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Beef In America

In Amarillo, Texas, deep in the heart of cattle country, the Big Texan Steak Ranch advertises a free 72 ounce steak. The catch: you have to finish the whole thing within an hour or pay 72 dollars for it. Since 1960, over 40,000 people have attempted to finish the steak; 7,000 have actually succeeded.

Americans are great consumers of beef. During the early phases of European exploration of the North American continent, both English and Spanish settlers brought with them the taste for beef. The Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado (1510-1554) is credited with introducing horses, cattle, sheep, goats and chickens into the American interior; descendents of escaped cattle would eventually form the core of the great herds of the nineteenth century, the basis of the cattle drive, the cowboy culture, and later the American industrialized meat industry.

The United States Department of Agriculture inspects and grades the nation’s beef. The department uses eight grades: Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter and Canner. The higher grades have a greater proportion and better distribution of intra-muscular fat—“marbling” in food talk. The better the marbling, the more tender, juicy and probably tasty a steak will be. The younger the animal was at slaughter, the higher the grade generally. Other grading factors include the texture, firmness and color of both lean and fat parts of the beef. USDA Prime steaks are rarely available to the consumer, since most of this output goes to fine restaurants and steakhouses (80% of USDA Prime is exported, largely to Japan). USDA Choice is the quality meat available to consumers, while USDA Select (despite the fact that the word “select” tends to give an air of quality) is the budget option in the supermarket meat section. The five lowest grades are rarely available to the consumer.

Fat is an integral part of both the flavor and the tenderness of fine steaks. Although lean cuts of beef can be made flavorful and tender through long slow cooking methods, as with a pot roast, a person desiring to reduce the fat in their diet would do better to opt for poultry or fish than to use a lower grade and hence lower fat steak. A low fat steak is almost a contradiction in terms. If cost is an issue, alternate protein foods are still preferable to a poor steak. The Big Texan Steak Ranch aside, a small, high quality steak on an occasional basis may fit in with both health and monetary concerns.

American steakhouse restaurants tend to be of two types. The Big Texan Steak Ranch is perhaps a prototype for a big comfortable family-friendly restaurant where big portions are in order and prices (if you don’t pay the 72 dollars in Amarillo, of course) are reasonable. These restaurants sometimes have western and cowboy-inspired décor. In the industry they are called “casual” restaurants. Many are parts of restaurant chains like Outback Steakhouse, with over 500 units the nations largest. A lower-end type of “family” steakhouse, often featuring a modified cafeteria system, is also popular. Well known chains include Golden Corral, Bonanza, Ponderosa, and Sizzler.

The other type of steakhouse is expensive, associated with the large cities and resorts, with business travel and entertainment, and features aged USDA Prime steaks: the “high-end” steakhouse. Many are independent operations, while many others have chain locations in key markets. Groups of independent steakhouses will often band together to conduct joint advertising campaigns, particularly in airline and business magazines. Some major national chains include Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar, Morton’s the Steakhouse, Sullivan’s Steakhouse, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Don Shula’s and The Palm (these six operate some 300 branches between them). The steaks served in these establishments are typically from grass-red beef, and are “dry-aged.”

In the dry aging process, the meat is hung in a refrigerated aging unit for 10 to 28 days or more, allowing greater concentration of flavors as a result of the evaporation of moisture from the animal’s muscle fibers. The beef’s natural enzyme also tenderizes the beef during the aging process.

The typical high-end American steakhouse has lush, comfortable décor, perhaps with dark wood paneling on the walls. Many of these steakhouses charge extra for side dishes, potatoes, or vegetables; these would normally be included with main dishes in most other restaurants. The result is an expensive and yet often very rewarding dining experience. In addition to high quality steaks, “prime rib” roasts are considered a luxury steakhouse item.

Americans are fond of steak sauces, which can be sweet, spicy, vinegar-based, or all three. Steakhouses of all types market their own brands of “world famous” steak sauce, and a number of mass-produced commercial brands are available.

Today many consumers look for beef that is “natural,” defined by the USDA as minimally processed with no artificial additives or preservatives. Their ideal beef (in addition to having a low fat content) would be raised without added hormones or antibiotics, in a humane environment by caring ranchers, and never fed animal by-products. These consumers may also want beef that is grass rather than grain fed. A number of specialty beef producers cater to this market, as do natural food grocery chains like Whole Foods Market and Wild Oats Natural Marketplace.

Home steak cooking, like all home cooking, is on the decline in the United States, although steaks are a staple at home barbecues and outdoor parties. Many non-steak cuts of beef, roasts for example, are popular. Indeed, pot roast, slow-cooked from an inexpensive cut of meat, is an American favorite. Hamburgers are so much a part of American food culture that they have a history, mystique, and infrastructure all their own. Brisket of beef competes with pork for the title of America’s favorite barbecue meat (although in Texas and much of the western United States, barbecue brisket reigns supreme).

American consumption of beef has occasionally dropped due to concerns about fat content, but Americans still consume a great deal of meat. The cattle and meat processing industries have been largely successful in their advertising and public relations campaigns over the years. There will always be those consumers who “don’t eat red meat,” usually due to health concerns. An occasional scare due to news about “mad cow” disease causes a brief drop in American beef consumption.