Types Of Beef: Grass-Fed, Organic, Kosher. What’s the difference?

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Even those uninitiated with the finer points of cooking know there's a difference when it comes to the ingredients you buy. Just picking something off the shelf and winging it won't cut it for the majority of recipes, and that principle holds true just as much for beef as anything else.

While all coming from a cow, there are numerous different types of beef cut from different parts of the animal, with different designation for factors like quality, marbling, how the cow was raised, or what it was fed. It can be a bit confusing to try and parse everything yourself, so here's a handy guide on the types of beef, the designations they're labeled with, and some handy terminology you might need to know when dealing with meat.

Grades of Beef

Cuts of beef, regardless of where they come from on the cow, are typically divided into grades based on their quality. This quality measures the marbling of the fat (how it's distributed throughout the meat, as well as the overall amount and regularity of the distribution), giving you and indication of how flavorful and moist the cooked piece of beef will be when it's eaten.

  • Prime: Prime beef has the largest amount of fat and the most regular marbling, making it the best quality beef you can buy. That being said, it's fairly difficult to obtain, as restaurants most often buy it up wholesale before it could ever hit grocery shelves.
  • Choice: The next best thing, choice beef has a large amount of well-marbled fat. Packed with flavor, it's typically available in stores for a high price.
  • Select: Though tender and flavorful, select beef lacks much of the fat prime and choice beef has, making it less juicy and a leaner cut overall. 
  • Standard: Also called "commercial beef" standard is what you'll most often find in a store. Sold without markings, it lacks much of the flavorful fat of the other grades and dries out easily when cooked.
  • Utility: Utility, cutter, or canner beef is generally not sold in stores, as it is of extremely low quality and has little fat or marbling to speak of. Rather, it's usually ground up into commercially sold mince meat or used in products like dog food.
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Certified Beef

For beef to be certified, it simply means that the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service and the Agriculture Marketing Service checked the beef in question and has certified that it is what it is marketing itself to be, whether that be its class, grade, or other characteristic. This does not mean the beef is better than other types of beef, as it simply designates its authenticity (i.e., certified standard beef is not better than uncertified standard beef).

Additionally, other organizations may certify beef, provided it's clearly marked on the packaging that another organization, not the USDA, has certified that particular piece of meat.

Types of Certification

There are various official and unofficial certifications beef can have depending on where it comes from and how it was raised. These certifications can vary quite widely in what they represent, as some may indicate a different flavor or quality to the meat while others might not mean much of anything in relation to taste.

Grass-Fed

Certified grass-fed beef comes from cows that have eaten exclusively grass and hay their whole lives, not fattened with grains like others may be. They are also allowed to roam pastures, rather than staying in enclosed spaces for the majority of their lives.

100% grass-fed beef has been found to contain more nutrients than other kinds of beef, and has a distinct taste compared to grain-fed beef. This kind of certification is voluntary as far as USDA approval goes, with various other organizations offering the same certification to farms.

Organic

Organic beef is USDA-certified to have been raised without the use of growth hormones, antibiotics, animal by-products, or genetically modified feed during its life. As there is no set diet for organically raised beef, there is also no specific taste difference as a group compared to non-organic beef like with grass-fed.

No Antibiotics/No Hormones

To earn the "No Antibiotics/No Hormones" designation, a farm must submit official documentation to the USDA proving that their animals were not administered growth hormones or antibiotics of any kind during their lives. There are no other organizations that are allowed to award this designation.

Kosher

Kosher beef is slaughtered and prepared exclusively from the front of the cow. This type of beef is prepared under the supervision of a rabbi and meets the standards for Jewish tradition.

Natural

Natural or all-natural beef is a fairly meaningless label when it comes to fresh beef you'd buy at a butcher's counter. The USDA defines natural beef as any meat without preservatives or artificial ingredients, something that's true of almost any kind of beef you could buy that doesn't come in a can or as a pre-packed meal.

Naturally Raised

While aiming to be more official than the "natural" designation, naturally raised beef has yet to be codified by the USDA. It is likely to have similar qualifications to organic beef.

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Humanely Raised

Humanely raised beef indicates that the cows killed in the production of the beef where not mistreated or otherwise abused during their lives before being used for food. Several organizations offer the humanely raised label, with various requirements farms must meet to earn it.

Locally Grown

While not indicating quality, locally grown is a designation for beef your store has bought from a local farm in your area. Stores that take care to stock local foods can often inform you as to where they've bought their stock from if asked.

Aged

Aged beef comes in two varieties; dry and wet. Dry-aged beef is stored for long periods (usually a few months) in a cold, arid environment, forcing moisture to evaporate out of the meat while intensifying the flavor and tenderizing the beef. Wet-aged beef, on the other hand, is vacuum packed to preserve its original sellable weight, typically resulting in less flavorful meat compared to dry-aging.

Angus

Angus beef comes from the Angus cow, sought after for their intense, delicious marbling and incredible flavor.

Kobe/Wagyu

Wagyu cattle come from Japan and are specially bred for their intense marbling and supreme tenderness, considered by many to be the most delicious kind of beef in the world. Kobe beef is named after the city of Kobe, which raises a special breed of Wagyu treated to daily massage therapy routines and allowed to drink sake.

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Conclusion

Now you know just a little bit more about what's sitting on your grocery shelves. Remembering these designations and what they mean can help you in finding the right kind of beef to fit your needs, both for your tastes and your beliefs.

There's plenty more to learn about beef, though. Anything you feel like adding to that? Leave a comment about it, and share this guide with a friend you think could stand to learn a bit more about what goes on their plate.

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