When looking at beef and pork, you should pay attention to fat. Marbling refers to the white lines or streaks running through lean sections of meat. Marbled sections are different than the larger sections of fat that are often found around the outside of certain cuts of meat. Marbling gives the meat additional moisture and flavor, and it aids in the cooking process as the fat renders out, making for a juicier cut of meat after cooking. Meat without additional marbling can easily dry out during the cooking process.
Generally, the higher the grade of meat, the more marbling that cut of meat will have. The USDA inspects and grades meat during the butchering process.
For beef, the grades you should look for are Prime, Choice, and Select. Prime is the highest grade. Prime and Choice grade beef will have higher marbling content, making the meat juicier after it cooks.
For poultry, you'll see grades A, B or C. Grade A is the only grade that you will find in your local store.
Pork is not graded, but there are different breeds of pork that will produce higher levels of marbling, such as Duroc and Berkshire.
Color is important when selecting meat at your local store, because it can tell you how long the meat has been on the shelf, or how long it has been since the meat was processed.
Beef should be cherry or dark red in color. Avoid beef that is turning brown.
Poultry should be pink. If chicken has started turning white or brown, do not purchase.
Pork should be red to pink in color. Pork that has been on the shelf too long will begin to turn brown or even green.
If you find meat that is labeled "Manager's Special," the meat is still safe, but you should plan on cooking it the same day you purchase.
It's important to know which cuts of meat go best with different styles of cooking. Steaks and chops are great for dry methods of cooking, such as grilling. A higher grade will work well with this type of cooking since there will be higher levels of marbling to keep the meat juicy throughout the cook. Larger cuts of meat, such as brisket and pork shoulder, can be cooked using a dry method like smoking. However, be sure to add moisture throughout the cook by spritzing with apple juice or wrapping your meat in Oklahoma Joe's Peach Butcher Paper. Roasts are great when using methods like braising or roasting, because these are wet methods of cooking and the additional moisture helps break down the meat to make it tender.
It's important to remember when smoking your food to make sure you do not dry out the meat, no matter what cut you select. Adding moisture, or selecting a grade with higher marbling content, can make all the difference in finishing with a product that is juicy, tender and flavorful.