Choosing and Preparing Beef

Beef Choices Overview

  1. Cattle farmers and ranchers provide a variety of choices for consumers, including grain-finished, grass-finished, naturally-raised and organic beef. The range of options in beef products results from the different ways cattle are fed and raised.
  2. There may be combinations or variations of these terms or marketing claims — for example, beef may be grain-finished and organic or grass-finished and organic. The label should clearly state the production model with which the beef was raised.
  3. The great news for consumers is that all beef, regardless of how it was raised, shares the same popular characteristics that put it at the center of the plate: taste, nutrition and safety.


  1. While some cattle are strictly grass-fed, the reality is most cattle are raised on a combination of both grass and grain in the U.S. In fact, for as long as cattle have been raised for beef in this country farmers and ranchers have supplemented cattle diets with grain.
  2. Grain-finished beef – also known as grain-fed or conventionally-raised beef – is the most widely produced, and consumed, form of beef in the United States. Approximately 95 percent of all beef raised in the United States is grain-finished. 
  3. The combination of raising cattle on grass and finishing them on grain allows us to produce a year-round supply of beef at an affordable price with less land, water, feed and fuel, and fewer methane emissions.
  4. Grain-finishing helps farmers and ranchers provide the consistent quality, great-tasting and affordable beef most consumers prefer while also utilizing locally grown renewable feeds.
  5. The earliest mention of corn feeding and cattle “fattening” in historical documents appeared in the late 1800s around the time of the arrival of British breeds, which were better suited to grain fattening than the Spanish breeds brought over by Columbus.
  6. In the early 1900s, buoyed by the success of hybrid corn varieties and improved irrigation techniques, Corn Belt farmer feeders began buying calves and yearlings in the fall and “wintering” them on corn silage for 220 to 280 days.
  7. By 1940 cattle feeding pioneers William Monfort and William H. Farr were feeding cattle in Colorado and in 1951 Earl Brookover of Kansas brought the first commercial cattle feeding operation to the High Plains.


  1. Some cattle remain on pasture for their entire lives prior to slaughter. The meat from these cattle is referred to as “grass-fed” or “grass-finished” beef.
  2. Grass-fed is a voluntary marketing claim that livestock producers may request USDA to verify in order to distinguish their beef products in the marketplace. In order to meet the voluntary certification for grass-fed, cattle may eat only a grass and forage-based diet throughout their whole lifespan and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season.
  3. Producing grass-finished beef in large volumes is difficult in North America due to limited growing seasons. For example, in northern states, grass can be covered in snow for many months of the year, requiring farmers and ranchers to store or purchase hay to feed cattle during the winter.
  4. Grass-finished beef also takes longer to raise – on average of 226 days longer than grain-finished beef – therefore requiring more resources like land, water and feed. For this reason, grass-finished beef typically is more expensive to produce and costs more at the supermarket than grain-finished beef.
  5. Grass-finished beef is often described as having a distinct taste and may require different preparation methods, including marinades and shorter cooking times.
  6. A common question from consumers is whether antibiotics or hormones can be administered to grass-finished cattle. The answer is yes, according to USDA, beef that is grass-finished may judiciously be given FDA-approved antibiotics or growth promotants as well as vitamin and mineral supplements.
  7. When it comes to nutrition, the primary difference is the fat content and fatty acid profile, specifically omega-3 fatty acid. Omega-3 fatty acids make up 1 percent and 4 percent of the fatty acid profile in grain-finished and grass-finished beef, respectively. However, since beef is not a primary source of omega-3 fatty acids, the difference is not generally recognized as preferential, or enough to have an impact on human health.

Natural/Naturally Raised

  1. The definition of “natural” and “naturally-raised” can be confusing to consumers. According to USDA, natural means that a product is minimally processed and contains no additives. By this definition, most beef in the meat case is natural.
  2. Many consumers may confuse “natural” with “naturally-raised beef,” which is from cattle raised without added hormones to promote growth or the use of antibiotics to prevent disease. This voluntary standard establishes the minimum requirements for those producers who choose to operate a USDA-verified program involving a “naturally-raised” claim.
  3. According to USDA, the “naturally-raised” marketing claim standard means the cattle were raised entirely without growth promotants, antibiotics (except for ionophores used as coccidiostats for parasite control), and never fed animal by-products.
  4. If a consumer prefers beef from animals raised without added hormones to promote growth or the use of antibiotics to prevent disease, they should look for specific language on the label such as “naturally-raised,” “raised without hormones,” “raised without antibiotics” or “organic.”

Certified Organic

  1. Certified organic beef must meet USDA's National Organic Program standards. Organically raised cattle must be fed 100 percent organic feed, and they may not be given hormones to promote growth or antibiotics for any reason.
  2. While some consumers may confuse “organic” with grass-finished beef, certified organic beef can be either grass-finished or grain-finished, as long as the grass or grain was grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.
  3. According to research, organically produced food does not differ in safety or nutrition from conventionally produced foods.
  4. The U.S. Department of agriculture, which certifies organic food, “makes no claims that organically produced food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food. Organic food differs from conventionally produced food in the way it is grown, handled and processed.” 

