More on Meat: Meat Grades And Explaining Various Cooking Temperatures

The more I eat out, the more surprised I am at the inability for chefs to demonstrate one of the most important, yet basic, aspects of cooking: proper understanding of the cooking temperature of meat.

For many of you, this will be common knowledge.  However, I get enough questions about stuff like this – so I felt a post was in order.  This should be taken with a grain of salt, as different cuts display unique characteristics.  Meanwhile, this is written with a beef-centric focus.

Cooking Temperature

Raw meat will be be a bit more chewy and somewhat more slippery on your palate.  Though you may not realize this if you are pounding away, raw meat retains a good bit of water.  The muscle and connective bits inside keep it all bottled up.

Early Cooking (Rare)
At approximately 120° F the protein will start to clot. This squeezes the water and then forces out of the cells.  So with the influx of water, the meat becomes juicier and starts to firm up a bit.

Middle Cooking (Medium)
At 140° (the top-end of medium-rare), the protein clots become even more abundant and the cells start to form into groups.  At this point, the meat is still firming up and the large pockets of water help make the meat “juicier.”  As the temperature rises past 140° F and approaches 150° F, the collagen starts to denature.  The increased pressure on the water results in the meat shrinking as it releases much of its juice.  As the meat dries out, it starts to take on a tougher personality.

Late Cooking (Well Done)
As you might expect, the continued cooking of the meat will help dry it out and stiffen it up.  If you slowly raise the temperature to 160° F, the aforementioned collagen will soften and change into gelatin.  The muscle fibers remain firm, but the gelatin allows the meat to break apart easily.  Thus, when barbecuing, stewing, or braising, meat should fall off the bone.

Beef Grades

Established ‘27, meat grades are an attempt to measure the overall flavor, tenderness, and juiciness of the meat.  Amongst other things, the basis of these grades is the age, marbling, color, and texture of the meat.

The following is the list of USDA grades.  For you store shoppers, stick to Prime, Choice, & Select.  In addition, for those of you with real time on your hands, there is the yield grade.  Unless you are buying in bulk – this isn’t a big deal.  The lower the number, the higher the yield.

The USDA grades are:

Prime – Prime beef is the best quality.  It is heavily marbled (8%) and will have a thick layer of fat.  As logic would follow – it’s going to be the most costly and the most flavorful.  It is also aged the longest.

Choice – Next up is Choice.  The marbling will come in at between 4-8%).   Slightly chewier and less flavorful, you can use Choice for just about anything.

Select – Select beef comes in at 3-4% marbling.  As you might expect, it is tougher and less flavorful.

Standard and Commercial- A step below select, this is that store brand meat you’ll see from time to time.

Utility, Cutter, and Canner – You won’t need to worry about these three at the store.  The bottom of the list, this meat is ground and processed.  Hello Krystal Burgers!! (YUM!!!!!)

No-Roll – Consider this non-graded select.

Alright ladies and gents, there you have it!

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