What does that mean exactly?
While most butchers rely on USDA grading (you've seen these labels on your trays of grocery store meat—choice, select, prime, etc.), all of the beef we source at The Meat Hook comes from small, local farms and is processed at family slaughterhouses that can't afford a grading service. Therefore we must judge every carcass we receive in much the way that butchers did it 100 years ago: by sight, informed by practical experience. Here is a quick and dirty primer to what a side of beef can tell you without saying a single word.
Before we go much further, a reality check: you will more than likely never see a side of beef. Ever. 99 percent of all meat consumed in the US is slaughtered, butchered into small pieces, stuck in plastic envelopes, and shipped at the same enormous packinghouse long before you or your butcher—you have a butcher, right?—ever sets eyes on it. What I'm trying to do here is simply offer you a peek into what can (and ideally should) go into the steak or short rib on your table. It is the first lesson we give our butchering students and dedicated customers, and it is my first lesson to you.
Reading the USDA inspection stamp on the outside of the animal can tell a butcher what slaughterhouse it was killed at (provided you have an index of slaughterhouse numbers or have committed the information to memory). This is important, as not all slaughterhouses are created equal.
While all abattoirs are inspected by an in-house official, many factors can influence the quality of the end product, whether it be the humidity and air-flow in the coolers (important to to the initial dry aging of the carcasses) or the general expertise of the kill floor staff. Hurried employees can and will make mistakes and cause stress on the animal--neither of which is good for the animal or the end result. The attached "kill tag" can tell you what day the animal was killed, its "hot weight" (its dressed weight immediately after slaughter), and even the farm it came from or the farmer who raised it.
Fine. Reading a tag is easy. What can the animal itself tell you? The cartilage buttons on the feather bones of the chine (backbone) will tell you its rough age (the longer the younger and vice versa), and the curve of the pelvic or aitch bone will tell you whether the animal is female (slightly curved) or male (very curved). While you're looking, how big are the knobs of kidney fat? They should be full, thick, and slightly crumbly. We avoid anything with thin, floppy kidney knobs.
You can tell how well the animal was fed by looking at its "cover," or the layer of fat covering the side of beef. Ideally you don't want to see any muscles coming through the fat. This is important, because beef have to put on at least 1¾ pounds a day of muscle, bone, and fat to be worth considering for anything but grinding into burgers. Animals that fall below that rate of growth often experience a metabolic shift into a "survival mode" that will make their meat tough, gamey, and generally unpleasant. Many of the negative things that have been said about grass-finished animals are due to the fact that some animals never achieve this rate of growth—often because of bad genetics (beef bred to do well on grain will not always do well on grass), poor pasturing practices, or early weaning off their mothers' milk.