The science of beef quality

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A great steak doesn’t just happen. A long list of factors ranging from genetics to aging and cooking techniques influence the beef-eating experience, and as a meat scientist at Colorado State University, Dale Woerner, PhD, devotes considerable study to those factors.

Woerner updated an international group of beef producers and processors on beef-quality research last week during Novus International’s Global Beef Roundtable in Colorado.

Steady growth in carcass weights of U.S. beef cattle plays a role in efforts to maximize beef quality, Woerner explains. Economic signals generally provide incentives for feeders to finish cattle at heavier weights, resulting in larger beef cuts. The 2011 National Beef Quality Audit (NBQA) shows an average ribeye area of 13.7 inches, and Woerner says a 13-inch ribeye steak, cut one-inch thick, weighs about 15 ounces. That’s more than the average restaurant customer wants to eat, but cutting the steak thinner detracts from the eating experience. Meat scientists and processors now are working on ways to separate individual muscles from the ribeye roll primal, producing additional high-value cuts for other uses while reducing the weight of the steak from 15 ounces to 10.

Marbling, of course, tops the list of indicators of beef quality and beef flavor. Woerner cites a study in which taste panels of chefs at culinary schools rated blind samples of different types of beef. In each test, the steak samples were ground before cooking to eliminate tenderness as a variable while focusing on flavor.

In one test, the panels compared premium, high-Choice Angus, low-choice Angus, low-choice Holstein and Select Angus beef. In this test, the premium Angus product rated highest for beefy flavor and overall flavor desirability, while the two low-choice products were similar and the Select product rated lowest for flavor.

Another test compared dry-aged Prime Wagyu beef with dry-aged Prime Angus and dry-aged upper-Choice Angus. The Wagyu product finished slightly ahead of the Prime Angus for overall flavor desirability and both topped the upper-Choice Angus steak.

Growth-promoting tools such as implants and beta agonists have sometimes been implicated in reductions in beef quality, but in this test, comparisons between beef from implanted cattle, cattle implanted and fed a beta agonist and cattle receiving neither product found only minor differences in flavor that typical consumers probably would not detect, Woerner says.

In a comparison of beef from grass-finished versus grain-finished cattle, the grain-finished beef finished well above grass-finished for overall flavor desirability. Panelists detected more “gamey,” grassy, liver-like flavors in the grass-finished product. Woerner acknowledged a couple points that could bias this test. First, he says, the U.S.-based taste panelists are accustomed to the flavor of grain-finished beef. Panelists from a country where grass-finished beef is the norm might have reversed the ratings. Also, the U.S.-based grass-finishing program that produced the beef used in this test is not as well-refined in terms of genetics, forages and management as some grass-finishing systems around the world.

One more test compared the results of different beef-aging processes. Beef that was dry-aged for 46 days actually ranked lowest for overall flavor desirability in this test. Beef that was wet-aged for 14 days was intermediate, and the winner for overall flavor desirability was beef that was first wet-aged for 14 days then dry-aged for another 14 days.

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South Dakota  |  December, 20, 2012 at 06:01 PM

Why is tenderness not a consideration? If a steak tastes great but is tough I have not had a good eating experience.

North Dakota  |  December, 20, 2012 at 10:10 PM

I understand the justification for using ground beef; however, the study could have included shear force measurement of the steaks for an indication of tenderness. Warner-bratzler shear force is a very good test for tenderness.

December, 21, 2012 at 06:24 AM

This is interesting and I'm sure it's important but does any packer routinely age any beef 14 days, wet or dry to say nothing of 28 day aging? Currently, the only things that matter to the producer are weight, hot carcess weight and maybe yield & grade. I've never been paid more than a dime for better than choice, most of the time far less than that. And today and the forseeable future with the cost of grain there is no incentive to produce anything more.

John Maday    
December, 21, 2012 at 09:59 AM

Often, when researchers plan scientific studies, they design procedures to isolate and measure a single variable, rather than trying to measure several at once, along with all the interactions between variables. This study was designed to measure flavor alone. Other studies have measured and compared tenderness, which is an important component of beef palatability. As for aging, most beef in retail cases is aged at least 10 to 12 days (wet aged) just because that’s how long it takes from slaughter through fabrication, boxed primals shipped for further fabrication, packaging, shipping to stores, etc. Many of the steaks served in higher-end steakhouses are aged further, using either wet or dry aging or some combination.

Jenny Cavaliere    
Northern California  |  December, 21, 2012 at 10:15 AM

As a producer of grassfed beef, High Sierra Beef, and breeder of Angus Cattle for over 24 years, genetics seem to be the most important part of the taste and tenderness equation. The carcasses coming off of my program are grading low to medium choice with calves finishing only on native grass at 1100lbs. My customers love a 1 1/2 inch ribeye, that weighs approximately 12 ounces. The genetics that the Angus Association have been intently working with for the CAB program work well in a grass fed program if you have the grass to feed and finish your stockers on.

December, 22, 2012 at 10:23 AM

Dry aging for 46 days is a little extreme. Most small processors only dry age for 21 days and this requires good equipment and management during the process.

KY  |  December, 26, 2012 at 02:02 PM

Also producers of grassfed beef, using 100% Hereford genetics, and 100% grass-finishing on high-quality forages with no grain. Cool-dry aging for 10 to 21 days is the norm for our processors. On our blind survey of our customers, almost all replied that they preferred both the flavor and texture of grass-finished Hereford beef to "what is available at local supermarkets" and almost as many said "to what I can get at local steakhouses." Most said that they preferred the tenderness as well. One commented, "Too many steakhouses now use something as a marinade that ruins the texture of the beef. I don't like my beef to chew like someone else has already chewed it." Another commented, "I love this grassfed Hereford beef. This tastes just like the beef I grew up eating on our family farm." So yes, a great deal depends upon variables in genetics, aging, preparation--and the background of the consumer.


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