Americans are among the largest beef consumers, so it’s no wonder there are many different beef cuts available at a butcher shop. You’ve probably noticed steaks labeled Prime, Choice, and Select. But, what does it mean?
I’ve been on a carnivore diet for more than a decade, and my diet mostly consists of steaks. I eat them several times a week, so I spent countless hours researching different labels. I also talked with a friend butcher to get his recommendation. Here’s what you should know about Choice and Prime meat.
Summary of the Key Findings
- USDA determines the beef label based on yield and quality grades.
- USDA has eight different grading labels, with Prime, Choice, and Select being the most common and best ones.
- The biggest difference between Choice and Prime beef is the amount of marbling. Prime beef has more marbling compared to Choice cuts.
- Choice beef is more commonly found at a local grocery store than Prime beef.
- Choice beef is more affordable compared to Prime beef.
Who Determines Beef Grades?
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) determines beef grades . The grades are assigned to beef cuts to signify that meat is high-quality and safe to consume. Restaurants, suppliers, and daily consumers rely on beef grades when buying beef cuts.
The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service is the one that determines the beef grades based on official standards. The association uses trained and skilled meat graders who check each cut and give it a grade based on a subjective assessment and electronic measurement instruments.
All meat intended for public consumption has to be inspected. The USDA does the meat inspection and labeling. However, in some states, such as Missouri, an inspector from a state agency can check the meat. But, the meat that’s been state inspected can’t cross state lines, which is why most manufacturers opt for USDA inspection.
However, not all beef needs to be graded. Grading beef is voluntary. It’s done by the USDA and paid for by the meat packers. The USDA inspectors first check the live animal to ensure it’s completely healthy and treated humanely. Then the inspectors check the slaughtering process, animal’s parts and organs, temperature, usable lean meat, and that the carcass stays clean throughout the process.
In case the beef doesn’t pass the inspection, it’s removed from the food supply chain and can’t be eaten.
There are eight grades of beef — from standard and commercial grades that are sold as ungraded, utility, cutter, and canner grades, that are used in processed meat products, and of course, Prime, Choice, and Select.
USDA graders have beef graded based on two criteria, quality grade, and yield grades.
Beef quality is how tender, juicy, and flavorful is beef. Graders also check the fat content, age, raising practices, and source. Another important quality factor is marbling or intramuscular fat. These are small threads of fat spread between the muscle fibers in beef. You see it as white lines going through the steak. It resembles a marble pattern, thus the name.
There’s a difference between intramuscular and intermuscular fat. Marbling is intramuscular fat or the fat inside the beef, and it’s not trimmed like intermuscular fat.
For Ribeye, meat packers and graders check the amount of marbling between 12th and 13th cow ribs. They determine if the beef in the entire cow is Prime, Choice, or Select, based on this one location. This works because marbling gives the beef tenderness and added flavor.
Besides beef quality, beef is also graded on age or animal maturity. As the cattle mature, the meat gets tougher and leaner, so how tender a cut is, is directly connected to the cattle’s age.
Once the marbling and animal’s age are determined, the USDA combines these two factors to determine quality grades.
Graders also check the yield, which is the usable lean meat left on the carcass. A cut has to have a good meat-to-fat ratio to receive high yield marks. Yield grade ranges from 1 to 5. For example, ribeye has a USDA grade 4 because it has a 9/10 inch fat layer.
USDA Grades of Beef
The USDA has three grades of beef:
- Prime — The highest-quality beef cut. Prime steaks have intramuscular fat content or marbling. It’s in high demand and can be found at high-end restaurants. Because prime beef has a lot of marbling, it’s the most tender and juicy steak out of the three grades of beef. The prime steak comes from young cattle. Less than 3% of beef gets the Prime grade.
- Choice — Choice beef is also very high quality, but it differs from Prime because it has less marbling. Marbling refers to the fat that goes throughout the muscle. Less marbling means a less juicy cut. However, with good prep, you’ll still have delicious meat. Choice beef is most widely available at restaurants, and it accounts for about 53% of consumable beef.
- Select — Select beef has low-fat content, which means it has the least moisture and flavor. This is a lean meat cut, so it’s a popular choice among health-conscious people. It’s usually sold at supermarkets.
