ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And now to a delectable story that we first brought you this spring. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association says the rib-eye is the most popular steak in America, at the supermarket and at the steakhouse. Texas Monthly magazine recently described it as a gorgeous hunk of crimson-colored beef shot through with pearly fat. NPR's John Burnett visited a cattle ranch in north Texas that is endeavoring to produce the perfect rib-eye.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The first week of March is ultrasound time at the historic R.A. Brown Ranch in Throckmorton, Texas. One-year-old Angus bulls are lined up in a muddy runway, unhappily waiting their turn to be tested for the prime cut that Americans covet above all others.
DONNELL BROWN: We can see the marbling on the ultrasound - those tiny specks of fat which are the flavor fat. That's what gives beef its rich flavor.
BURNETT: The man in the cowboy hat, neckerchief and push-broom mustache is Donnell Brown. He's the fifth generation to run this ranch since his great-grandfather carved it out of Comanche country. The steel gates of the squeeze chute close around a thousand-pound bull.
The ultrasound specialist, Craig Hays, shears away black fur in the area of the 12th and 13th ribs. He squirts on some vegetable oil and presses the transducer onto the twitching back of the animal. A familiar image appears on the dusty computer screen.
So the image that I'm looking at on your sonogram here looks like a steak.
CRAIG HAYS: That's correct, yep. Our cross-sectional image would be just like - it'd be a picture of what'd be laying on your plate. Yes, sir.
BURNETT: It's a good time to be in the cattle business, finally. There were massive herd sell-offs during the punishing drought of 2011. Since then, beef prices have reached all-time highs. Last year, sales of Donnell Brown's bulls were 40 percent higher than the previous year. As each new bull enters the squeeze chute, the rancher squints at the screen.
BROWN: This is B-159. That's its individual ID number. Marbling looks good. Rib-eye looks really strong. So I like what we're seeing.
BURNETT: A late winter snowfall has turned the corrals into bogs of mud and bull waste that nearly suck the boots off the cowboys. Brown makes his way over to the cattle pens. Cattlemen look at 23 different genetic traits, such as birth weight, fat thickness and docility. The marbling score of the rib-eye muscle is the only trait that transfers directly to the plate.
BROWN: An animal would use that when he's rearing up to mount - a bull would - to mount a cow, to breed her. But it's not a muscle that's used very much. So as you look at the animal, the muscles that are used the least are the ones that are the most tender.
BURNETT: The R.A. Brown Ranch is 6,000 acres of mesquite cactus and pastureland north of Abilene. The family expects to sell 600 bulls at the annual sale in October, making this ranch one of the top breeders in the country.
Fast-forward from the Brown Ranch bulls to the commercial cow calf rancher, to the feedlot, the packing house, the meat wholesaler, and you end up at a restaurant like the Beehive. Located 34 miles down the highway from the Brown Ranch, it's famous for its mesquite-grilled steaks.
ALI ESFANDIARY: My name is Ali Esfandiary. I'm from Iran, and I've owned the Beehive restaurant in Albany, Texas for 36 years now.
BURNETT: Ali stands in the kitchen of the Beehive holding a cook's fork.
What's the key to a really great rib-eye?
ESFANDIARY: That key to great rib-eye - first you have to buy a good cut of beef. I buy black Angus because they have lots of marble on it, and if somebody order well-done, even if I cook it well-done, it still be juicy.
BURNETT: And with that, it's time to put away the microphone, pick up a steak knife and enjoy the fruits of our research. John Burnett, NPR News, Albany, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.