Buying a steak to grill is as easy as trotting into the Piggly Wiggly, Vons or Safeway down the street and grabbing one of many plastic wrapped Styrofoam packages, right? Not so fast, kemosabe. If you’re the shy type looking to avoid eye contact or a conversation, that might be the way to go. You can certainly get a steak, but what you’re getting — and the quality of your selection — varies depending on where you go. While the prime, choice and select USDA grades are fairly well known, there’s more to a fine steak than just fat marbling. We visited three purveyors — the local supermarket (A & P, Ralphs, Giant), Whole Foods, and Tip Top (substitute your local butcher shop), a highly-regarded butcher shop near San Diego — to examine more closely (sans photoshop and fancy lenses) the type and quality of beef available.

We also picked up a boneless rib-eye from each and cooked it to medium rare in a cast iron skillet. You know, for good measure. “Research” and all.

Read more after the jump.

First, let’s talk grain and grass. Most beef comes from cattle that start life grazing before being penned and fattened with a grain mash. Individual animals quickly grow in size from the lack of activity and the richness of their diet. Grain-fed cattle are 1,200-1,400 pounds at slaughter, usually between 16-24 months old; their meat inherits a grain-fed flavor to related directly to the soon-to-be roast beast’s intensive diet.

A much smaller number of ranchers exclusively feed their cattle grass by grazing during warm months and eating hay fodder in the winter. These animals are smaller, tending toward 1,000-1,200 pounds at slaughter time, and older (up to 30 months) because the amount of activity and lower caloric value of the feed necessitates more time to bulk up. The result is meat with a distinctive look and taste. With less fat marbling (what fat remains has a yellowish tinge), grass-fed beef will rarely rate higher than “select” under the USDA system. The meat has the “gamey” flavor reminiscent of venison or lamb, which is a result of higher carotene levels from the cattle’s grass diet. As an added bonus, grass-fed beef has a higher ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids — 1:2 in grass-fed, versus 1:7 to 1:14 in grain-fed.

Typical Chain Supermarket

Here you’re getting convenience and the lowest price. We walked in, grabbed a piece of meat, paid, and skulked out — all in 10 minutes, tops, and that’s with the obligatory trip down the wine aisle. The meat here is mostly grain-fed, though many chain grocery stores are beginning to offer a few grass-fed cuts. Typical grocery store beef, sometimes called commodity beef, is mass-produced. It arrives at the store in sub-primal cuts, meaning that the main primal cuts (front to back: chuck, rib, loin and round) have been divided into their main cuts, boxed, wet-aged in cryovac plastic, and ultimately divided by meat cutters of varying skill levels into fabricated cuts that are wrapped for individual sale. Run-of-the-mill stores often don’t include diverse diverse selections of beef (for obvious reasons). Skilled butchers often move on to bigger and better things, leaving supermarkets with less than top talent behind the counter.

Some meat has been “hot-blasted”: treated with an ammonia solution to kill bacteria and wash off traces of dirt and blood and then gassed with carbon monoxide, which reacts with myoglobin in the meat to brighten the color of aging cuts. Individually wrapped steaks inhibit close inspection; only the best side of steaks is visible, which in certain cases masks flaws. The face-down side of our rib-eye had larger chunks of fat, unevenly distributed throughout the flesh, less optimal than pervasive marbling.

At Medium Rare: The texture is somewhat tender, the taste somewhat flavorful and juicy with a dry finish. There’s an underlying sweetness. Overall, a nice cut of meat, but nothing special.

Whole Foods

You can almost hear “cha-ching” tinkling in the background when you walk into a Whole Foods. This is also something of a “meat market” within a meat market — everyone is rather well-turned-out for a trip to the supermarket — but we’re focused on just one type of pickup today.

Upscale shopping for quality ingredients is available here across all categories. In the meat department a young butcher gave us a quick introduction to the varieties of meat with what seemed dangerously close to scripted narratives, and allowed us the opportunity to take a good look at the choices.

Whole Foods prides itself at the forefront of the animal welfare movement, and as a member of the Global Animal Partnership’s Five-Step program, works to improve how meat animals are raised. Even if you’re no card-carrying member of PETA (you’re still planning to eat that steak, right?), Whole Foods’ attention to the treatment and sourcing of their meats may still be appealing. Meats arrive pre-packaged for division into fabricated cuts, but the customer always has the option to see the whole steak, not to mention the choice between grass-fed and grain-fed.

After scanning several cuts and looking at both sides, we went for the pasture-raised, grass-fed rib-eye (partly because the missus is really big on grass-fed beef).

At Medium Rare: A firm, with a slightly chewy texture. Somewhat flavorful; somewhat dry. The taste has some of that mouth-watering umami you get from parmesan cheese, with earthy mushroom notes.

Tip Top, The Local Butcher

The local butcher is all about service and custom orders. Ryan, a seventh-generation meat cutter working the counter at Tip Top Meats, provided us with a true education (there was a quiz, which your author failed) and a very tasty looking rib-eye fed on grain. This is one of the few places that still get their beef in halves (half a cow, sans head), and do all the butchering in house.

Ryan, who carries an obvious passion for his oft-overlooked craft, walked us through his process, showing the location of each primal, sub-primal and individual cut. He revealed some of the tricks of the trade that lesser shops use to hide flaws, freshen up older inventory and sell lower quality meat to unsuspecting customers. He stressed, for example, the importance of looking at both sides of a steak to determine even distribution of fat marbling. Tip Top is a traditional meat purveyor where you get a steak cut from the part of the beast you want and to the thickness you want — there’s no talk of the animal’s name or how happy its life was. The trend in the industry is toward greater availability of organic, locally-sourced meats, but the overwhelming bulk of the beef on the market is still grain-fed.

At Medium Rare: Very tender, flavorful and juicy. This is the over all favorite, even for a die-hard grass-fed aficionado. The meat is buttery, with a slight gaminess, particularly in the fat.

Closing Shop

There are few things that satisfy a man’s appetite like a quality steak. Choosing the right meat is ultimately going to be based on your relative priorities of cost, convenience, health considerations and — lest we forget — taste. Given the direction of food prices, conscious budgeting may well turn rib-eye into an occasional splurge — and if you’re going to splurge, you sure as heck want to know what you’re getting for your hard-earned scratch.