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How to pick out the perfect steak

Gen Z Aggie: Here are a few tips from a farmer and former University of Nebraska meat judging team member.

Elizabeth Hodges, Staff Writer

June 20, 2024

5 Min Read
Meat case
SHOPPING ON MY OWN: When I lived at home, I was used to just choosing a great steak from my parents’ freezer. Once I went to college, I no longer could. But as a member of a meat judging team, I learned how to choose just the right cuts from the meat case at the local grocer. Now, I’d like to share my knowledge with readers before the start of grilling season.Photos by Elizabeth Hodges

Growing up on a hog farm, I never had to worry about picking out meat from the grocery store. Step over to one of our three deep freezers, and there was always pork or beef to choose from. But in college, I didn’t always have time to go home and raid my parents’ freezer for meat. And so, I was faced with the daunting task of buying meat from the grocery store.

Thankfully, I was on the 2022 meat judging team at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, so I had the training to know what makes a great steak.

Not everyone has had the chance to be on a meat judging team for a year to learn more about what goes into picking out the perfect steak. So let me help you identify what makes a good cut of meat and how certain cuts should be prepared.

3 aspects of quality

In assessing the quality of a piece of meat, a big misconception is that it all depends on the cut’s marbling. Actually, three components together make for a high-quality piece of meat:

Marbling. This is the amount of fat or flecks of fat within the lean. This is what enhances both the flavor and juiciness of a steak. 

Color. When talking about the color of beef, consumers should make sure that the beef is a bright cherry-red. Most of the time you will see that bright cherry-red color. But if you see a lighter-red color, there is a chance it will dry out faster when cooked. This is because of its lower water-holding capacity.

photos by Elizabeth Hodges - Elizabeth Hodges holding steak

If the meat has a dark color, it will still retain moisture after cooking. In the meat science world, we would call these “dark cutters” — because the meat is dark, firm and dry. Cattle will exhibit DFD if they are under a lot of stress premortem.

Because of this, it will not be the same eating experience you would expect of a bright cherry-red steak.

There is one exception. If you are looking in the fresh-meat retail case in a grocery store and find a small amount of brown on the lean, you may be able to get a discount on this otherwise perfectly good steak.

When the meat is exposed to oxygen, as in the fresh-meat case, the meat will start to oxidize and turn a brown color. There is nothing wrong with the meat, and this is a good way to cut a deal with the butchers.

Texture. The texture of the lean itself can also tell you a lot about the quality of the steak. The finer the texture of the lean, the more tender the meat will be.

In short, when looking for the highest quality steak, it is important to look at the marbling, the color and the texture of the steak to make sure that the beef is of a high quality.

Elizabeth Hodges holding steak with meat thermometer

Cuts and all things cooking

Unless you are following a recipe, it can be a challenge to decide what cut of meat to use and how to prepare it. Follow these tips:

Low and slow. The rule of thumb I learned in my meat science classes was that if the cut of meat comes from an area of locomotion for the animal, like the round or the chuck, you cook it low and slow.

The locomotion cuts would include roasts, which are better to cook at a low temperature over the course of hours in a crockpot, for instance.

High and fast. If you think about muscles not used intensively for locomotion, like the loin, cooking quickly at a high temperature is appropriate. The most famous of these is the ribeye, or any kind of steak you would prepare.

If you are in a pinch and don’t have a grill available to use — like I don’t living in an apartment — there are other ways you can reach a high temperature and still cook it correctly. Searing the steak on the stovetop works well. If I have a steak that’s cut thinly, I have even used my air fryer to cook it.

meat on grill with thermometer

Do not get me wrong: There is nothing better than a steak on the grill. But in a worst-case scenario, get creative. Just remember the steak needs to be cooked at a high temperature in a short time frame.

Keep these points in mind when heading to the grocery store to pick out your perfect steak. I am sure that you can impress your houseguests with this new knowledge of meat.

About the Author(s)

Elizabeth Hodges

Staff Writer, Farm Progress

Growing up on a third-generation purebred Berkshire hog operation, Elizabeth Hodges of Julian, Neb., credits her farm background as showing her what it takes to be involved in the ag industry. She began her journalism career while in high school, reporting on producer progress for the Midwest Messenger newspaper.

While a student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she became a Husker Harvest Days intern at Nebraska Farmer in 2022. The next year, she was hired full time as a staff writer for Farm Progress. She plans to graduate in 2024 with a double major in ag and environmental sciences communications, as well as animal science.

Being on the 2022 Meat Judging team at UNL led her to be on the 2023 Livestock Judging team, where she saw all aspects of the livestock industry. She is also in Block and Bridle and has held different leadership positions within the club.

Hodges’ father, Michael, raises hogs, and her mother, Christy, is an ag education teacher and FFA advisor at Johnson County Central. Hodges is the oldest sibling of four.

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