What's the "right" kind of marbling?
What is marbling?
Marbling is a term used to describe the fat content inside of beef muscle, known as intramuscular fat. Intramuscular fat is the flecks of white fat found within the actual lean muscle. Intermuscular fat is different - this term is used to describe the fat that is found between the different muscles in the beef carcass.
We’ll talk more about fat development later, but it’s important to distinguish that not all beef fat is desirable in large quantities. You may have heard the mantra "fat is flavor" before, especially if you hang out with “foodies” or culinarians. Although this is true, there are different types of fat, and some are more desirable than others. Marbling is the most desirable; but there are various types of marbling as well, and some types are more desirable than others when discussing steak quality.
Good marbling means good quality
You may think that "quality" is a subjective term, used to describe one’s preference of beef steak, whether that be fat content, breed of cattle, grass fed vs. grain fed, etc. But for this discussion we’re using the term “quality” in the scientific, USDA-recognized sense, which indicates the grade of beef. The term “quality grade” is used by meat scientists to describe the level of marbling, along with other factors including fat thickness on the outside of the carcass, age of the cattle, and coloration of the beef.
To make things simple, we’ll focus on marbling and quality grades of Select, Choice, and Prime (moving from lesser to greater quality in that order). That’s not to say that a Choice steak, or even a Select steak won’t eat better than one of a greater quality, but given a large enough sample size, it’s been determined that the higher the quality grade, the better the eating experience.
Good quality means a good eating experience
"Eating experience" is defined through attributes like juiciness, tenderness, flavor, and texture. When all of those factors come together in a high-quality steak, the eating experience is exceptional. That is why steaks such as Ribeye, Tenderloin, and NY Strip dominate the market. All of those steaks combine three of those four attributes in a way that creates a fine eating experience.
Now that we’ve defined quality, and eating experience, and intramuscular fat vs. intermuscular fat; we can move on to what is so great about marbling, why it’s important to the eating experience, and what kind of marbling is the best.
Why is marbling important?
Marbling is important to steak because it adds flavor (the right kind of flavor), juiciness as it melts into the steak when cooking, and tenderness because the fat is much more tender than the muscle fiber in the steak. When you have heavy marbling, and it’s the right kind of marbling, you have a superior steak on your hands.
What is the right kind of marbling?
Just like all aspects of beef, marbling comes in all shapes and sizes. While perusing images online, on Instagram, or even looking at steaks in your grocer’s meat case, you’ll come across all kinds of marbling - from the spiderweb look you find with a high-end Kobe Beef steak, to the heavy, thick marbling of a USDA Prime Ribeye being served at a NYC steakhouse. You might see steaks that are highly marbled, but don’t assume that high marbling = great steak. In fact, the lighter the fleck the better quality marbling you have.
Types of marbling: Fine, medium and coarse
The most sought after marbling is called “fine” - and it looks like it sounds. Fine marbling is small, thin flecks of fat in the lean muscle, and when you have a high frequency of fine marbling, you’ve got yourself a winner. And that’s why Kobe, or Wagyu is so popular in the restaurant scene. This beef has that type of marbling, and a lot of it, when it’s bred and fed right.
The other types of marbling are medium and coarse. Traditionally, medium and coarse are not as preferable as fine. This has been disputed by some, but I prefer fine marbling. The reason I have that preference is that it takes longer to render the larger pieces of fat in order to become liquid and add those attributes I’ve discussed above. If a customer orders their steak rare, or even medium rare, those fat flecks won’t render enough to add juiciness and tenderness to the steak, and will end up feeling like small gelatinous flecks, which does not enhance the mouthfeel.
How do we get fine marbling, and how do we get a lot of it?
This is the million dollar question. Every rancher in the US wants to solve this riddle, and many have. Marbling is the first thing to go if an animal is not gaining weight properly. This makes every aspect of the program important - from breeding, handling, feeding, age of the animal (not too young or too old), down to the weather.
Many farmers opt to follow a branded breeding program, such as Certified Angus Beef, because brands have done years of refinement on their programs to ensure consistency in quality. Branded programs can bring ranchers, packers and restaurants/retailers higher revenues because customers also trust their consistency.
Will my steak suck if I don’t have an abundance of the right kind of marbling? In a simplified sense, yes - the larger the marbling flakes, the worse of an eating experience you will have, and the less marbling in the steak, the worse eating experience you will have.
Comparing apples to oranges
But, consider that each different cut has different tenderness, or other attributes that play a role - for example Tenderloin Steak has very little marbling compared to other cuts, but it is extremely tender nonetheless due to it’s fine muscle structure. However this steak is not as juicy, or as flavorful as those other cuts.
Ribeye contains a lot of intermuscular fat, and therefore can be chewy, or tough to some diners, but the fat is very flavorful. NY Strip has larger muscle fibers, and sometimes the high concentration of marbling in a Prime NY Strip cannot overcome a larger muscle fiber when compared to Ribeye or Tenderloin. Those are some examples of the complexities of what makes a good steak.
Comparing apples to apples
When comparing steaks within the same cut type - a Prime vs. Select Ribeye, the Prime Ribeye will win almost every time in a blind taste test. Same is true of almost every cut on the beef carcass. That’s why a USDA-graded Prime beef carcass brings more money to the rancher, and to the beef packer, than a Select, or a Choice carcass.
That’s why there is such an abundance of USDA branded beef programs (over 120) - because when you can include the features we’ve discussed here, consistently, the better chance the diner has of having an enjoyable eating experience. And that’s the whole point, right?