The word “Angus” conjures up the spirit of quality beef, and it’s used by restaurants and grocery stores alike to push their products. When I was a tween, my favourite food was beef, and my favourite “grown-up” restaurant was Black Angus, a mid-level steakhouse chain that served a savoury steak soup with sweet “black molasses bread,” both of which I enjoyed immensely. The Black Angus menu taught me what “medium-rare” meant, and I will forever associate it with bright red beefiness.
My other Angus memories centre around the bovine pop quizzes my dad used to administer in the car each time we happened to pass a herd of cattle. Given the fact that it’s the most common beef cow in the United States, “Angus” was usually the correct answer. It was also the easiest to spot: These fairly small black beef cows are unique, if not visually remarkable. (Want to see a remarkable cow? Check out the Brahman, or the Brangus, which is what you get when you cross an Angus with a Brahman.) There is also a Red Angus cow, but it is much less common, and registered separately from its black-coated cousin.
An Angus is just a breed of cow, is what I’m saying, but that doesn’t stop food sellers — such as McDonald’s — for slapping the word on a burger to make it sound beefier, fancier, and “quality.” While I’m a big fan of knowing exactly which animal I’m eating, the word “Angus” is not tied to the quality of the meat. For that, you need to look at the MLA (Meat Standards Australia).
This is not to say that the cows themselves are not special. While the breed originated in Scotland, the Black Angus is the most popular beef cow in the U.S., and for good reason: If the American Angus Association is to be believed, the “Angus breed is superior in marbling to all other mainstream beef breeds.” That’s exactly what an association dedicated to one particular breed of cattle would say about their favoured cow, but even the Encyclopaedia Brittanica notes the breed possesses a, “compact and low-set body, fine quality of flesh, and high dressing percentage,” and that the, “Angus is a beef breed of the highest rank, and for years purebred or crossbred Angus steers have held high places of honour at the leading fat-stock shows in Great Britain and the United States.” The little black cows are also quite hardy, as they were bred to withstand cold Scotland winters.
But just because a particular breed of cow is capable of producing tender, well-marbled meat, that doesn’t mean every producer or farmer who raises Black Angus cattle achieves that. Age, diet, and living conditions all affect the the tenderness and amount of intramuscular fat running through a steak, and different Angus cows are raised, grazed, and finished with different levels of care. So, if you see a “manager’s special” boasting its “Angus” status the next time you’re at the grocery store, not to mention a cheap burger chain promoting its “Angus” burgers, don’t be fooled — the meat probably did come from an Angus cow, but the MLA grade will be far more helpful when it comes to predicting just how good that cow will taste.