There are also other, less common, ways in which USDA grades beef:
- Standard and Commercial — Can be found at stores. These cuts have little fat content, so it doesn’t get labeled as Prime beef. These are usually sold as store-brand meat.
- Cutter and Canner — It’s rare to find these at a store. These grades usually come from older cattle and are used for processed meat or canned goods.
Note: All beef is inspected to make sure it’s safe, but not all beef is graded. The beef manufacturer or the beef processing facility decides whether to get beef graded or not. For example, smaller ranchers choose not to get their beef graded, but they still can have excellent meat quality.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the USDA grades beef regardless of how the cattle is fed. This means it doesn’t matter if the cattle were grass-fed, grain, or organic. The USDA cares about the raising practices and that there are well-fed beef cattle, but not actually what the cattle were fed.
The main difference between Prime and Choice beef is the marbling, so the beef manufacturers focus on feed practices that increase the marbling yield, so their beef gets the Prime grade.
USDA Prime makes up the smallest percent of graded beef, and it’s seen as the highest beef quality and the juiciest cut you can buy.
However, this depends on how you prepare Prime USDA grade beef. It’ll taste like leather if it’s overcooked, no matter how much marbling it has. USDA Prime beef grade should only be cooked medium or medium-rare to preserve the juiciness and tenderness.
Buying USDA Prime
USDA Prime is the highest quality grade beef, so it can be very difficult to get a hold of. However, more and more supermarkets are starting to sell it, especially higher-end ones, like Whole Foods. This is because very little graded beef gets labeled Prime in the beef industry.
However, the percentage of USDA beef labeled Prime has gone up in recent years. While it was only around 3% in 2008, it was just under 10% in 2018 .
"The fact of the matter is that there is far more Prime than five or 10 years ago. Part of that is better genetics, ranchers doing a better job, and raising animals with better marbling. We're seeing better grading across the board, more Prime, more Choice, less low-quality beef."
- Marc Sarrazin, Partner at NY Specialty Butcher DeBragga & Spitler
You can also get USDA Prime cuts at high-end restaurants, but keep in mind that these come at a high price.
USDA Choice graded beef has much less marbling. Marbling on Choice cuts looks like white flecks.
Choice beef cuts come from young cattle, younger than Select, Standard, and Commercial USDA graded beef.
USDA Choice accounts for 50% of all graded beef and is most commonly found in supermarkets and restaurants, as it’s more affordable compared to Prime.
Note: If a cow is labeled Choice, the entire cow is graded Choice. This means if you buy a sirloin or a flank steak from the same animal, both will be labeled Choice.
Overall, Choice steak and ground beef are somewhat less tender, slightly coarser, and a little less juicy compared to Prime. However, this also depends on how you cook your Select beef. Also, if you like your rib steak medium-well or well done, you should get Choice because you’ll waste your money on Prime (you’ll cook all the juices out of the steak).
The best cooking methods for choice beef are grilling, roasting, frying, and braising.
Buying Tips for Different Meat Grades
Each person has a favorite cut of beef. Some like only the tender cuts, others like ribeye muscle, filet mignon, or the New York Strip Steak. You may be wrong if you think a Prime cut for any of these is the best.
For example, Ribeye has a lot of fat content throughout, so it doesn’t matter if it’s Prime or Choice on the meat grading system. It’s going to be flavorful either way. Moreover, Choice ribeye has a more natural amount of fat compared to Prime.
Filet Mignon is a quality steak that’s tender when labeled either Prime or Choice. This is the least important cut to be Prime.
However, paying for a Prime label for New York Strip Steak and Kansas City Strip pays off. This is where you’ll notice the biggest difference in texture and flavor.
Buying a perfect steak also depends on what you’re cooking. The best advice is to look for the best quality you can afford and check for good marbling. Instead of getting store-brand meat, you can check with local ranchers if they have Choice or Prime quality grade steaks but don’t want to pay for the grading process or don’t have access to facilities with a rater.
Here’s how to select beef based on your cooking method:
- Grilling — Prime steaks are a great grilling option, especially grass-fed. They’ll cook faster than corn-fed, and a hot fire will give them an outside sear. Also, richer marbling can handle more heat, so you can even cook reverse searing when smoking low and slow.
