I’m often asked how to select the best cuts of meat or the freshest, tastiest fish and seafood. Experience as a chef has taught me a great deal about how to assess meat and fish and I now feel confident that I can look at product and determine if it is of the high quality I expect. The price difference between lower and higher qualities is often negligible so I encourage you to select appropriate portion sizes and buy the highest quality you can afford.
For meat, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has established regulations and safety standards for beef, veal, bison, lamb, pork and poultry. Safety inspections are mandatory whereas grading, which refers to eating quality, is a voluntary system that meat producers pay for. Currently there are no federal grading standards for game meat although to be sold at the retail level and in restaurants, game meat must be either federally or provincially inspected.
I get a lot of questions about meat grading. It’s important to note that Canadian beef is highly regarded both nationally and internationally. More than 85% of beef raised in Canada is considered high quality (classified from A to Prime); the biggest differentiator is the marbling, which is the quantity and quality of fat distributed throughout the meat. Here’s how the beef grading system works (and the system is similar for veal, pork, etc.):
• PRIME: Prime-grade beef has a good red colour and features abundant and even marbling. The presence of fat equals a tenderer, juicier cut of beef that should cook well in all conditions. Less than 2% of Canadian beef is graded as Prime.
• AAA: AAA-grade beef has only small amounts of visible marbling, yet it’s still considered high quality and will cook up well in a variety of conditions. Approximately 50% of graded beef is deemed AAA quality.
• AA: This beef has only a slight amount of marbling but it can still be a delicious and economical product. About 45% of graded beef is considered AA quality; much of it would be cuts that benefit from marinating and/or longer cooking times.
• A: The lowest of the four high quality grades, only 3% of graded beef in Canada is A-quality. These products need to be cooked more carefully for tasty results due to the diminished marbling.
When it comes to selecting meat, look for cleanly-butchered cuts that are of an even thickness (especially important for steaks and chops) to ensure even cooking. The cuts should also have a rich, vibrant colour and not look dull or have discoloured spots. Look also for a nice, tight texture in the grain of the meat.
For poultry, you are only likely to see Grade A for sale in Canada. This is the highest quality and indicates that the poultry products are fully fleshed and meaty, as well being free from defects such as bruises, discolouration, feathers, broken bones (for bone-in products) or tears in the skin (for whole birds).
When selecting poultry, always buy meat that has a healthy appearance and pale pink colour and does not possess any defects. Poultry should never have a strong aroma; if it does, do not cook or eat it. If purchasing packaged poultry (fresh or frozen), be sure there are no holes in the plastic.
Fish and Seafood
It’s getting easier to select good fish and seafood products thanks to http://www.seachoice.org which was created ten years ago to help Canadian businesses and shoppers take an active role in supporting sustainable fisheries and aquaculture at all levels of the seafood supply chain. SeaChoice has created easy-to-use tools that help you make the best seafood choices. Their comprehensive chart shows which species represent the best choice for consumers, those that we should be concerned about and which ones to avoid. You’ll see it posted at some grocery stores and fishmongers and there’s a SeaChoice app in the Apple app store. SeaChoice considers everything from sustainability, how the fish is caught and typical mercury levels in making its recommendations. A few to avoid include Bluefin Tuna, Chilean Sea Bass, Grouper and Orange Roughy; better choices include Albacore Tuna, Alaskan wild-caught Salmon and Pacific Sardines.
When purchasing fish, the flesh should be glossy and wet looking and should not have a strong fishy aroma (the aroma tip applies to shellfish as well). If buying whole fish check to be sure the eyes are clear, rounded and shiny; these are all signs of freshness.
While labelling can help, it’s important to note that not all of us have the experience to perceive differences in quality when it comes to meat and fish. If you are concerned about the food you put on your table, it’s worthwhile to get to the people who are providing your family’s food and shop where you feel you are getting knowledgeable service and top quality products.