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The average beef cattle yields more than 500 pounds of edible meat.
Tastes have changed since the high point of beef consumption in the early 1950’s and 60’s, and beef producers responded to declining sales and concerns over dietary fat by shortening the amount of time that animals are fatted in feedlots, and by breeding leaner and larger European cattle into the North American hybrid.
Beef cattle are sorted by sex and maturity. Male cattle are large and yield more meat per carcass, but the meat tends to be stringier and tougher than the meat from female animals. Female animals have finer-textured, more tender meat, but their muscle groups are smaller and give lower yield per carcass. So neither male or female cattle have all of the characteristics the beef industry wants.
In order to raise cattle with both maximum yield and maximum tenderness, male cattle are castrated before puberty, which causes the animals to mature in size while their musculature stays soft and tender.
Females who have not yet had a calf are called heifers; after bearing a calf they are referred to as cows. Males are bulls, steers (castrated bulls), or bullocks (young steers). Bulls are not generally sold as fresh meat, and only steers, heifers, and bullocks produce beef of the highest quality.
The amount of exercise a particular muscle gets determines the flavor and tenderness of the meat it produces. So knowing where on the animal your steak or roast comes from tells you a lot about how you should cook it and what results you can expect.
A beef carcass is divided into eight primal cuts and more than 30 retail cuts of steak, chops, roasts, ribs, stewing cubes and ground beef.
Tender cuts come from the muscle groups that get the least amount of exercise, which run along the back of the cattle. Tougher meats are from the areas that move or support the body – chuck, brisket, plate, flank, and round.
As a muscle it is exercised, its fibers take on protein, making the muscle bigger, redder, and more flavorful. At the same time, its connective tissue thickens and become more elastic, which makes the muscle harder and tougher.