“80/20” refers to the ratio of lean beef to fat in hamburger meat. It’s the modern standard, but in years past, 70/30 was considered the ideal ratio for ground meat. Modern consumers tend to err on the lean side; 90/10 is popular in grocery stores, but it produces very dry hamburgers. Grinding lean beef with bacon or pork fat has become a popular way to increase the fat side of the ratio. This technique was made famous by Tookie’s (see page 43).
The USDA grades beef based on a set of criteria that includes color and overall appearance, but grades are primarily based on the degree of intramuscular marbling. USDA Prime is the highest beef grade awarded by the United States Department of Agriculture. Steakhouses are the places where you most often see USDA Prime burgers; they make them with their trimmings. Beware when the menu, or the waiter, says the burger is made from “prime beef”—this meaningless phrase doesn’t mean they’re “USDA Prime.” They might as well say it’s “swell beef” or “real nice beef.”
USDA Choice is the middle grade of American beef, in between USDA Prime and USDA Select, but it’s a very broad category that includes three subgrades. Because of the wide disparity of quality within the grade, “branded beef programs” have emerged to help consumers navigate their many options. Certified Angus and Certified Hereford are programs based on the breed of the cattle. Generally, these programs cherry-pick the high end of the USDA Choice beef from the designated breed. Other branded beef programs based on breed include Black Angus and Angus. Sterling Silver and Nolan Ryan are branded beef programs based not on breed but on quality attributes, including marbling and post-slaughter treatments that enhance tenderness.
USDA Select is a leaner grade of beef preferred by many customers for health reasons and popular in dishes such as stir-fries.
Japanese Beef: The Wagyus and Wherefores
The word means Japanese cow and refers to several breeds. All Wagyu cattle are genetically predisposed to intense marbling, and they regularly produce meat that’s far beyond the top end of U.S. quality grades. Wagyu beef is said to be healthier than conventional beef because it’s high in heart-healthy fats, including monounsaturated fats and oleic acid. True Japanese beef is very hard to find in the United States, but American-raised Wagyu is becoming very common.
Kobe (pronounced KO-bee)
The fifth-largest city in Japan and the most famous source of Wagyu beef.
An American-raised crossbreed of Wagyu and American Black Angus cattle. The quality of American Kobe ranges from astonishingly good to overpriced and overhyped. There are no strict definitions about what constitutes Kobe beef in the United States, so cattle with as little as 1/32 or 1/64 Wagyu genetics can be sold as Kobe. Buyers should look to individual ranches and branded Kobe programs to ensure they’re getting what they’re paying for.
Akaushi means “red cow” in Japanese and refers to the Japanese Red or Brown breed. American Akaushi cattle are frequently a cross between Red Angus and other breeds. But there is at least one brand of 100 percent Akaushi, marketed by HeartBrand Beef, that comes from a purebred herd of Akaushi cattle in Harwood, Texas. As one of the only sources of 100 percent Wagyu beef in the United States, the company serves the super-premium Japanese beef niche.