Marbled Meat: What Does It Mean?

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  June 5, 2022

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Marbled meat is a delicious treat but many people don’t know exactly what it is. It’s the mix of lean and fat that gives the meat a swirled look and a tender texture. 

When you want to achieve marbling in your cooking, you need to understand the process and what it means to cook the meat at the right temperature to get the right texture and taste.

What is marbled meat

What is Marbling?

The Basics

Marbling is the fancy term for the white flecks of fat that you find inside of your steak. It’s the stuff that makes your steak juicy and flavorful. It’s also the thing that the USDA grades steaks on. So, if you want a good steak, you want one with lots of marbling!

The Good and the Bad

Marbling is great for flavor, but it can come at a cost. Commercial feedlots often force-feed cows grain pellets to fatten them up quickly, while keeping them confined to small pens. This isn’t great for the cows, but it does result in a steak with lots of marbling.

On the other hand, there are farms that focus on animal welfare and stewardship, resulting in great-tasting steaks with just the right amount of marbling. So, if you’re looking for a steak that’s both delicious and ethical, this is the way to go.

Types of Marbling

When it comes to marbling, not all fat is created equal. Here are the different types of marbling you’ll find in a steak:

  • Intramuscular Fat: This is the flecks of white fat found within the actual lean muscle.
  • Intermuscular Fat: This is the fat that’s found between the different muscles in the beef carcass.

So, when you’re looking for a steak, make sure to check out the marbling! It’s the key to a juicy, flavorful steak.

Is Marbling Good for You?

Contrary to popular belief, marbling isn’t always bad for you. In fact, some breeds like Wagyu are higher in healthier fats like oleic acid, which has been linked to a reduction in the risk of coronary heart disease. So, if you’re looking for a juicy, flavorful steak, marbling is the way to go!

What Breed of Cattle Affects Marbling?

Grass vs. Grain

It’s a common misconception that grass-fed cattle don’t marble well. But that’s just not true! Cattle raised on grain often marble more easily than those who just eat grass. However, not all feed is created equal and not all breeds are the same.

Take Tim and Sarah Haws’ Murray Grey cattle at Autumn’s Harvest, for example. They marble well on a pure grass diet. Same goes for Elmer Lapp’s Murray Grey and Devon cattle at Burkes Garden Farm.

Then there’s the shift to Black Angus in the late 1970s. This breed is known for its finely textured marbling, making it a popular choice for beautiful, marbled beef.

Different Breeds, Different Metabolisms

Different breeds of cattle have different metabolisms, which affects the resulting meat. For example, the Japanese breed Kuroge-washu (aka Wagyu beef) has higher intramuscular fat in a finely grained pattern, while the Italian breed Piedmontese produces more muscle for a leaner, yet still tender, beef.

Plus, different breeds affect the ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acids. That’s why Wagyu beef is often called a healthier option—it’s higher in Omega-3s.

It’s Not Just Breed, It’s Also Feed

The type of feed cattle eat makes a difference, too. Industrial feedlots use manufactured grass pellets, which don’t have the same nutrient density as native grasses and legumes. Plus, they don’t offer the occasional snack of apple cider vinegar that Redger Farms’ herd enjoys.

Grain-finishing at independent ranches that use locally grown corn, brewers’ mash, olive peels, apples, carrots, peas, and other local specialties is healthier than the mass-produced pellets from industrial feedlots. Plus, it results in tastier beef.

Evaluating Marbling

The USDA Grading System

When it comes to evaluating marbling, the USDA grading system can only do so much. They grade beef based on marbling, but it’s not the only criteria. You’ll find Prime, Choice, and Select at your local supermarket, and those are basically the marbling scores. Anything lower than that isn’t usually sold at the supermarket and is used in ground beef.

But even the USDA grading system can get it wrong sometimes. I recently cooked a sirloin steak from the supermarket, and the USDA said it was Choice. But after having experienced premium beef, I’d say it was Prime. Either way, it tasted great in my steak chili.

It’s All About Personal Taste

When it comes to marbling, it’s all about personal taste. If you like the flavor and texture of well-marbled meat, you should check out grain-finishing farms like Hutterian Farm or domestic Wagyu producers like Omega Beef, Kahlig Ranches, and Tebben Ranches. If you prefer a leaner bite, consider grass-finishing farms like Novy Ranches or Redger Farms.

You can also explore the world of marbling by trying out A5 Wagyu from Kagoshima, Japan and Olive Wagyu from Shodoshima, Japan. Or if you’re feeling adventurous, try out the upcoming Piedmontese ranches, Emtman Brothers Farms and KD Piedmontese.

No matter what your preference is, there’s something out there for everyone!

Understanding Beef Quality and Yield Grades

What are Beef Quality Grades?

When it comes to beef, it’s all about the quality. Quality grades are all about evaluating the factors that make beef juicy, tender, and flavorful. These factors include the maturity of the carcass, the firmness, texture, and color of the lean, and the amount and distribution of marbling within the lean.

