The flat iron steak is the 2nd most tender cut of beef behind only a tenderloin (aka “filet mignon”). Give the flat iron cut a shot with this Marinated Flat Iron Steak with Pesto Butter recipe!
Have you ever noticed how stores occasionally change up displays in order to catch your attention? One of our grocery stores recently flipped every.single.aisle 180°, and I’m convinced it was to make us pay more attention. I’m guilty of just going on auto-pilot and walking straight to the section that I need. (Of course, I also found it incredibly annoying when I couldn’t find what I was looking for quickly anymore!) But one section of the store which has always confused me is the meat department. There are so many labels, and until recently I only had a vague idea what they actually meant.
Let’s take a look at the labels on beef. If you’re anything like me, the labels were mighty confusing. Organic, Grass-Fed, Hormone-Free, USDA Prime/Choice/Select, Certified Angus Beef…the list goes on. What do those labels actually mean?
Let’s start with the easy ones: USDA labels. There are a number of categories here, but we’ll focus on the top 3: USDA Prime, USDA Choice and USDA Select. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) grades beef based on quality and yield. Only ~5% of beef meets the standards to be labeled as USDA Prime. Prime quality beef is usually sold in restaurants and hotels. In fact, to find USDA Prime beef as a consumer, you likely need to find a local butcher shop that specializes in quality beef. Large supermarkets rarely ever carry USDA Prime. For instance, in my area, we have a specialty meat market that carries almost all USDA Prime cuts. I purchase most of my beef there as I know the quality will be amazing!
Another ~55% of beef meets the standards for USDA Choice. Choice beef is still high quality, but it will have less marbling than Prime. The third level, USDA Select, is still acceptable quality beef, but will likely be less tender and juicy due to the lack of marbling. For this reason, Select cuts often benefit from marinades. There are several grades below Select that are more economical options at a trade-off for quality. Most beef you see in a large grocery store is either USDA Select or USDA Choice. The packaging should have the labels on it, but when in doubt, just ask the butcher what the USDA grade is. If they don’t know, then head on down the road to the next store!
Certified Angus Beef ® brand
Similar to how you might select Kellogg’s or General Mills cereal, Certified Angus Beef ® brand is a brand of beef. All Certified Angus Beef ® brand beef is graded as USDA Prime or USDA Choice, so you know you can count on quality beef whenever you see their label. (Disclosure: I work with Certified Angus Beef ® brand as a partner, but their quality truly is top-notch!)
Aside from USDA labeling which speaks to the quality of the beef, there are several other labels which you may see on the packaging in your store. In order to be labeled antibiotic-free, cattle must never received antibiotics of any kind. Farmers must keep detailed paperwork which proves this, too. However, it’s worth noting that random samples are taken from all beef (regardless of whether it’s labeled antibiotic-free) to determine if residual antibiotics are present.
As I’ve learned first-hand from visiting a number of different farms and ranches, beef producers work with veterinarians to use antibiotics as a way of ensuring the health and safety of their herds. As one farmer put it, “If your infant child gets sick and the doctor prescribes an antibiotic, you give it to them, right? It’s the same for cattle.” Farmers are required to keep records of all vaccines and antibiotics that are administered to their cattle. Let me repeat what I said earlier: all beef is tested before it reaches the market to ensure that no residual antibiotics are present.
It’s worth noting that antibiotics are only used under the direction of a veterinarian to prevent, control or treat disease. FDA guidelines prohibit the use of antibiotics for growth promotion.
Grass-fed labeling is an interesting one. You may notice that packages with the grass-fed label are a bit more expensive. But here’s the thing: that label might not mean anything at all! As of January 2016, the USDA no longer provides an official definition of ‘grass-fed.’ This opens the door to a bit of interpretation…which in turn can lead to confusion when you’re standing at the meat case trying to decide what package of beef to purchase for dinner.
All cattle are grass-fed. The difference is that some cattle are 100% grass-fed while other cattle are transitioned over to grain. There is no definitive proof that 100% grass-fed beef is healthier. However, 100% grass-fed beef will likely be leaner, and it will have a slightly different taste. This one comes down to personal preference. But remember that all cattle eat grass for most of their lives. So a label that says “Grass-fed” doesn’t actually mean anything. If you’re looking for 100% grass-fed beef, then make sure the label says “100% grass-fed” or “Grass-finished.”
The “All Natural” label does not refer to whether or not an animal has received antiobiotics or hormones. It is also completely unrelated to the type of food (grass vs. grass & grain) an animal consumes. Instead, All Natural refers to the addition of added artificial ingredients (like spices), colorants or preservatives. Kinda confusing, right? As the photo below shows, this All Natural labeling means the meat was “Minimally processed with no artificial ingredients.”
In order to receive an “Organic” sticker on the package, beef must come from cattle that have never received any antibiotics or hormones. Furthermore, the cattle must have been fed 100% organic feed and forage. Organic is not the same as grass-fed, although the two terms are often confused.
Ok, have I thoroughly confused you yet? I hope not! I admit that the labeling on beef can be very confusing, and at times I have to stop and think about what I’m seeing on the package myself. I had the chance recently to visit a local specialty butcher shop as part of my partnership with the New York Beef Council, and I learned a good bit during that visit. I’ve shared the labeling info above, and I hope this post has shed a bit of light on the labels you see when you’re shopping for dinner. Speaking of dinner, let’s talk steak!
As part of this visit to my local butcher, the New York Beef Council challenged me to pick up a non-familiar cut of beef. Sure, we all have our favorite recipes for ground beef and ribeye steaks, but what about some of those other cuts? I decided to try my hand at cooking flat iron steaks. The flat iron steak, or top blade steak, supposedly got its name because it looks like an old-fashioned flat iron. The flat iron is a rectangular cut of beef that is relatively uniform in thickness. It’s also a trendy cut that has become quite popular on restaurant menus in recent years. And for good reason! The flat iron steak is actually the 2nd most tender cut of beef behind only the tenderloin (aka filet mignon).
For this Marinated Flat Iron Steak with Pesto Butter, I marinated the flat iron steak in a red wine & tomato paste mixture for several hours. Then I just cooked it up in a cast iron skillet right there on the stovetop. Flat iron steaks are also great for grilling, and you better believe I’ll be grilling these up this summer! The result? Delicious! As this post is approaching the length of my dissertation, I’ll go ahead and wrap it up by saying that this Marinated Flat Iron Steak with Pesto Butter is a quick and easy dinner that is sure to impress! Give it a shot sometime next week and let me know what you think. Cheers, friends!
This post was sponsored by the New York Beef Council.