Don’t Get Burned at the Steak

Today is Memorial Day: an opportunity to reflect on the sacrifices that so many people made to protect the freedoms we enjoy in the U.S. today. I am thankful for these men and women who gave so much to protect the many ways of life we walk in this great land. I am glad people are free to work according to their talents, abilities, and smarts. And I am very happy that, along with the mixture of somber and patriotic feelings, this day allows so many people to take a rest from work and celebrate freedom in special ways.

This year, though celebrations should be somewhat subdued to control the spread of COVID-19, families can still gather and, if the weather is right, enjoy the unofficial start of summer with, in my humble opinion, the quintessential foods of the American cook-out: watermelon, corn on the cob, potato salad, baked beans, coleslaw, and anything grilled. In 2019, Americans spent about $1.5 billion in meat and seafood in preparation for the holiday (Willis, 2020), and while, of course, meat can be prepared in many ways, there’s just something special about standing at the grill on a sunny day wearing a goofy apron and chef’s hat. Thankfully, with meat processors back in operation with safety measures in place to protect workers from COVID-19, meat prices have somewhat stabilized (Willis, 2020), so more grills can be fired up for beer can chickens, pork chops, and turkey burgers. And while these are all delicious options for your holiday meal, this post is all about one of the most classic grilled meats: the ribeye steak.

Steaks can be produced from nearly every primal cut of the beef carcass from shoulder to shank if you consider steak as any cut of meat that is flat on top and bottom. In particular, the ribeye steak comes from the rib primal.

The rib primal is separated from the chuck by a cut between the fifth and sixth rib, from the loin by a cut between the twelfth and thirteenth rib, and the plate by a cut between six and ten inches from the longissimus dorsi – the large, oval muscle that is the main component of a ribeye steak ( North American Meat Processors Association [NAMP], 2007). Photo credit: Cattlemen’s Beef Board and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, 2020.

The original location of the steak impacts size, shape, price, nutritional quality, cooking method, amount of bone, and whether it can be used to kill a vampire (sorry, that’s a stake). This great infographic from the Beef Checkoff shows various retail cuts including several steaks along with recommended cooking methods. Both the bone-in and boneless ribeye steaks can be cooked on a grill or on a skillet: examples of dry heat cooking appropriate for steaks from the ribs of youthful beef animals (Aberle, Forrest, Gerrard, Mills, 2001). Ribeye steaks are naturally tender because they are made of muscles (primarily the longissimus dorsi) used for breathing and spine movement (University of Nebraska-Lincoln [UNL], 2020).

The longissimus dorsi muscle is found along the side of the cow’s spine in the chuck, rib, and loin primals (UNL, 2020).

Since the ribeye’s muscles aren’t taxed with locomotion or other strenuous activity, connective tissue development is relatively slow, and the deposit of intramuscular fat is relatively high. You’ve probably heard the term “marbling” before, and this refers to these intramuscular fats. When small depots of fat are evenly distributed through a muscle, this “fine marbling” allows the fat to melt evenly throughout the cut in the short amount of time needed to reach 135oF-145oF (medium-rare to medium), which is the optimal temperature to melt the intramuscular fat and release its hidden powers of beefy, buttery goodness without drying out the steak (Chicago Steak Company, 2020). When you shop for your ribeyes, look for the USDA quality grade shields that are based on the class, maturity, and marbling aspects of an animal (Aberle et al, 2001).

  • Class: category determined by sex and maturity of animal (e.g., steer)
  • Maturity: measurement of visible aging marked by several factors
    • Color: younger animals have lighter meat due to a lower concentration of myoglobin
    • Ossification: younger animals have redder, more porous bones as well as more cartilage on dorsal processes of all vertebrae (i.e., the tips of vertebrae that go down the middle of an animal’s back)
    • Texture: younger animals have narrower muscle fibers and less connective tissue which gives meat a shiny, smooth surface
  • Marbling: level of visible intramuscular fat
    • Nine levels: Abundant, Moderately Abundant, Slightly Abundant, Moderate, Modest, Small, Slight, Traces, Practically Devoid
    • The amount of fat in meat doesn’t correlate entirely with eating experience. In fact, a “window” of acceptable meat palatability established by Savell and Cross (as cited in Aberle et al, 2001) spans from the “slight” to “moderate” marbling, and past that, as marbling increases, overall palatability stagnates.
The three most common USDA beef grades found in retail stores are Prime, Choice, and Select (Meadows, 2019).

Prime beef is typically more expensive than Choice, but Choice meat (and even Select if cooked properly) can still deliver a very satisfying eating experience. Remember: USDA grading is a voluntary activity that processors might choose to utilize to market their beef unlike inspection which is mandatory. This video shows the process of grading a side of beef, and it is a good way to see the ribeye steak in its original location since sides are cut between the twelfth and thirteenth ribs for grading purposes.

Once your beautiful steaks are home, stick them in the fridge and relax. Due to their tender nature ribeye steaks don’t need to be marinated. In the cookbook Meat: A Kitchen Education, James Peterson simply recommends to season both sides of the steaks with salt and pepper, place them on a hot grill, grill for two minutes, rotate 90 degrees to achieve that impressive cross-hatch sear, grill another two to three minutes, flip the steaks over, repeat the previous grilling action, and allow the steaks to reach medium-rare to medium doneness (2010).

Whether you choose to grill a spatchcocked chicken or bacon-wrapped filet mignon, remember to keep food safety your top priority. Refrigerate or freeze foods as needed until you are ready to prepare or eat them. Separate raw meats from all other foods. Wash working surfaces, tools, and hands that touch raw meat. Clear the table as soon as you’re done eating to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. Preventing a trip to the hospital to treat food poisoning is great way to respect today’s “front line” workers this Memorial Day.

Happy Memorial Day from Bacon

REFERENCES

Aberle, E.D., Forrest, J.C., Gerrard, D.E., Mills, E.W. (2001). Principles of Meat Science (4th ed.).Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.

Cattlemen’s Beef Board and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (accessed 25 May 2020). Ribeye steak. Beef It’s What’s for Dinner. Retrieved from https://www.beefitswhatsfordinner.com/cuts/cut/2468/ribeye-steak.

Chicago Steak Company (accessed 25 May 2020). Why marbling steak matters. Steak University. Retrieved from https://www.mychicagosteak.com/steak-university/why-marbling-matters/.

Meadows, L (12 Sept. 2019). What’s your beef – prime, choice, or select? United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved from https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2013/01/28/whats-your-beef-prime-choice-or-select?page=1.

North American Meat Processors Association (2007). The Meat Buyer’s Guide. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Peterson, J. (2010). Meat: A Kitchen Education. Ten Speed Press.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln (accessed 25 May 2020). Longissimus. Bovine Myology. Retrieved from https://bovine.unl.edu/main/index.php?musID=17&what=showMuscle&lang=English&muscle=null.

Willis, G. (23 May 2020). Memorial Day meat prices fall despite coronavirus pandemic hitting production facilities. FOXBusiness. Retrieved from https://www.foxbusiness.com/lifestyle/meat-prices-drop-memorial-day-weekend-coronavirus.

Feature Photo by Justus Menke on Unsplash

Published by Amy G.

I'm on a mission to educate readers about meat and its part in human existence: its science, the many ways it's enjoyed, and the people who prepare it for others' enjoyment and nourishment.

4 thoughts on “Don’t Get Burned at the Steak

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