Steak review

Our experts find it's not where you buy your steak that's important. It's knowing what to look for.
 
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01 .Introduction

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When you're buying steak, it's likely you'll be bombarded with claims of “grain-fed”, “grass-fed”, “organic”, “aged”, “marbled” and, increasingly, “Angus beef”. But what do they all mean?  For consumers, we believe knowing what to look for in a steak and understanding the jargon is a better guarantee of quality.

CHOICE recruited three experts to assess six cuts of steak - rump, sirloin, Scotch fillet, T-bone, blade and eye fillet – purchased from the major supermarkets, to see how they compare against cuts from a specialist budget and a specialist premium butcher. Overall, the premium butcher set the standard, while clearly being the most expensive; it rated well in all categories though we did find some inconsistency (see Butchers vs supermarkets). However, our experts were also impressed with the supermarkets – Coles in particular – which rated as high or almost as highly as the premium butcher for some cuts. By contrast, Woolworths, like the budget butcher, was hit and miss in some categories despite generally offering the best value for money. Aldi only offered three of the six cuts, but performed well overall in those categories.

How we test

CHOICE purchases six different cuts of steak (rump, sirloin, scotch fillet, T-bone, blade and eye fillet) from a premium and budget butcher as well as the major supermarket chains: Woolworths, Coles and Aldi (only had rump, sirloin and scotch fillet available). A blind expert assessment is conducted in which three experts are presented with each cut on a plain white plate. The experts assess the raw meat (there is no taste test assessment) for quality, as well as aspects such as colour, marbling and amount of fat. They then give each steak an overall rating.

Cook's CHOICE

For advice on how to cook the perfect steak as well as some great beef recipes, visit COOK'S CHOICE.

 
 

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Rump

Our experts picked Aldi and the premium butcher as offering the best quality rump, and based on the prices we paid, you could save at least $9 per kg by buying your rump from Aldi. Woolworths and Coles were close behind for quality but not price savings. Our budget butcher offered the cheapest cut, but it was also the poorest quality. According to our experts, the meat was dull in colour, unappealing to the eye, and with connective tissue throughout so it is likely to be tough when cooked.

Sirloin

The cheapest sirloin, at $18 per kg, was from Woolworths, and our experts were pleased with its bright red colour. Also known as porterhouse, New York or striploin, sirloin is a favourite for its firm texture and rich flavour. This type of steak should be trimmed of its fat and have a nice amount of marbling to give it good flavour. 

Scotch fillet

At about $35 per kg, the premium butcher cut rated best, followed closely by Coles, which was also comparatively expensive at $30 per kg. They both received top marks for their bright colour and acceptable level of fat, which makes the meat tender and full of flavour. The cheapest scotch fillet, at $15 per kg from Woolworths, also rated lowest. The experts said it had a dull colour, which suggests the meat had been cut for some time, and minimal fat, which could make it dry and tough when cooked. Also known as cube roll, boneless rib eye or rib fillet, scotch fillet is a juicy, tender and flavoursome piece of steak.

T-bone

Once again, Coles performed just as well as the premium butcher despite being cheaper by almost $10 per kilo. Our experts said the colour of the bone is a big indicator of freshness; it should have a fresh whitish colour. T-bone is the classic Aussie BBQ steak, consisting of fillet on the smaller side of the bone, and sirloin on the larger side.

Blade

Our budget butcher performed poorly here; the experts said the meat's dark colour suggested poor storage and age. It had minimal marbling but rather a large amount of connective tissue, which would cause the steak to be tough – not to mention, its dull grey fat would make the meat taste sour. Blade tends to be a comparatively inexpensive cut of steak, no matter where you buy it from.

Eye fillet

All the pieces performed reasonably well in this group. Naturally lower in fat, this steak has no outside fat cover, and with a little bit of marbling, this steak is juicy and very tender. Eye fillet, also known as fillet or tenderloin, is one of the more expensive cuts of steak but also one of the most tender.

Premium inconsistency

When you pay top price at a premium butcher, you expect to receive top quality. However, our review found premium butchers may not always give the best quality every time. In our first run our premium butcher didn't perform up to standard. We put it to the test a second time, this time also including meat from another premium butcher. This time around both premium butchers performed up to standard and were of high quality. For consumers, knowing what to look for in steak is a better guarantee of quality than simply paying more at a premium butcher.