"Humanely Raised" Labels

  1. Just merely reading the label is not a reliable way to determine if an animal was raised and slaughtered humanely. Beef farmers and ranchers care deeply about their livestock and do their best to provide them with comfort and high-quality animal care - virtues that can’t be adequately described on a label that may only state “natural,” “grain-fed” or “grass-finished.”
  2. Some retailers and meat processing companies have developed their own “humanely raised” labels to certify that the animals met certain guidelines established by the retailer. In order to fully understand what these labels mean, consumers need to ask the retailer what standards are required for the label and how they verify those standards are met.
  3. Regardless of what is on the label, the fact is that cattle farmers and ranchers strive to give their animals the best possible care at all times and consumers should feel confident in the industry’s commitment to offer beef that is humanely raised and slaughtered – without having to look at the label.

Quality Grades

  1. Beef carcasses can be assigned a quality grade that relates to several factors including intramuscular fat or marbling, skeletal bone maturity, texture and appearance of the lean muscle.
  2. The quality grade assigned to a carcass is an indicator of the tenderness, juiciness and flavor potential of the cuts from that carcass. Although there are eight designations – prime, choice, select, standard, commercial, utility, cutter and canner – the top three, prime, choice and select, are most commonly seen by consumers.
  3. Quality grades are assigned in the slaughter plant to about 95 percent of all USDA graded carcasses and are based off of the amount of marbling and the maturity of the muscle on a beef carcass.
  4. Marbling, or intramuscular fat, is more tender than muscle and contributes to flavor. Therefore, increased levels of marbling are associated with improvements in tenderness and flavor. This is why cuts like the Ribeye and T-bone are more tender than a roast – they contain more marbling.

Cut Selection and Cooking Methods

  1. Some of the best cuts for grilling include the strip steak – sometimes calls a Kansas City Strip, which is a bone-in strip, or a New York strip, which is boneless – Flank Steak, Ribeye and T-bone Steak.
  2. Some of the best cuts for broiling include the T-Bone steak, tenderloin steak and 93 percent lean ground beef patties.
  3. Skillet cooking, or pan-broiling, is a good option for preparing ground beef for tacos or other recipes that call for ground beef as an ingredient. Choosing 95 percent lean or leaner ground beef will reduce the fat content.
  4. Pan-frying is another good option when you don’t have access to a grill. Some of the best cuts for pan-frying include cubed steak, Sirloin Tip Steak and the Flat Iron steak.
  5. Stir-fry is another popular preparation method. Some of the best cuts for stir-fry include Top Sirloin, Sirloin Tip Steak and Flat Iron.
  6. Braising or pot-roasting beef works well with cuts that are less tender than steaks, including cuts from the chuck such as a pot roast or short ribs, and cuts from the round including a bottom round roast or boneless bottom round steak. Braising also works well with brisket.
  7. Stewing is another good method for less tender cuts from the chuck and round.
  8. Slow cooking beef is another option for the cuts such as brisket, pot roast and stew meat.
  9. Oven roasting beef is a popular cooking method around the holidays but can also turn any meal into a special occasion. Some of the best cuts for roasting include a strip roast, ribeye roast or tenderloin roast.
  10. Marinating or rubbing steaks will add flavor and improve tenderness of some cuts. If you just want to add flavor to a tender steak like a T-bone, strip, ribeye or tenderloin. If you are short on time, a rub is the best choice. If you have an additional 15 minutes to 2 hours you can use a marinade to add flavor. Some steaks such as the flank or skirt steak will benefit from marinating to improve tenderness.

Cooking Tips

  1. Use a meat thermometer to determine the proper doneness, according to your preference. Grill to an internal temperature of 145 degrees for medium rare, 160 for medium and 170 for well done. Always let a steak rest for at least five minutes prior to cutting into it. This allows the juices to reabsorb into the meat for a juicier steak. Always cook ground beef to 160 degrees.
  2. Flavor and taste are extremely important to beef community members and consumers alike. Rich beef flavor moves from the front of the beef carcass to the back. For example, consumers looking for a lot of marbling with a moderate flavor could choose a prime T-bone.
  3. Beef is a natural source of the umami flavor that is derived from glutamates, which are the salts of an amino acid. The umami taste is described as meaty, savory and delicious and, when paired with other umami rich foods, the two will have a magnifying effect on each other and produce 8x more flavor.
  4. Some prime examples of beef pairings that will yield a delicious eating experience are Steak with Bleu Cheese; Prime Rib with Red Wine Mushroom Sauce; Sesame-Soy Beef Stir-Fry; Beef & Wild Mushroom Ragout
  5. To maximize your eating experience and get the most flavorful results from your beef meal remember these five easy cooking tips from culinary expert and long-time chef, Dave Zino.
    1. Always cook steaks to medium rare to medium doneness to maximize umami
    2. Always use an instant read meat thermometer to determine doneness
    3. Never use a fork to turn steaks; you are piercing the beef and losing flavorful juices
    4. Pair Umami rich ingredients with beef to magnify the Umami eating experience
    5. Rubs and marinades are a great way to enhance beef’s flavor profile
  6. Whether a Millennial looking for affordable meals they can cook in under 30 minutes, a parent looking for nutritious meals their kids will enjoy or a Baby Boomer wanting a meal that will help them maintain physical activity as they age, will provide a solution.

Next Chapter: Top Beef Myths