What is the Difference between Lean Meats and Fatty Meats? Which is the Best?
This is not going to be another one of those articles telling you to stop eating steaks and burgers, or whether you should be eating lean meats or fatty meats. We're not trying to scare you with statistics about health concerns. Instead, we just want to discuss the differences between fatty and lean meats so you can make the best choices for your and your family. We'll share information about why different types of meat are higher or lower in fat. And we'll also go over how to prepare and cook both types of meat to perfection. There are lots of tricks the pros follow to make even the leanest of meat tender, juicy, and flavorful. The main difference between lean meats and fatty meats is that lean meats usually have a lower USDA grade because they have less fat and less marbling, while higher graded fatty meats will usually have more fat and more marbling.
What Makes a Cut of Meat “Lean”?
The United States Department of Agriculture sets the rules for how meat is packaged and sold. USDA sets the condition for a protein to be considered a lean cut as follows: a 3.5 oz. serving containing 10 grams total fat, 4.5 grams saturated fat, and 95 milligrams of cholesterol. A 3.5 oz. serving of meat is a little bigger than a deck of cards.
There is also a labeling requirement for extra lean meat. A protein can contain only 5 grams of total fat and 2 grams of saturated fat to meet the standard. It might surprise you to know that some of the most popular cuts of beef are lean or extra lean cuts. There is no Federal requirement that meat or poultry sold in the U.S. have a grade before sale, but quality inspections are mandatory. Producers and processors request grading and pay USDA for the service.
What’s the Difference between Prime, Select, and Choice Cuts?
Another grading system identifies the quality of meat using the terms USDA prime, select, and choice. Prime is rarely available in grocery stores because it is mostly bought by restaurants. Prime cuts are the fatty meats and are high quality.
Select cuts are leaner than choice cuts. Choice cuts have less marbling than prime cuts, but are high quality. These are often rib and loin cuts and can be moist, tender, and juicy when correctly cooked. Select cuts have the least marbling and you have to cook them just right, or they'll end up dry and tough.
The lower-quality meats are graded as standard, commercial, utility, cutter, and canner in descending order of quality. Standard and commercial grades are often sold as store-brand or ungraded beef. A lot of store-brand ground beef is made from the lowest quality cuts.
The Healthiest Meat for Your Family
Low in fat and high in protein, wild game is the ultimate healthy eating choice. That’s right, a wild-harvested deer or elk is better for you than a boneless, skinless chicken breast. Wild game is lower in fat than farm-raised meat because of the wild and natural diet and the strenuous life wild animals lead. A 3 oz. portion of venison has around 3 grams of total fat, making it an extra lean meat.
Wild game is also higher in Omega-3 fatty acids which regulate cholesterol and lower in inflammation-causing Omega-6 fatty acids than farmed meat. Omega-3 fatty acids can improve heart function, the immune system, and improve skin and bones. Critical nutrients like iron and zinc are much higher in wild game. The best choice you can make for your family is to get out there and hunt. We like to point out that not only is eating wild game better for you, hunting is better for you than driving to the grocery store (it's also more fun).
Tricks for Cooking Different Types of Meat
You should cook fatty meats differently than lean meats, and vice versa. Basically, you can cook fatty meats “dry” while lean meats are best made “wet.” We have some tips for you to help cook any type of meat perfectly.
The Dry Method – Best for Fatty Meats
When you cook meat on a flame, you are using the dry cooking method. Broiling, roasting, and grilling are dry cooking methods ideal for fattier cuts of meat. Ideal cuts of meat for this type of cooking are T-bone steaks, Porterhouse steaks, and rib-eye. These types of beef are high in fat and have an excellent marble.
Tips for the Dry Cooking Method
Start by letting your protein come to room temperature. The meat will absorb the flavors of your seasonings if the meat is not too cold. One of our favorite things to do is apply a dry rub using Bearded Butcher Blend Seasonings. Whether you want a smoky, mild flavor or something hotter, our seasoning blends are the all-natural way to get over-the-top flavor.
The best tool any grill master or roaster can have is a reliable instant thermometer. These tools are a game-changer when it’s time to grill or roast fatty meat. Suddenly, it’s easy to know just exactly when your roast or steak is cooked perfectly. If you are not using a thermometer already, pick one up.
Avoid letting temperatures get too high while cooking. Fat from your meat will render and can burn, producing toxic chemicals you don’t want in your food.
The Wet Cooking Method – Best for Lean Meats
Lean cuts of meat lack fat which contributes to their reputation for being tough and dry. Using the wet method, even the leanest meats can be juicy and tender. The wet method uses a heated liquid to cook the meat. By cooking lean meats low and slow in a liquid, the tough tendons and sinews will turn to gelatin and create tender, juicy results. Top round, London broil, and shank are examples of lean cuts.
Tips for the Wet Cooking Method
Start with your meat dry. Sear the meat on all sides. Use tongs to hold the meat, not a fork. Avoiding poking holes in the surface helps keep the juiciness inside. Once the meat is seared, move it into a pot that is oven safe. Add the cooking liquid to the pot two-thirds of the way up the meat. Bring the liquid to a simmer and no higher. If the liquid boils, it’ll make the meat tough.
Cover the pot and place in a preheated oven to braise. This technique works really well for making fall-apart deliciousness from tough cuts of meat. You can get tremendous flavor using any of the Bearded Butcher Blend Seasonings. Add dry herbs like rosemary, thyme, and bay leaf to really kick the flavor up.
Another wet method is to brine the meat prior to cooking. Brining seals moisture into the meat and adds tons of flavor. A great way to get an outstanding brine is to mix Bearded Butcher Blend Seasonings with table salt and dissolve in water. Leave the protein in the brine for one hour per pound. Brining can transform even densest and stringy cuts into delicious, tender morsels. The traditional way to make Corned Beef uses a brine to get the tough brisket tender and moist.
Selecting the Perfect Type of Meat
The key to a great steak is selecting a high-quality cut to begin with. The USDA grading systems can be useful for helping you identify good quality meat. You should look for steak that has an even, red color and appears moist, but not wet. Excessive liquid should be avoided, along with cuts that have ragged edges or look mangled. Feel the meat and select a steak that is firm, but not hard.
Meat sold at the grocery store that doesn't have a USDA label isn’t of low quality. USDA grading is not mandatory in the U.S. and processors must pay for the service. Most store brands throughout the nation sell excellent, high-quality meat. Store-bought wild game is available through many major retailers these days. The meat is not “hunted” but is generally farm-raised game animals. There is no substitute for a wild-harvested game animal commercially available. It is legal, however, to give wild game away, so make friends with hunters if you want the healthiest meat you can get.
Final Tips Regarding Lean Meats vs. Fatty Meats
The easiest way to know whether a cut is likely to be high in fat is to understand where the beef cuts come from on the animal. That is a much bigger topic than space allows in this article. But generally speaking, hard-working muscles are going to be lean while less active muscle groups are more tender. Leaner cuts are usually identified as “top” cuts. These are the upper portions of muscle groups that have less fat and work harder. Muscles in the shank are also considered lean.
There are lots of neat tricks with dry rubs, salt rubs, and the use of acids and dairy products to soften and tenderize meat. Pineapple and papaya seeds can also be used to tenderize and add flavor to tough cuts of meat. In our opinion, there is no bad cut of beef. With the correct preparation and cooking method, any type of meat can be cooked to perfection.
We hope this article will encourage you to try different cuts of beef and preparation methods. We think everyone should have the opportunity to try a well-made wild game dish at least once in their life.