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Things aren't quite that simple, the Aggie scientist explains. "Cattle breeding has been leaning away from the Prime tendency," Hale says. Hereford and Angus, which are prone to high marbling, have been crossed with leaner European cart-oxen strains like Limousin and Charolais to reduce the fat. The nation's cattle now have a leaner genetic makeup, and that's not something you can change overnight.
But Hale rejects the notion that a USDA grade accurately measures the quality of beef. They measure quality meat by three "palatability attributes" -- tenderness, juiciness and flavor. Those may not sound like scientific terms to you, but they are to the scientists at A&M. And what they have concluded, after countless studies, is that tenderness is the key to quality. The A&M Meat Science Center's quest is to find the holy grail of beef -- meat that is both high in quality and low in fat.
I had always assumed that marbling ensured tenderness. But in tests employing both objective instruments and human taste testers, scientists have proved that marbling is not a reliable indicator. Other factors, including genetics and the animal's stress level, both during its lifetime and at the time of slaughter, have an effect on tenderness that is not apparent to the eye of the grader or the consumer.
18-ounce T-bone: $24
18-ounce bone-in rib eye: $22
Eight-ounce filet: $19
It also has been discovered that tenderness can be enhanced after the slaughter. Calcium-chloride injections speed up aging, as does high-voltage electrical stimulation. It is conceivable that through high-tech methods, lean beef could be rendered as soft and buttery as USDA Prime used to be.
Charlie Bradbury, chief executive of Beefmaster Cattlemen LP in Huntsville, is one of the high-tech pioneers. He heads up a project for Beefmaster Breeders United, an organization that promotes Beefmaster cattle, a breed of Hereford, Shorthorn and Brahman that's native to South Texas. The cattle are slaughtered at a plant in Corpus Christi, where the sides of beef are then shocked with 400 volts and evaluated with a digital apparatus called the BeefCam, which rates the color of the rib eye and gives the beef a tenderness score. The top scorers qualify for Beefmaster's premium label, which they have contracted Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan to help pitch. Nolan Ryan's Tender Aged Beef brand can now be found at Houston grocery stores.
Ryan's beef does not carry a USDA grade, and meat experts are betting that consumers won't care. "Improving palatability is the point," Hale says. That's why meat scientists in Texas are now more focused on reducing animal stress, isolating the "tenderness genes" through DNA testing, and using electric shock and chemicals to accelerate aging than they are on USDA grades.
It's easy to see that while dry-aging holds nostalgic appeal, it probably won't be making a comeback anytime soon. It's more likely that scientists will find a chemical or a high-tech treatment that imparts the same nutty flavor without the loss of weight. The dry-wet aging process used at Greenbriar Chophouse has already started down this path.
On my second visit to Greenbriar, I got the same waiter. I asked him if all the steaks were USDA Prime. Yes, he assured me, all of them were prime. Had Martinez forgotten to talk to the staff, or was this company policy all along? I ordered the bone-in rib eye.
My steaks came with a puny skewer of grilled vegetables and some mashed sweet potatoes. The sides were okay, but I dreamed of crispy potatoes and creamed spinach. Five little cups of "signature sauces" also were served with my rib eye (they're served, in fact, with every steak): béarnaise, Creole mustard demi-glace, peppercorn cream, raspberry port demi-glace and zinfandel mushroom sauce. The sauces were fine, but in the dimly lit dining room, it was impossible to keep them straight. I ended up dunking a bite in a mystery sauce and wondering what I was tasting. I poured a dollop of béarnaise on my plate and called it a day.
The rib eye was slicker and bloodier than the T-bone had been. Perhaps it came from a different butcher or was aged differently. Clearly there was no point in asking the waiter about it. The sad fact is that while Greenbriar pioneers a new concept in aging, the waitstaff -- or, at the very least, my waiter -- remains ignorant of it. Combine that with a dull atmosphere and lackluster side dishes, and you have a second-tier steak house at best.
You'd think that quality meat would be the sole criterion by which to judge a steak house, but Greenbriar Chophouse proves that isn't always the case. The place lacks personality; eating steaks there is boring, no matter how good they are. Maybe the A&M Meat Science Center needs to add atmosphere to its palatability attributes.