Marbling is white flecks of intramuscular fat running throughout the red meat. It adds flavor, texture, juiciness, and tenderness to the steak. Marbling is an essential part of any good steak. Without it, the meat lacks flavor. Can you imagine a ribeye steak without marbling? It would not taste the same.
Many factors determine the amount of beef marbling a steak has – diet, breed, age, muscle use, and beef cut. As you’ll see later, some beef parts collect marbling naturally, while some are lean.
In this article, you’ll learn everything you need about beef marbling. At the end of the article, there’s a list of beef cuts containing a good amount of marbling. Make sure to check it.
What is beef marbling?
Beef marbling is intramuscular fat between the muscle fibers in red meat. Tiny white flecks of intramuscular fat create a marble pattern, which adds flavor and texture to the meat.
Grass-fed cattle breeds have a yellowish marbling, while grain-finished beef marbling is white.
Please do not be confused by two similar terms – intramuscular and intermuscular fat. Intramuscular fat is marbling, while intermuscular fat is fat between the muscles that do not add any additional flavor and is trimmed off.
What affects marbling in beef?
Diet determines the amount and quality of marbling. Grain-fed beef marble more quickly and efficiently. For the latter portion of their life (1/3 of their lives), cows feed on soy, corn, and small dried grass supplement. These grains are all high-energy, which makes cattle gain muscle mass and weight extremely fast, resulting in well-marbled meat. It’s easy to recognize grain-fed beef from its white marbling.
Grass-fed beef is not gaining weight as quickly as a grain-fed cow is. Pastured cows are primarily raised on a diet of grass or finished on grass for the latter portion of their life. It produces relatively lean meat with yellowish marbling due to the pigments in plants. Because it’s not as well-marbled as grain-fed, it lacks a smooth buttery taste and does not meet the USDA’s qualification for Prime. However, despite the lack of marbling, a grass-fed cow has more nutrients. Worth noting that grass on open pastures and grass pallets used in the industrial feedlots has different nutritional properties. The open field is rich in nutrients, unlike grass pallets in feedlots. This raising technique is widespread in New Zealand, Australia, and United Kingdom. Unfortunately, it’s not that common in the United States – only 4% of cows spend their lives on pasture.
Some cattle breeds are known for their excellent marbling due to how they metabolize food -Japanese wagyu beef, Kobe (from the Japan region), Angus, Murray Grey, Shorthorn, Herefords, Holstein-Friesian, and a few other breeds gain higher marbling scores.
For cattle to develop intramuscular fat, they must be slaughtered at the appropriate age. If the animal is too young, it will not have enough marbling. Veal and young cattle tend to develop marbling last. Older cows do not produce good marbling as well. Ideally, the age range for butchering steers is 30 to 42 months.
The less the muscle group is working, the more fat it collects. Loin and rib primal are at the center of the animal, and it’s the least worked muscles, producing incredible marbling. Muscle groups bearing a lot of weight like shoulder, legs, and rump have very little meat marbling, making meat less flavorful and chewier. Here’s an article explaining what makes beef cuts tender.
Some beef cuts collect more marbling naturally because the muscle group works less. Steak cuts from the rib primal produce some of the most marbled and tasteful cuts. Loin primal is yet another great cut having good marbling. New York strip, t-bone, and porterhouse are among the best-marbled steak cuts from the loin, whereas tenderloin, despite being inactive, has very little marbling because of the fine muscle fiber texture. However, despite having very little marbling, tenderloin is one of the most tender cuts, although it does lack flavor and juiciness.
How is beef marbling determined?
Trained specialists examine the beef cut looking for white flecks and their distribution throughout the meat since it’s a primary determinant of quality grade.
USDA grading system has eight grades – Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter, and Canner. USDA prime beef has the highest marbling score, while the canner represents the lowest quality. However, USDA prime is not readily available in the grocery stores, unlike choice, select or standard.
USDA choice is slightly cheaper while both USDA select and standard are more affordable and end up in cheap steak restaurants.
Other countries grade beef entirely differently. Japan, for instance, regulates the beef industry very closely and maintains exceptionally high standards. It has a grading system that uses letters A-C and numbers 1-5. It means that A5 Wagyu beef has the best score and is exceptionally tender, juicy, and expensive.
Types of marbling in the meat
- Fine marbling. The distribution of marbling is even with lots of tiny flecks of intramuscular fat. Kobe and Japanese wagyu have fine marbling, making them the best and most desirable meat in the world. Steaks with fine marbling cook evenly, creating a juicy and tender interior throughout the meat.
- Medium marbling. The distribution of marbling is less even with a medium-sized fleck of fat. Steak tends to cook unevenly, leaving some steak parts undercooked, less tender, and not as juicy as steaks with fine marbling. The problem is that larger flecks of fat take more time to render than smaller ones.
- Coarse marbling. Coarse marbling has a large fleck of intramuscular fat, making the meat challenging to cook and negatively affecting the eating experience.
Why is marbling in the steak important?
Marbling adds flavor and juiciness to the meat. Beef tends to be dry and juiceless without marbling, whereas marbling keeps the meat moist and prevents natural juices from evaporating when cooking.
Yet one more reason why marbling is so essential is that it adds tenderness to the meat. Without it, muscle fibers are chewy. Of course, it depends on the muscle group. The marbling will not compensate for the tough muscle tissue if it’s a well-worked muscle. However, if the muscle is relatively inactive, marbling makes the meat more tender by creating a barrier between soft marbling and muscle fibers.
Beef cuts that have the most marbling?
Here’s a list of the beef cuts with the most marbling:
- Ribeye steak;
- Porterhouse steak;
- T-bone steak;
- NY strip steak;
- Flat iron steak.
What causes beef marbling?
Raising techniques, diet, age, breed, and muscle use contribute to beef marbling. To see a stark contrast between raising techniques, take a look at Wagyu beef which is exceptionally well-marbled, and Angus beef marbling which is well-marbled but does not compare as well to the Wagyu beef.
What beef has the most marbling?
Wagyu beef has the most marbling. Wagyu refers to all Japanese cattle breeds; there are four in total – Japanese black, Japanese brown, Japanese polled, and Japanese shorthorn. These breeds are considered among the best-marbled kinds of beef you can find.
Is marbling good in steak?
Marbling is necessary for flavor, juiciness, texture, and tenderness. Without it, the meat lacks the depth of flavor.