Marbling, in general meat evaluation terminology, refers to the fat interspersed within the
lean portion of the meat. It's called marbling because it resembles the kind of stone that one
can find on church altars and comes from quarries in Italy.
Why is marbling important? It serves as a general guide to flavor in a piece of meat, particularly
beef. In other meats, such as pork, excessive marbling, even to the point that would be ideal in beef,
is considered to be a negative factor for health reasons. Marbling is a consideration when USDA inspectors assign quality grades to whole carcasses. It is disregarded altogether in the evaluation of poultry.
If you want to check for marbling yourself, all you need to do is check out the shrink-wrapped
packages of beef or pork at the supermarket or the meat cart that the waitress brings to your table.
Disregard the large deposits of fat that separate different portions of lean muscle, because this
is a different factor in meat evaluation altogether. In the areas of lean muscle, look for a moderate
Marbling in beef and pork have different meanings. In beef, if the meat has little of this speckling
or is completely devoid of it, the meat
is very lean and healthy but cannot be expected to possess the best flavor. Meat that has more white
speckling than visible red lean can be expected to have the best flavor, but unless you're asking
for a coronary then this wouldn't be the best piece of meat to buy. Meat that has a balance between
these two has an optimal blend of flavor and healthiness.
Looking for a leaner piece of beef is a trend that has only relatively recently taken hold. In years past, the general consensus was that the more fat the meat had, the better, therefore leading consumers to purchase the cuts with the most marbling (this could also be seen in the cattle of the day, which were very stocky and low to the ground as compared to modern breeds). However, people now sacrifice flavor in many cases for lower fat content. A few notable exceptions are restaurants that serve USDA Prime beef, the grade with the highest fat content, as well as consumers of Kobe beef, which is not only the most expensive beef in the world, but also sports the highest unsaturated fat content that one is likely to find.
Ironically, the more fat content a cut of beef has, the more expensive it is. Prime beef is more expensive than Choice, and Kobe beef is far more expensive than Prime. The price of a cut of beef is inversely proportional to how healthy it is.
Pork is a different story. One should select the cut of pork that has the least marbling. Pork is
more fattening in general, and therefore already has good flavor interspersed througout. However, since
the meat is more fattening, one should take care to select the leanest piece of meat possible.