- Smoking — It’s better to get a steak with more marbling when smoking because it helps get better texture and more flavor. For example, if you get a brisket without marbling, it’ll be difficult to cook, and it’ll come out dry.
Another factor to consider when choosing steak quality is cattle breed. Cattle are bred together to get specific flavor and marbling. Most ranchers spend years trying to find the perfect balance of breed that works best in their microclimate and a breed that will provide the best yield and flavor.
Angus beef is one of the most common beef cattle breeds because it has a fast maturity and natural marbling. Other popular breeds include Hereford, Charolais, and Japanese Wagyu.
Angus beef is labeled CAB, which stands for Certified Angus Beef. This isn’t a breed, but an organization that has its own certification process, so only specific cuts can be CAB certified .
Most Angus cuts get Prime USDA beef grades because this is high-quality meat with a lot of marbling.
American Wagyu is a combo of Japanese breeds and American cattle, most commonly Angus. This results in plentiful marbling, which can even exceed that of Prime cuts, so American Wagyu can even have its own rating system that mirrors the Japanese one.
However, not all Wagyu is rich in marbling. A lot of Wagyu is grass-fed beef, and grass-fed beef has less marbling than corn-fed beef.
It’s best to check with the Wagyu manufacturer regarding grades of beef or buy from manufacturers that focus on highly marbled Wagyu Prime steaks, such as ButcherBox.
Grass-Fed vs. Grain-Fed
There’s also a difference in Prime, Choice, and Select beef depending on if it’s grass or grain-fed. Cattle are raised on pastures, so it’s grass-fed. However, some beef manufacturers choose to feed their cattle only from what’s available on the pasture, i.e., grass. This also depends on the climate. It’s more common in southern, warmer climates than northern ones because there’s not enough grass all year long.
Many people prefer the flavor of feed fed on grass. On the other hand, as cattle mature, some ranchers supplement the pasture grass with other feeding options. The most common feed options are grain mixed with corn, and other food-grade byproducts, such as corn flakes.
Grass-fed cattle will have less marbling compared to grain-fed, which automatically means it’ll be graded as Choice because only beef with the highest amount of marbling can be graded Prime.
However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, depending on how you plan to cook the meat. For low and slow cooking and barbecuing, go for cuts with more fat as it gives more flavor and moisture.
Choose cuts from cattle raised on grass for grilling because grass-fed cows have a unique flavor profile. They are leaner, so the hot and fast method stops overcooking a lean meat cut.
Also Read: Is USDA Prime Beef Grass-Fed?
Which Grade of Beef Is the Highest Quality?
The prime beef grade is the highest quality. It has the most marbling and is the most tender and juicy.
What Are the Two Types of Beef Grades?
The two types of beef grades are quality grades for tenderness, flavor, and juiciness and yield grades for usable lean meat left on the carcass.
Is Prime Better Than Angus?
No, Prime isn’t better than Angus. USDA Prime beef is about the cut quality, and Angus is a breed of cattle. Angus is high-quality meat, so Angus cuts are often labeled Prime.
Is Select or Choice Better?
The Choice is better than Select because it has more marbling and is more tender and juicy. Choice beef is the most widely available beef.
How Can You Tell Good Quality Beef?
You can tell good quality beef based on the tenderness, juiciness, and flavor. Good quality beef shouldn’t have any defects such as bruises, discolorations, tears, or exposed flesh.
Prime Beef or Choice: What Should You Choose?
Both Prime beef and Choice are among the highest-quality beef cuts. Which one you should choose depends on your budget and cooking method. Prime beef has the most marbling, is the most tender, and has a high price tag. It’s best cooked on a barbecue or a low and slow method.
Choice beef is also high-quality but has less marbling compared to Prime beef. If you want a Choice cut, choose a ribeye, or filet mignon, as there isn't a difference if you buy these steaks Prime or Choice.
If you want to get some high-quality, sustainable Prime beef, check out ButcherBox. Their premium cuts of sustainably sourced and hormone-free beef are shipped in customizable subscription boxes right at your doorstep.
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