a lot of fat on a cut of beef is generally deemed desirable, different types of marbling bring out a wide array of flavors, some bad, some good. There are also various types of fat, not all of which are considered high quality.
The Benefits of Marbling
Marbling is an essential part of a steak. That’s because it adds a robust flavor to your beef. Without a lot of intramuscular fat, you’ll end up with a dry piece of steak, lacking in the fruitful juices that every steak fanatic craves.
Not only does marbling meat influence flavor, but it’s a big part of what makes a cut of beef tender. Tenderness comes from the fat in the steak. When you are served a tough steak, it means that there wasn’t much fat in it, and the beef was mostly muscle (See our article: why is my steak tough and chewy).
It’s important to point out that marbling does not refer to the fat you typically remove from your piece of steak (the outer layer). Marbling acts as a lubricant of sorts as it is what moistens the beef, allowing you to retain the juicy goodness you need during the cooking process.
Of course, the quality of your steak also depends on how you cook the beef. If you overcook a cut of beef, the steak marbling will lose the juices it preserves, leaving you with dry meat.
Types of Marbling
As we mentioned earlier, there are different types of beef marbling—there are levels to the steak game. Depending on the distribution of marbling, some are better than others. The best kind of marbling is “fine.”
A fine marbling contains an even amount of flecks or white spots throughout the beef. It is also lean and thin. If those flecks are plentiful, then the steak will be more flavorful. Examples of fine marbling can be found in Wagyu and Kobe beef.
The next step down, as far as quality, is a medium beef marbling. This meat is characterized by large portions of marbling that aren’t evenly distributed. Although the cut contains a large amount of marbling, it is not as high quality as a fine marbling.
This difference is because larger amounts of fat take longer to render, meaning you won’t get the most out of the juices, and it will not come out tender. Because the flecks are unevenly distributed, you’ll end up with a steak that is inconsistent, being tender in some areas while tough in others.
Steak Marbling examples:
At the bottom of the steak marbling totem pole is the coarse marbling. This beef cut features the most considerable amount of fat, also unevenly distributed. It is near impossible to make a juicy, tender steak with this type of marbling.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably a steak head, looking to hone your craft. Get a fine marbling cut of meat to make the perfect steak. There are several well-known brands that you can look to get a fine cut of beef.
However, you may be cooking for a group of novices who like their steak well-done. If this is the case, get new friends (Just kidding, maybe). You may be able to please them with a medium or coarse marbling.
How To Judge Marbling
Now that you know the importance of marbling and how to differentiate between the different types of marbling let’s talk about grading beef. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the official judge of the quality level for a cut of beef.
They consider several factors such as the cattle the meat came from, the marbling, the thickness of the fat on the cow, and more. There are three basic grades a steak can get.
The first and most desired is prime. A grade of prime is the highest honor the USDA can bestow upon a steak. It is defined as coming from a young calf with a high amount of evenly distributed marbling. These are the juiciest and most tender types of beef that include rib-eyes and tenderloins. You’ll find prime cuts in most reputable restaurants.
The second-highest grade is choice. With the highest quality cuts stemming from the rib or loin of a cow, a choice cut contains a fair amount of marbling, though still less than prime. These cuts are best enjoyed when they are braised or roasted. Simmering a choice steak may also give you great results.
Next, we have select beef. Select beef is thinner than the others and has an unbalanced amount of marbling, which affects its tenderness and flavor impact. It’s best to marinade these steaks before grilling or use the braising method on the stovetop.
If cooked correctly, you can make any of these three grades of beef marbling work for you.