We're heading into grilling season, which means breaking out the burgers and brats. But if you're a true meat lover, the slab you'll want to be searing is the rib-eye.
The rib-eye is the bestselling cut of beef in America both at the supermarket and the steakhouse, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
Beef lovers go crazy for it because of its marbling — the network of fat within muscles that melts on the grill and makes the steak juicy and tender.
The rib-eye cut is so important to ranchers that it's one of the traits they include in their selective breeding program, along with birth weight, fat thickness and docility. Their goal is to perfect a richly marbled longissimus dorsi muscle — the deep back muscle that hugs the spine that's called rib-eye once it's been cut. Once a year, bull breeders bring their stock into the barn to take a peek at the living steak.
The first week of March is ultrasound week at the historic R.A. Brown Ranch in Throckmorton, Texas. One-year-old Angus bulls are lined up in a muddy runway unhappily waiting their turn in the squeeze chute. The steel gates close around the 1,000-pound animals that thrash briefly before settling down.
A bovine ultrasound specialist who has come in from out of state shears away black fur in the area of the 12th and 13th ribs. He squirts on some vegetable oil and presses the transducer onto the twitching back of the bull. Then a familiar image appears on the dusty computer screen.
"Marbling looks good. Rib-eye looks really strong. So, [we] like what we're seeing," says Donnell Brown, the fifth generation to run the R.A. Brown Ranch. His great-great-grandfather carved it out of Comanche country, cleared the mesquite and cactus and started raising cattle.
"Our mission is simple," Brown says, reciting the ranch's creed: "We're continually striving to improve the efficiency of converting God's forage into safe, nutritious and great-tasting beef."
Brown wears a cowboy hat, neckerchief and a white shirt that he somehow manages to keep spotless while squishing through corrals 6 inches deep in mud and bull excreta, owing to a late-winter snow. "I told you to bring your over-boots," he chides with a smile.
All day, rib-eye muscles flash on the screen and a computer program calculates their "marbling score." Seven percent intramuscular fat, for instance, would be excellent. This is flavor fat. The higher the marbling score, the tastier the bull's progeny is supposed to be.
"A bull will use that [rib-eye muscle] to rare up to mount a cow, to breed her, but it's not a muscle that's used very much," Brown explains. "So as you look at the animal, the middle meats between the legs and along the back — the T-bone, tenderloin, rib-eye and sirloin — they're the best cuts. The less those muscles are used, the more tender they are."
It's finally a good time to be in the cattle business. There were massive herd sell-offs during the brutal drought of 2011. Since then, beef prices have hit all-time highs. In March, the average price per pound for USDA Choice sirloin steak was $8.37, up from $8.23 in September 2014, and $6.81 in September 2013, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Last year, prices for Brown's bulls jumped 40 percent from the previous year. He typically sells around 600 bulls at the ranch's annual October sale, making him one of the top 20 bull producers in the country.
Fast-forward through the beef production cycle: from Brown's bulls, to the commercial cow-calf operator, to the feedlot, to the packinghouse, to the meat wholesaler, to Coalson's Grocery in Throckmorton where Robert Jackson has been slicing steaks in the meat market of the tiny grocery for 40 years.
"Most of the time if they got that marblin' and a good fat cover, they'll turn out pretty good," Jackson says, appreciatively.
The industrial cattle business does not allow a rancher to track his own cows' cuts to a retailer or restaurant, so Brown doesn't get to sample the end product of his breeding program. Instead, he buys his steaks here at Coalson's. With practiced ease, Jackson peels back the butcher paper on a thick boneless rib-eye, turns to Brown and asks, with a smile, "How thick would you like it?"
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From the poetry of the street, now, to the poetry of meat. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association says the rib-eye is the most popular steak in America, at the supermarket and the steakhouse. Texas Monthly magazine recently described it this way, (reading) a gorgeous hunk of crimson-colored beef shot through with pearly fat. NPR's John Burnett visited a cattle ranch in North Texas that's endeavoring to produce the perfect rib-eye.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The first week of March is ultrasound time at the historic R.A. Brown Ranch in Throckmorton, Texas. One-year-old Angus bulls are lined up in a muddy runway unhappily waiting their turn to be tested for the prime cut that Americans covet above all others.
DONNELL BROWN: We can see the marbling on the ultrasound, those tiny specks of fat which are the flavor fat. That's what gives beef its rich flavor.
BURNETT: The man in the cowboy hat, neckerchief and push-broom mustache is Donnell Brown. He's the fifth generation to run this ranch since his great-grandfather carved it out of Comanche country. The steel gates of the squeeze chute close around a thousand-pound bull. The ultrasound specialist, Craig Hays, shears away black fur in the area of the twelfth and thirteenth ribs. He squirts on some vegetable oil and presses the transducer onto the twitching back of the animal. A familiar image appears on the dusty computer screen.
So, the image that I'm looking at on your sonogram here looks like a steak.
CRAIG HAYS: That's correct, yep. Our cross-sectional image would be just like, it'd be a picture of what would be laying on your plate. Yes, sir.
BURNETT: It's a good time to be in the cattle business, finally. There were massive herd sell-offs during the punishing drought of 2011. Since then, beef prices have reached all-time highs. Last year, sales of Donnell Brown's bulls were 40 percent higher than the previous year. As each new bull enters the squeeze chute, the rancher squints at the screen.
BROWN: This is B-159. That's its individual ID number. Marbling looks good, rib-eye looks really strong. So, I like what we're seeing.
BURNETT: A late winter snowfall has turned the corrals into bogs of mud and bull waste that nearly suck the boots off the cowboys. Brown makes his way over to the cattle pens. Cattlemen look at 23 different genetic traits, such as birth weight, fat thickness and docility. The marbling score of the rib-eye muscle is the only trait that transfers directly to the plate.
BROWN: An animal would use that when he's rearing up to mount - a bull would, to rear-up to mount a cow to breed her. But it's not a muscle that's used very much. So as you look at the animal, the muscles that are used the least are the ones that are the most tender.
BURNETT: The R.A. Brown Ranch is 6,000 acres of mesquite cactus and pastureland, north of Abilene. The family expects to sell 600 bulls at the annual sale in October, making this ranch one of the top breeders in the country. Fast-forward from the Brown Ranch bulls to the commercial cow-calf rancher, to the feedlot, the packing house, the meat wholesaler, and you end up at a restaurant like the Beehive. Located 34 miles down the highway from the Brown Ranch, it's famous for its mesquite-grilled steaks.
ALI ESFANDIARY: My name is Ali Esfandiary. I'm from Iran and I own the Beehive restaurant in Albany, Texas for 36 years now.
BURNETT: Ali stands in the kitchen of the Beehive holding a cook's fork.
What's the key to a really great rib-eye?
ESFANDIARY: The key to great rib-eye - first you have to buy a good cut of beef. I buy Black Angus because they have lots of marble on it, and if somebody order well-done, even if I cook it well-done, it still be juicy.
BURNETT: And with that, it's time to put away the microphone, pick up a steak knife and enjoy the fruits of our research. John Burnett, NPR News, Albany, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.