What Cattle Breeds Produce the Best Beef?
You’re probably used to buying beef based on its USDA grade or a specific cut, but cattle’s breed — and the breed of any animal, for that matter — should be factored into your decision. Though store-bought meat doesn’t always list the animal’s breed on the packaging (Certified Angus Beef tends to be the main exception), it has significant effects on flavor, quality, and fat content. Studies have found that intramuscular fat content, also known as marbling, ranges from 0.99% to 2.72% among different breeds. Considering that USDA beef grades for quality are assigned largely based on marbling, this variation from stock to stock has major ramifications. Cattle breed also affects 54 flavoring compounds within beef, 75% of which are Maillard reaction products activated when beef is seared or grilled.
So, what does this mean for you, the consumer? You won’t always find breed printed on meat containers purchased in grocery stores, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t helpful to know the differences between Angus and Piedmontese, or Hereford and Wagyu. Meat suppliers often publicize the breeds they source, butchers are generally forthcoming about their offerings, and a bit of research might uncover what’s available in local stores. Cattle lineage has huge implications on quality, so it’s worth exploring the key differences among the 4 most popular beef breeds raised in America.
Angus beef has become all the rage in recent years thanks to its well-marbled meat, which typically earns Prime or Choice grades from the USDA and is usually the highest-quality meat available in grocery stores. It’s also one of two breeds beloved in Brazil, where the barbacoa tradition is still going strong. Angus has become the most common cattle breed raised in America since its arrival from Scotland in the late 1800s; by 1883, the American Angus Association had already formed to promote the breed’s benefits in the States.
These days, the top percentage of Angus beef is favored by high-end restaurants and meat distributors because of its consistently outstanding quality. That being said, “Angus” is arguably the most highly marketed term in the beef industry, so let’s take a closer look at some of the most pressing questions surrounding the breed.
What Is Certified Angus Beef?
In 1978, the American Angus Association established Certified Angus Beef as a stand-alone brand that represents the very best the breed has to offer. Beef bearing this seal must meet 10 quality standards set forth by the brand, though it’s still subject to USDA grading and generally hits Prime or Top Choice specifications. It should come as no surprise, then, that Certified Angus Beef is sold at a higher price than non-qualifying Angus meat, which often commands a greater cost than other breeds in its own right. You can find Certified Angus Beef as the top option in some markets and grocery stores.
What’s the Difference Between Black Angus & Red Angus?
Though the US beef industry recognizes Black Angus and Red Angus as separate breeds, they’re identical in nearly every way — so much so that Angus is considered a single breed in many other countries. And the facts back that up: both are polled (hornless), hardy animals that produce highly marbled beef and have no genetic difference aside from the colors of their hides. Black Angus cattle have hides that are at least 51% black, while Red Angus stock possesses a primarily red hide. Yes, it’s really that simple!
The vast majority of Angus cattle currently raised in the USA is Black, so odds are you’ll see Black Angus marketed more frequently than Red Angus. Whether Black or Red, Angus cattle are so prized for their genetic disposition to major marbling that they’re often used in crossbreeding to improve the quality of other stocks.
The only cattle breed more hyped in the USA than Angus is Wagyu, an originally Japanese stock that turns out beef so highly marbled it’s considered a delicacy. As explained in our detailed look at Wagyu beef, there are 4 sub-breeds of Wagyu: Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Shorthorn, and Japanese Polled. Wagyu beef is graded on a rigorous scale and is typically sold bearing the name of the region in which it was raised (e.g. Kobe beef, which is harvested from cattle bred in Kobe).
Rich and plentiful marbling aside, much of the mystique drummed up around purebred Wagyu is due to its scarcity in the States. Kobe beef is the rarest Wagyu on this side of the Pacific; only 9 US restaurants are currently allowed to buy and sell authentic Kobe beef. Yet the desire to experience Wagyu’s melt-in-your-mouth sensation remains a bucket-list item for beef lovers. So, what’s a steakhouse to do?
The domestic beef industry cleverly developed American Wagyu, the result of crossbreeding Japanese Wagyu cattle with American Angus stock. Despite the demand for purebred Wagyu, many Americans actually prefer the US-raised crossbreed for its ideal blend of Wagyu’s exquisite fat content and the beefy, robust texture we expect from Angus beef. The majority of Wagyu beef sold in high-end restaurants is sourced from the fatty-but-beefy American Wagyu stock. We stand by it as the most flavorful cut of beef out there, but it’s highly unlikely to be found in the majority of retail stores.
This breed originated in Herefordshire, England, before making its way to the USA in the early 1800s. It’s a widespread stock raised all over the world, with Hereford Associations spanning from America to 16 other member countries and even a few other non-member nations. Hereford beef tends to grade lower than Angus among USDA inspectors and is therefore cheaper, but you can still find delectable cuts of beef from Hereford heritage. If you frequently buy ground meat or supermarket-brand steaks, there’s a solid chance you’ve had your fair share of Hereford beef.
These cattle were first raised in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy before North American farmers bought and created their own breeds in the 1970s and early 1980s. Piedmontese cattle are widely known for a genetic quirk called “double muscling,” which makes them incredibly beefy and results in more protein per cut along with a greater general yield compared with other breeds. Of course, that means the meat has minimal marbling, leading to lean and even tough cuts. For this reason, the USDA rarely grades North American Piedmontese beef higher than Select, and it’s usually braised or stewed to compensate for its leanness.
Does Cattle Gender Matter for Beef Flavor?
Regardless of the breed, bulls (male cattle) and cows (female cattle — that’s right, “cow” is actually a gendered term) produce beef of identical taste. Gender doesn’t play a role in cattle farming unless a cow has given birth, at which point she leaves the beef herd to become a milk cow in the dairy herd. Bet you didn’t think you’d leave this article with knowledge of cattle breeds and a bit of industry trivia, did you? Don’t worry, we won’t judge if you continue referring to all cattle as “cows.”