ASK THE BUTCHER: How Can I Pick A Good Steak?

by | In the Kitchen

Stuffed Artichoke Bottoms

Not many people have had the experience of visiting an old-fashioned butcher shop to have the butcher select and cut the perfect steak for your barbecue. In his new column, Ask The Butcher, Tony Stafford, shares his 40 years of experience in the meat industry with us and gives us his secrets to choosing the most delicious steak. — EH Stafford, Managing Editor


“Remember FAT is FLAVOR! — Tony Stafford


Always look for USDA Choice or higher

The grade of beef determines the taste and the price you pay. Always look for USDA Choice or higher to get the most bang for your buck.


The marbling or fat in a steak creates its flavor and determines the grade of beef. The highest grades of beef have the most marbling.


What is the USDA grading system?

The grading system determines how tender and flavorful the beef will be. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), inspects all raw meat and poultry sold in the country, including imported products. After the meat and poultry are inspected for wholesomeness, producers and processors may request to have the products graded for quality by a federal grader. Inspection is mandatory but grading is voluntary. All beef will have an inspection stamp with a unique number identifying the processor.


All meat and poultry in the US are inspected for wholesomeness. The number on the stamp (in this case, 38) indicates the meat processor.


Who does the grading?

The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service is responsible for grading meat and poultry. Those who request grading must pay for the service. Grading for quality means evaluation of the tenderness, juiciness, and flavor of the beef. (For poultry, a normal shape that is fully fleshed and meaty and free of defects receives the highest grade “A”.)


The USDA grade shields

These shields are used to distinguish the quality of the beef. Quality grades are widely used as a “language” within the food industry which also sets the prices various businesses pay for the beef. The grades listed below are from highest quality to lowest acceptable quality.


Kobe, a Japanese raised beef, is known for its extensive marbling and its seriously expensive price. Waygu is the American version of Kobe. Both types of beef are typically graded USDA PRIME.



Is produced from young, well-fed beef cattle. It has abundant marbling (the amount of fat within the lean meat) and is only 3%of the total beef produced in the US.


Meat processors can request/pay for a grading inspection which gives their meat a quality grade. PRIME is the highest grade. Both CHOICE and PRIME will give you a delicious steak.



Is high quality and has less marbling than Prime. It is by far the most common grade available.



Is very uniform in quality and is leaner than the higher grades. It is fairly tender, but because it has less marbling, it will lack the juiciness and flavor of the higher grades.


USDA Standard and Commercial

Standard and Commercial grades of beef are frequently sold as ungraded or as store brand meat.


USDA Utility, Cutter, and Canner

These three grades of beef are seldom, if ever, sold at retail. They are typically used with other ingredients because they are so lean.



Photos courtesy USDA and



Tony Stafford in front of his Love Valley Wholesale Spice Company TruckTony Stafford, co-founder and former owner of Ferrucci’s Old Tyme Italian Market in Cornelius, NC, has over 40 years experience in the meat industry as a butcher. He knows how to evaluate, cut, and season all kinds of meat for an exceptional meal whether it’s your Thanksgiving dinner or a backyard barbecue. Now known as “The Spice Guy” from Love Valley Wholesale Spice Company, he sells spices, soup bases, and custom blends to Lake Norman/Charlotte restaurants, food trucks, caterers, and commercial kitchens. 




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