WHICH PIECE OF MEAT IS BEST FOR WHICH PURPOSE?
Oven roast Pan-fry Stir-fry Grill / char-grill Braise / casserole Shabu-shabu (Japanese vatiant of hot pot) Barbeque Diagram
1 Rump Cuts-of-beef
2 Eye fillet  
3 Sirloin  
4 Scotch fillet  
5 Blade
3 T-bone *          

* T-bone - Eye fillet on the smaller side of the bone and sirloin on the larger side.

Meet the experts


VinceV
Vince Vocisano has 11 years' experience as a butcher and owns Pappandrea Quality Meats in Smithfield, NSW.
DarrenO Darren O’Rourke has 20 years' experience in the hospitality industry and is a butcher at Victor Churchill in Woollahra, NSW

KeithI

 

Keith Ireland has been involved in the meat retail industry for 44 years, including 19 in retail shops and 25 as a TAFE teacher.

 

What to look for

  • Fine texture and firm to touch A piece of steak that holds its structure well is ideal. Meat should not feel slimy and if there is blood it should not be congealed.
  • Bright cherry-red colour indicates freshness. Some meat may appear brown if other items have been resting on it because it hasn’t been able to receive any oxygen; the red colour should come back once it’s again exposed to oxygen. Stay away from meat that has a brownish and/or grey tinge, as these pieces will have a sour taste when cooked.
  • Marbling appears as threads of fat running through the meat and increases its juiciness, tenderness and flavour. Keep in mind it’s still possible to achieve good eating quality without marbling.
  • Use-by date is critical if you’re buying pre-packaged meat. Meat normally has a use-by of about five days if stored correctly. If you’re buying pre-packaged, also check that it doesn’t have excessive moisture at the bottom of the package, which can lead to dry meat when cooked.
  • Thickness Where possible, always buy steak of consistent thickness, as it will cook evenly.
  • Colour of fat/bone should be whitish. If the fat is brownish in colour, you may experience a sour taste once it’s cooked. For T-bone steak, freshness can be largely determined by the colour of the bone; like fat, it should have a whitish colour.
  • Smell This is harder to assess if you buy pre-packaged meat. Old meat will smell rancid and unpleasant.
  • Ask the butcher or retailer if the meat is MSA certified. If so they should be able to give you information about the recommended cooking style.

Jargon buster

Grain-fed vs. pasture-fed All cattle are grass-fed at the beginning of their life cycle (up to two years). In the final months, grain-fed cattle move onto a feedlot for at least 60 days and are fed a nutritionally balanced, high-energy, grain-based feed. This feeding regime results in a consistent meat and fat colour, often with high levels of marbling. Certification for grain-fed beef is administered through the National Feedlot Accreditation Scheme and audited by AUS-MEAT, the industry body responsible for establishing and maintaining national standards for meat production and processing. Alternatively, pasture-fed cattle are raised on open grazing land with access to water and supplemental feed comprising mixed grasses. Our experts had mixed views on which they prefer, with one claiming pasture-fed cattle are “as close to natural as possible. Altering the feeding regimes can take away the natural flavour.” Also keep in mind the environmental implications of grain-fed beef.

Organic meat must comply with the National Standard for Organic and Bio-dynamic Produce. All organic beef is pasture-fed and must not use growth promotants or feed produced with synthetic pesticides or genetically modified inputs. It is expensive to produce and usually comes at a premium price. To ensure you’re buying guaranteed organic beef, look for one of the seven logos from organic-certifying organisations.

Angus is a cattle breed developed in Scotland in the late 1700s. Its meat has a smooth, close-grained texture, carnation-red colour and finely marbled fat within the lean muscle. Certified Australian Angus Beef (CAAB) is an industry-quality assurance program whereby products carrying the CAAB logo guarantees Angus genetics produced to exact specifications. One of our experts said Angus are “fantastic cattle that produce superior beef, consistent return to the producer and product to the consumer.”

Wagyu is a group of cattle breeds from Japan, more likely to be grain fed and is genetically predisposed to intense marbling (higher fat content). It also has a higher percentage of the healthier unsaturated fat than any other cattle breed in the world. Considered a luxury item, it can cost up to $250 per kilo for the best cuts.

