You don't have to go to some high-end steakhouse or shell out $200 a pound for ultramarbled Wagyu beef from Japan to get flavorful, tender beef for your next barbecue. Just keep three crucial factors in mind: the grade, the grain and the aging.
1 Buy the best meat that fits your budget. The U.S. beef-grading system is based mostly on the age of the animal and the amount of marbling in the meat.
"USDA prime" is the highest grade. Only about 3 percent of cattle meet the criteria, so most prime-grade meat is snatched up by fancy restaurants and specialty butchers before it makes it to supermarkets. Below that is "choice," followed by "select." Anything below these is best avoided for steaks, ribs and roasts.
The pH of its muscles reflects how humanely and animal was slaughtered, and that affects taste.
If cattle are exhausted, shivering, injured or highly stressed at the time they are killed, their muscles deplete their natural fuel store of glycogen, and the pH of the meat is abnormal as a result. Beef that is unusually dark, firm and dry often is a product of poor slaughterhouse practices.
A grade stamped on the package is one useful piece of information about the quality of the meat, but it isn't the end of the story. Some of the best beef is not graded at all; it is sold by small producers who can't afford to pay the high costs of having a USDA grader on site. In other cases, official-sounding labels - such as Certified Angus Beef - are not grades, but rather brand names.
2 Whether you spring for a prime tenderloin or a select flat-iron steak, you can get the most tenderness out of the cut if you pay attention to the grain. Just like wood, meat is a collection of long, skinny fibers. If you cut the meat along the fibers, it's like sawing boards out of a tree trunk: the resulting pieces are very strong and hard to chew. Instead, slice across the fibers; the tougher the cut, the thinner the slices should be. Each bite will then fall apart more easily and release more of its flavor.
3 The best steakhouses use special humidity-controlled rooms to dry-age beef for a month or more. The drying process concentrates sugars, protein fragments, and other flavorful molecules to yield unparalleled taste.
Don't have a month - or a special room?
Here's a shortcut: brush Asian fish sauce onto the steak (use about 3 grams of sauce for every 100 grams of meat). Put the coated steak in a zip-closure bag, then remove the air by submerging the bag in water while holding the open end just above the surface (the water forces the air out of the bag). Seal the bag, then lift it out of the water. Refrigerate the sealed meat for three days before you cook it. You may be surprised by how much tenderer the steak becomes and by the depth of its meaty flavor.