I’m going to change gears here a little. EARLY on in the blog here, I made it known that cooking is one of my other loves. 🙂 Anything from near competition level Southern BBQ to baking cakes and cheesecakes. Am I world class? No, not quite, but I’m darned good.
Apologies to any non-carnivores here, but since I run into the problem of finding fresh cuts of meat, I thought I’d share some info for readers.
First, let’s address the obvious question; what does it matter? High end steak houses age their steaks a long time, right? Yes, they do. It’s a special process that is different from just leaving food to sit in a store or home refrigerator though. The final part of that process also involves scraping and trimming mold off the surface of the meat also. Some folks are OK with that, but the idea of eating meat that used to be covered with mold is gross to me. What the dry aging process also does is take moisture out of the meat to concentrate the flavor of the remaining meat and juices. You’re taking the steak part way to jerky for the sake of flavor.
I’m getting a bit off topic though. My point is it’s a different deal getting an ages steak at a restaurant and having something sit around in the store forever. I will quickly add that if you’ve ever had freshly butchered meat, there’s a world of difference between that and store bought or aged meat.
Hopefully the stores in your area are better than the ones in my city, but using food coloring or nitrogen to make meat look fresh longer is getting to be a very common trick as grocery stores try to stretch profits. You can potentially end up with something that looks good on the surface, but is brown and starting to rot inside.
The above picture was meat I was going to cut up for fajitas… Until I saw the brown in the middle. What you have there is food coloring, probably injected as well as surface dunked. Hence the weird ring of brown
Food coloring is easy to spot. When you’re inspecting the meat, does it look to be a natural color of red? That meat above was borderline on looking right color-wise. One of the most blatant examples I personally found though was this:
No, you’re not seeing things, that $18 a pound filet Mignon IS indeed fire engine red… Even the fat! So are the beef kabobs next to them. Talk about food colored to death. That’s the meat counter at Sprouts; a supposedly upscale grocer that prides itself on fresh and natural. Lesson for the day; even “high end” grocery stores can try to pull a fast one on you.
Food coloring is getting to be out of favor though. There’s a new technique used by grocers and meat distributors; spraying the meat with nitrogen gas.
Contrary to how that may initially sound, it’s not inherently a bad thing. Nitrogen will slow the natural oxidation of the meat, which is a big part of what makes it spoil. It’s similar to the reasons athletes and body builders use nitrogen based supplements and some places put nitrogen in car tires instead of air.
The problem comes when grocery stores ignore and refresh the pull dates because the meat still looks good on the surface. Nitrogen won’t penetrate all the way through the meat so the center decays while the surface looks good. Since the nitrogen is also rarely applied to every square inch of the meat, careful examination can turn up brown spots before you buy:
Now, note that is a USDA Prime cut of Brisket, which is the highest quality available. More there in a bit. This Brisket was also being sold by Costco, which used to pride itself on high quality and doing right by it’s members. Does that big stripe of brown look quality to you? It’s an indication that there’s more brown under the surface though.
So how do you find good meat if it’s all treated with Nitrogen? It still comes back to color. Nitrogen chases the oxygen out of the tissue and fluids, and oxygen is what gives meat it’s red color when it’s fresh. SO, when it’s still early after it’s treatment, the meat will have a bit more of a pinkish color but still look fresh. After it’s sat a while, the meat will get permeated by oxygen again, and turn more of it’s natural color:
THAT is probably a good tri-tip. It’s red, the color is even and where the color varies, it’s more of a pinkish color like the bottom center.
What you want to look for and avoid is this:
See how it looks red at first glance, but the steak that’s second from the top is showing brown in the left 2/3 of it? The steak right below that one is faintly showing some brown also. A discerning eye can save you some heartache and even more stomach ache.
If you have any doubts about the quality of the meat when you get it home and open it, cut a small slit in it and look inside. Yes, you may lose a bit of juices when you cook but it’s better than eating iffy meat. Better safe than sorry.
To be fair, meat like those Sam’s Club steaks above may not be far enough gone to present a health risk, particularly if you have a reasonably strong system. With steaks costing $10 a pound though, don’t you deserve to get reasonable value and the most flavor for your money?
One last thing. I mentioned above I’d talk about the differences between the USDA’s grades of meat. This won’t apply outside the U.S. but many other places have similar systems. A quick internet search can turn up info for you
In the US, we have three grades of meat:
Prime is the highest grade, and is the the most tender with the best marbling of fat. It’s also the most expensive. Typically it’s only found at better quality restaurants. Real butcher shops and a few places like Costco and Sam’s Club will also have it usually.
Choice is the mid grade of meat. This is what most grocery stores and low to mid quality restaurants typically carry. While not quite as tender as prime and not having quite as even a level of marbling of fat, it’s still a good quality of meat, especially in the hands of a good chef.
Select is the lowest grade of meat. It’s edible but won’t be as tender as the other grades, and will have less of more uneven fat marbling, meaning a higher potential for it to be dry after cooking.