What makes a good steak?
Is it Juiciness? Tenderness? Flavor?
If you answered yes to any of those, you’re a fan of beef marbling.
Marbling is what gives beef its flavor and tenderness. It’s also one of the ways that beef gets its USDA grade of Prime, Choice or Select.
If you go to a fancy steak house, you’ll sometimes hear them talk with pride about how their meat is well-marbled Prime steak.
If you order one of those cuts, you’ll experience the rich, juicy, tender flavor that steak is known for. You’ll also have a large dinner bill because a well-marbled steak can be expensive!
What is Beef Marbling?
Beef marbling is the small flecks of fat interspersed within beef between the muscle fibers. You’ve likely seen it in a raw steak before. It sometimes looks like fine white “lines” running through your steak.
I know you may be thinking that fat is bad and you want a lean steak, not fatty. I completely understand that, but please remember three things:
- All beef – even grass fed beef – has fat
- Some fats are good for you.
- There are lots of beef cuts that are extremely lean and we’ll talk about them in the future. Today, we’re talking about those cuts you splurge on with juicy, luscious marbling!
What grades of beef have the most marbling?
The USDA Beef Grades – Prime, Choice, and Select – have a direct correlation to beef marbling. The steaks with the highest grades are those with the highest amount of marbling.
Prime beef has the most marbling interspersed throughout the lean meat. Choice has less marbling than Prime, and Select has the least marbling of all.
When beef graders (yes, there are people who grade beef for a living) are grading beef, they specifically look at amount of marbling in the ribeye muscle between the 12th and 13th ribs. Based on that one location of the cow, they can then determine if the beef in the entire cow is Prime, Choice or Select.
If you really want to learn a lot about grading beef, watch this video by the USDA. It shows exactly how beef is graded.
Why does beef marbling make beef taste so good?
Scientists have studied why marbling helps beef’s tenderness and they have lots of theories. Some of them say it’s because fat doesn’t conduct heat as well as lean fibers, so a well-marbled piece of beef is harder to overcook. Another theory is that marbling makes it easier to chew beef, so the person eating the beef perceives the beef to be tenderer.
My advice is to put science aside. Do your own taste test. Cook a steak with a lot of marbling, like a rib-eye, and compare it to a steak without much marbling, like a round steak.
Which is more tender, juicy and flavorful to you?
For me, the rib-eye wins every time.
What cuts of beef have the most marbling?
Beef cuts with the most marbling mostly come from areas on the top of the cow — where the muscles are the least used.
The rib-eye is the most well-marbled cut you’ll find on a cow. It’s cut from the rib section, and steak lovers around the world rave about it because it’s so tender and juicy. And yes, all of that mouth-watering-goodness can be attributed to the marbling.
If you look for a rib-eye on a restaurant menu, you should know that rib-eyes are a boneless cut and it’s sometimes refereed to as a Delmonico. You could also have a bone-in ribeye, and that will usually be called a cowboy rib-eye or rib steak.
Boneless steaks should have marbling throughout the entire cut, and they may also have a rind of fat. The marbling on a bone-in cut should move cross-wise through the meat and there should be a thicker strand near the bone.
Does grass fed beef have marbling?
Yes. Grass fed beef will have some marbling, but it won’t have as much marbling as grain-finished beef.
Grass fed steak is leaner overall and doesn’t meet the USDA’s qualification for Prime beef.
This explains why you’ll never see a grass-fed prime steak at a restaurant. You can either have grass-fed OR Prime, but not both. It’s up to you.
Have a question about beef marbling or anything else related to beef? Let us know!