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Here's what we learned about buying and cooking beef after spending time with Niman Ranch

MANHATTAN, Kan. -- Not everyone would be clicking their heels at the invitation, but I was over the moon. It was a personal invite to join the Niman Ranch Senior Executive Angus Beef Education Conference and Tour in Sabetha and Manhattan, Kan., in May.

I had been included the year prior in their Hog Farmer Appreciation Dinner Weekend in Iowa, where I had taken a crash course in naturally raised pork. The idea of spending a couple of days being spoon-fed information about the life cycle of Angus beef, how beef is graded and evaluated, and innovations in butchering and such was thrilling. And I'm not going to lie, the prospect of eating a bunch of fancy Niman Ranch beef wasn't too shabby, either: Their livestock is traditionally, humanely and sustainably raised, and it is also considered some of the best-tasting beef in the country.

Some of what I learned was a bit esoteric even for avid beef consumers (the proper way for a calf to be born is front foot, front foot, nose), and some was too inside baseball (beef carcasses graded by the USDA's new camera-grading technology, called the "Gig E," incorrectly graded a whole bunch of beef in 2017 so some has a higher-than-appropriate grade). But a lot of it was foundational information, knowledge that will make me a wiser consumer.

We started off our education at a Niman Ranch family ranch, where the Edelman family raises Angus beef, birth to finish, in the Flint Hills of Sabetha. They produce about 250 heads for Niman Ranch every year, cows that have never been fed antibiotics, eat only vegetarian feed and are never given growth hormones or beta-agonists (compounds that are frequently used to reduce the metabolism of fat in animals to bulk them up quickly).

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We watched heifers and their babies meander grassy fields — they are kept together and away from the herd of mature cows, which can get bossy. The Edelmans begin breeding a heifer at around 2 ½ years old, about a half year later than industry standards. They delay calving until April and May when there's better weather and clean pasture on which the cows can give birth. Why this kind of care? It's humane to the animals, but also low stress results in good marbling. They breed their cows to be calm and docile; they organize their grazing pastures and feed lot to be spacious and peaceful.

That first day, we toured the feed lot and loafing shed (basically a roomy open-sided barn where the animals can cool off); learned about bull genetics (at the Edelmans' ranch, animals breed the old-fashioned way, no artificial insemination, which can be labor-intensive and stressful for the animals); and saw huge piles of red clover, hay, corn and rye that are calibrated and mixed as feed. Then we hopped on a bus and headed to Kansas State University to meet with K-State faculty, some of the world's foremost researchers specializing in beef quality. I scribbled notes during lectures on quality factors beyond marbling, the science of wet and dry aging, innovative cuts of beef and the economic outlook and eating trends. Here is some of what I learned.

Before we dive into anything too complex, let's start with some fundamentals.

Beef is meat from full-grown cattle about 22 to 26 months old. The average live steer, about 1,000 pounds on the hoof, will yield about 450 pounds of edible retail cuts (steaks, roasts, ground beef, stew beef and so forth). The United States currently has 94.4 million head of cattle. (Texas has the most, followed by Nebraska and Kansas.) There are more than 800,000 ranchers and cattle producers in the United States, 97 percent of them classified as family farms. The average beef cow herd size is 40 head of cattle.

Just about all the beef cattle in the country have a diet composed of forage (grass, silage, etc.) early in their lives once weaned from their mothers. Cattle finished in feedlots often switch to a diet high in corn, soy and other ingredients that fatten them quickly. "Grass-fed" or "pasture-raised" beef, however, is not fed corn or similar grains. Unfortunately, a couple of years ago the USDA decided it would no longer have an official definition of the term "grass-fed," which has led to a lot of head scratching and liberal interpretations.

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Parts of the animal that experience low activity, like the loin, are going to be more tender than big muscles in the leg and rump that do a lot of work. Where a cut is from is a very reliable guide to tenderness and thus what the cut is best suited for. Look for meat that has fine clusters of muscle fiber, little connective tissue and represents fewer muscle groups, which tend to run different directions and cook at different speeds. Connective tissue is the white firm ribboning in meat, not marbling, which is finer streaks of fat. Connective tissue makes steaks chewy but breaks down into benign gelatin in a slow braise.

You're not looking for the steaks that are rimmed around the perimeter with the most fat. This will cook off and not impart much to a finished dish. Marbling within the grain of meat is desirable because those little pockets of fat represent less tooth resistance and your brain perceives a more tender, unctuous chew. Also, some marbled fat liquefies during cooking and causes grill flareups and thus more intense flavor.

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In general, the more marbling, the higher grade of beef. Here's a hot tip: In 2014 there were record beef prices. What do cattle ranchers do when they have a surprise windfall? They double down and grow their herds. This means that right now a lot of beef has come on the market (the babies from those increased herd sizes), and a surprising amount of that beef has been graded prime.(Right now Niman Ranch is averaging 55 to 60 percent prime.)

A related tip: In a meat lab class, I learned that data show that beef graded "choice" loses something in textural appeal once it is frozen, thawed and cooked. (It "purges" a lot of liquid and seems drier.) Prime beef (the top USDA grade, which accounts for only about 2 percent of beef overall), on the other hand, loses very little of its allure when frozen and thawed. In taste studies, consumers detected little difference in quality between fresh and previously frozen prime beef. Takeaway? Now might be a good time to buy prime beef and freeze it for a rainy day (or for when prime beef prices skyrocket).

Beef chuck

This is a section near the shoulder and neck area of the cow that has a whole lot of relatively unknown cuts (the chuck tail flap, the clod heart) but has lots of marbling and flavor. Here you'll find the flat iron, the boneless chuck short rib and the brisket. Lots of affordable options that are amenable to the slow cooker.

Beef ribs

Standing rib roast and prime rib; delmonico, spencer and ribeye steaks; short ribs and back ribs — there's a whole lot of deliciousness in this part of the animal. The rib cut refers to ribs six through 12 on the cow.

Short loin

T-bone, porterhouse, strip loin or strip steaks. You know what I'm talking about? The short loin is about 16 to 18 inches long and will yield anywhere from 11 to 14 steaks. The tenderloin (filet mignon) extends from the short loin back into the sirloin. (It's part of the T-bone and porterhouse, so if you remove it, you mess up those cuts.)

Beef top sirloin

This includes the top sirloin butt, cap or "Coulotte," all suitable as steaks best marinated before grilling or pan cooking. This area also yields baseball cut steaks, center-cut top sirloin butt steak, top sirloin filet and top sirloin steak.

Beef bottom sirloin

This includes the tri-tip, a popular barbecue cut also known as the Santa Maria steak; the intensely beefy sirloin flap, its steak called a bavette; and a lesser-known and economical steak called a ball tip, best marinated before being grilled.

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An inexpensive cut on the back part of the cow (rump and hind legs), this is often sold ground, but you can cut it into eye of round (good for carpaccio), sirloin tip and butterfly top round steaks. Because it is lean and has very little fat, it's good for stews and slow braises.

Best thin cuts

Flank steak, outside skirt and hanging tender (often on menus as a bistro steak or onglet steak).

Contact Laura Reiley at or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.