Steak selecting 101: What’s in a grade, and is dry-aged worth the price?

Various cuts at the Butcher Block
Photo: Wade Vandervort

Anatomy 101

The United States Department of Agriculture’s beef grading system is a rigorous and complicated one, based on the amount of marbling and muscle, along with the maturity. The more marbling and the younger the beef, the higher the grade. A USDA Prime grade is the highest designation, while lesser grade beef is designated Choice or Select.

According to Ron Lutz, owner of Las Vegas’ three Butcher Block locations, the most popular cuts of steak come from the middle of the cow, since there’s less muscle there compared with the bovine’s front and back. “Your New Yorks, your ribeyes, your filets … those muscles aren’t used a lot, so those are the most tender and most popular cuts used in steakhouses,” he says. “They’re also my biggest sellers here that people take home to cook.”

For those looking to expand their meat repertoires, Lutz suggests other cuts that are just as flavorful but won’t break the bank. “There are some lesser-known cuts now becoming available—hanger steak, flat iron, teres major. A skirt steak packs a lot of flavor but is a little less expensive,” he says.

Japan has its own grading system for wagyu, which ranges from A1-A5. USDA Prime is the equivalent of an A2 or A3, so A5 wagyu is deemed more flavorful and tender than any cattle bred in the U.S.—and thus tends to be more expensive. When you see American-style Kobe beef on the menu, it’s a crossbreed between Japanese wagyu cattle and American Angus cattle.

Coming of Age

Dry-age is all the rage at some of the city’s best steakhouses. But does the flavor justify the cost?

The process of dry-aging steak basically allows meat to hang in a temperature- and humidity-controlled room, where natural enzymes break down connective tissue, resulting in a more-tender cut. The length of drying time varies, but the industry standard is between 14 and 42 days, with some restaurants pushing it well beyond that.

The longer the meat ages, the more concentrated the flavor becomes, similar to aging cheese. If you prefer a gamey, nutty, musky (think: notes of blue cheese) flavor profile, a long dry-aging time might be worth the extra bucks. (The higher price point comes not just from the amount of time it takes to dry-age, but the loss in meat volume during the process.)

Almost all the steak you buy at the supermarket has gone through a wet-aging process, meaning it has been vacuum-sealed in plastic, which still allows for the breakdown of connective tissue through enzymes but without the loss of volume. Some steakhouses combine wet-aging and dry-aging, resulting in a tender, flavorful piece of meat with a manageable volume loss.

If you want to experiment with dry-aging at home, the Butcher Block’s Ron Lutz will store customers’ steaks in his shops’ aging lockers. “I have people actually put their name on it,” he says. “They just pay for the amount of time they use.”

Tags: Dining, Food
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