Can you tell how good a steak is going to taste by looking at it? The government thinks you can. That's why, when a USDA meat grader assesses the quality of a beef carcass, he or she makes an incision between the 12th and 13th rib, takes a good look at how much marbling there is, and assigns the meat a grade, from the highest, Prime, to Choice and Select and all the way down to Canner. That's why a well-marbled steak, one that is abundantly flecked with little specks and streaks of white fat, costs a lot more than a steak that's all red muscle.
But is marbling all there is to a good steak? Doesn't, say, a cow's diet have something to do with the way a steak tastes? And can someone please explain why that gargantuan USDA Prime strip loin I ate in Las Vegas last year had about as much flavor as a cup of tap water? I decided to find out for myself. My mission: to taste steaks from cattle raised in very different ways and see how they stack up.
To understand good steak, it helps to know a thing or two about how it gets on your plate. These days, most calves are born on ranches, suckled by their mothers, and then sent out to pasture. When they reach 6 months, they're sent to a feedlot where they're "finished" on grain, usually corn. Grain isn't a cow's natural diet, but it's the feed of choice for two reasons: It makes cattle gain weight quickly, and it results in well-marbled beef.
But according to the ranchers and food scientists I spoke to, there's a lot more to a good rib-eye than intramuscular fat. A few other factors to consider:
Breed. Angus is currently the most popular among North American ranchers. This is partly due to economics—Angus cattle mature quickly and put on weight well—but also because Angus beef is reliably marbled and tender. Not all well-marbled steaks come from Angus cows, however. Grain-feeding techniques have become so effective that even dairy cattle (such as Holsteins) can achieve a grade of Prime. (According to Cattle-Fax, a cattle-marketing information service, 17 percent of American beef comes from dairy cattle.) Does a Prime steak from a dairy cow taste as good as a Prime steak from an Angus cow? Every rancher, meat packer, and butcher I spoke to told me an Angus steak would taste better. But good luck telling the two apart at the supermarket.
Feed. Just as soil affects the quality of wine, a cow's diet can change the quality of its flesh. Some North American cattle are finished on wheat or barley rather than corn. Is there a difference? One rancher told me that barley makes for flavorful beef and warned that wheat can make beef tough. Another rancher said, "Corn is the worst. It results in the greatest lack of flavor in beef." And what about grass-fed beef? Raising a cow on grass alone is ecologically friendly. But does it taste any good?
Hormones. Almost all feedlot cows are injected with growth hormones to help them gain muscle mass; critics charge that doing so merely causes cows to retain water and produces bland meat.
Aging. Steak from a freshly slaughtered cow is stringy and tough. For this reason, beef is aged, a process that tenderizes it and enriches the flavor. Traditionally, beef was hung in a cold room, where natural enzymes would break down the muscle fibers. Dry aging, as it's known, isn't cheap. The beef loses weight to evaporation, and the moldy crust that develops on the exterior has to be lopped off, which makes the remaining beef more expensive. In the 1970s, industrial meat processors opted for wet aging—sealing entire cuts of beef in cellophane—because it's cheaper. But most beef connoisseurs agree that dry-aged beef tastes better.
Before you walk into your neighborhood butcher and say, "Three rib-eye Angus steaks, please, pastured in the Rocky Mountain foothills, finished on barley, but with a hint of oats, and dry-aged for 28—no, make that 29—days," keep in mind that as a consumer, such choice does not exist. That said, if you scour specialty butcher shops or Google "steak," you'll discover other options, including naturally raised, grain-fed, and grass-fed beef. Which leaves carnivores with the question: Which steak tastes the best?
We sampled rib-eye steaks from the best suppliers I could find. The meat was judged on flavor, juiciness, and tenderness and then assigned an overall preference. The tasting was blind, except for me. (Someone had to keep track of things.) Cooking method: Each steak was sprinkled with kosher salt, then sent to a very hot gas-fired grill, flipped once, and, when just verging on medium-rare, was removed and rested under foil for five minutes.