What is Maturity?

Maturity refers to the age of the animal, not the number of years it’s been alive. Graders look at the indicators like the bone characteristics, ossification of cartilage, and the color and texture of the ribeye muscle to determine the maturity.

What are Beef Yield Grades?

Yield grades are all about estimating the amount of boneless, closely trimmed retail cuts from the high-value parts of the carcass–the round, loin, rib, and chuck. The USDA Yield Grades are rated numerically from 1-5, with 1 being the highest yielding carcass and 5 being the lowest.

So, if you want to get the most bang for your buck, you’ll want to go for a Yield Grade 1. That’s the one that’ll give you the highest percentage of boneless, closely trimmed retail cuts.

The Different Grades

Here’s a quick rundown of the different grades of beef:

  • Prime: The most marbled and expensive grade. You’ll usually find it in fancy restaurants and supermarkets.
  • Choice: The most common grade found in retail outlets.
  • Select: A cheaper option found in many stores.
  • Standard: Commonly used in younger cattle (under 42 months of age).
  • Commercial: Used in older cattle carcasses that aren’t marketed as wholesale beef “block” meat.
  • Utility: Also used in older cattle carcasses.
  • Cutter: Used in ground products and cheaper steaks.
  • Canner: The least marbled and cheapest grade.

So, What Does it All Mean?

Basically, the higher the marbling, the more expensive the beef. So, if you’re looking for a juicy, tender steak, you’ll want to go for the Prime grade. But if you’re looking for something a bit cheaper, then you can opt for the Select or Canner grades.

Which Cuts of Meat Have the Most Marbling?

The Beef Rib and Short Loin

When it comes to marbling, two cuts of beef stand out from the rest: the beef rib and short loin. These cuts are known for their juicy, tender texture, thanks to the abundance of marbling.

The Beef Round and Sirloin

On the other hand, the beef round and sirloin tend to have the least marbling. So if you’re looking for a steak that’s not too juicy, these cuts are your best bet.

The Beef Tenderloin

The beef tenderloin is possibly the most tender cut of beef, but it doesn’t usually have much marbling. That’s why you’ll often see tenderloin steaks wrapped with strips of bacon to add flavor and moisture.

Grading Marbling

Grading marbling is a subjective process, and there’s no exact formula for determining the amount of marbling. It all comes down to the individual inspector’s impressions of a single spot on the carcass. So if you’re looking for a steak with a certain amount of marbling, it’s best to ask your butcher for their opinion.

What Marbling Does for Your Steak

When cooked at a hot enough temperature (usually over 130F), the marbling melts and coats the muscle fibers, making the steak more tender, juicy, and flavorful. But if cooked at a lower temperature (125F or below), the unmelted fat gives the steak a waxy texture. That’s why medium-rare is the standard for steakhouse cooking.

How is Marbling Produced?

There are three factors that affect marbling:

  • Breed: Different breeds of cattle produce different levels of marbling.
  • Feed: What the cattle eat affects the amount of marbling.
  • Cut: Certain cuts of beef naturally accumulate more intramuscular fat than others. Cuts like ribeye, short rib, strip, and flatiron steaks are known for their high degree of marbling.

What Makes Marbled Beef So Delicious?

The Science Behind Marbling

Scientists have been trying to figure out why marbling makes beef so tender and juicy, and they’ve come up with a few theories. Some say it’s because fat doesn’t conduct heat as well as lean fibers, so a well-marbled steak is harder to overcook. Another theory is that marbling makes it easier to chew, so you get a more tender experience.

The Taste Test

Forget the science, let’s get down to the real test – the taste test! Cook up a steak with lots of marbling, like a rib-eye, and compare it to a steak with less marbling, like a round steak. Which one is more tender, juicy and flavorful? The rib-eye wins every time!


Marbled Vs Lean Meat

Marbled and lean meat are two different types of meat that have distinct characteristics. Marbled meat is known for its high fat content, which gives it a juicy, tender texture and a rich flavor. Lean meat, on the other hand, is much lower in fat and has a much firmer texture. It’s also much healthier, as it contains fewer calories and saturated fats.

If you’re looking for a juicy, flavorful steak, marbled meat is the way to go. It’s perfect for grilling and will leave you with a mouth-watering meal. But if you’re trying to watch your waistline, lean meat is the better option. It’s still packed with flavor, but it won’t leave you feeling guilty after your meal. So whether you’re looking for a juicy steak or a healthier option, you can’t go wrong with either marbled or lean meat.


Marbling is a key indicator of steak quality, and it’s important to know what kind of marbling you’re looking for. Grass-fed, grass-finished beef is the way to go if you want to get the most flavor and tenderness out of your steak. Plus, you can rest easy knowing that the animals were treated humanely. So, if you’re looking for the BEST marbled meat, look for 100% grass-fed, grass-finished beef. And remember: MARBLING is the key to a MEAT-er meal!

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Lakeside Smokers is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with BBQ Smoking (& Japanese food!) at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.