The overall eating quality of beef is largely out of consumers’ control. The best carcass can be reduced to low-quality, unacceptable meat from the two-week pre-slaughter period right up to the first few hours post-slaughter. Meat Standards Australia says the damage is mainly caused by changes in muscle glycogen (energy reserve); while feeding increases glycogen, stress rapidly reduces it. Keeping the cattle calm by reducing any stress factors (such as environmental factors) pre-slaughter helps keep glycogen levels high.

Some of the other major factors that Meat Standards Australia finds to affect eating quality include:

pH levels The ideal pH range is between 5.30-5.70. Levels above 5.70 result in dark cutting meat (purple rather than bright red), coarse texture and reduced shelf life. When cooking, the meat tends to lose a lot of moisture, making it tough to eat. At the point of slaughter, muscle glycogen is converted to lactic acid, which decreases the pH. High energy (glycogen) levels in the cattle pre-slaughter will enable the pH to fall within the ideal range.

Marbling is intramuscular fat appearing as small streaks of fat scattered throughout the muscle. This fat is the last to be deposited and first to be used by the animal as a primary energy source, so cattle must be on a high nutritional plane to keep the marbling throughout the meat. According to our experts, marbling helps make the meat tasty and tender; stress and fasting pre-slaughter will rapidly decrease the level of marbling.

Hanging method during chilling The carcass can be hung by the Traditional method (Achilles tendon) or the tenderstretch method (suspended by the pelvis). The tenderstretch technique is said to improve the eating quality of many cuts in the hindquarter (such as rump and sirloin).

Ageing occurs as the muscle fibres in meat break down and become weakened. The meat on aged beef is good eating quality and usually more tender. Meat is generally aged for 14 days (MSA requirements range from five to 35 days), after which time the amount of change is minimal. All our experts praise aged beef for its superior flavour and texture, but bear in mind it generally comes with a higher price tag.

Hormone Growth Promotants (HGPs) are supplements of naturally occurring hormones used by some producers to help cattle meet market weight at an earlier age. They’re placed under the skin on the back of the ear of the cattle, releasing low doses of hormones. In general, marbling is reduced in treated cattle; MSA claims HGPs affect the eating quality of some cuts.

Cooking methods also impact on eating quality. Muscles are made up of fibre groups surrounded and supported by connective tissue. The amount of connective tissue in a piece of meat is related to the amount and type of work that particular muscle has to do, which is why certain cuts of meat are more tender than others; blade muscles, for example, are constantly used and so have high connective tissue content. This type of meat is best for casseroles, as the slow cooking process helps to break down the connective tissue. By contrast, a muscle such as the fillet (tenderloin) does very little work with almost no connective tissue, resulting in a very tender piece of meat. In a casserole, the fillet’s structure would be completely broken down, so it is best suited to pan-frying or grilling.

Beef labelling legislation and Meat Standards Australia

New beef labelling legislation rolled out in New South Wales on 31 August aims to help consumers choose cuts of meat that are suited to their specific needs (see CHOICE, October 2010, page 4). Beef will be categorised based on age (yearling, young, intermediate, mature and economy), with the youngest cuts (yearling) warranting a premium price and the oldest cuts (economy) being least expensive. Unfortunately, these guidelines were developed by a beef industry committee with no consumer input or testing to make sure they are meaningful to those who need it most. Time will tell if this system really helps consumers. On the plus side, any claims such as “organic” or “grain fed” must now be accurate and substantiated, whereas under the previous system they were self-regulated.

By contrast, Meat Standards Australia (MSA) has developed a scientific, grading system that predicts the eating quality of a cut of steak. More than 80,000 consumers participated in MSA consumer testing, which covers more than 560,000 beef samples. The MSA score takes into consideration the tenderness, juiciness, flavour and overall liking of different cuts of meat to give one of three quality levels: MSA3 (tenderness guaranteed), MSA4 (premium tenderness) or MSA5 (supreme tenderness). The label includes the MSA grade, the cook method for best eating outcome as well as ageing information. The system also takes into consideration all factors that can affect the eating quality of meat, from paddock to plate. Producers need to be registered with MSA and their livestock need to meet the MSA pathway requirements to be eligible for an MSA grade.
To use the MSA trademark, meat brands, processors, wholesalers, retailers and restaurants must be trained and licensed. Each of the licences are third party audited. You can find a list of the licensed processors and wholesalers on the Meat & Livestock Australia website (www.mla.com.au).

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