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USDA Beef Grades & What They Mean

USDA Beef Grades & What They Mean

photo of a raw steak on a wooden cutting board. A ripe tomato, fresh rosemary, fresh basil, a garlic clove, and finishing salt are scattered around. The text "USDA Grades for Beef" and the Big Plate logo are over the photo.

Have you ever wondered how to interpret the USDA beef grades on the beef in the grocery store? The USDA grades American beef to help consumers know what they’re purchasing with regard to tenderness, juiciness, and flavor. Beef grades are the “language” of beef, so you need to understand that language so you can get the quality and value you want! The USDA grades for both quality and yield, but this article will focus on quality grades since yield grades are not usually applicable to those of us purchasing beef for a restaurant or home.

Their are eight USDA grades for beef:

  • Prime
  • Choice
  • Select
  • Standard
  • Commercial
  • Utility
  • Cutter
  • Canner

Quality grades are made based on: 1) the amount of marbling (how much fat is interspersed with lean meat), and 2) the age of the animal. The USDA’s highly-trained officials grade more than 18 billion pounds of beef each year according to the standards set by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). The following information about USDA beef grading is from the USDA website.

Photo of two raw steaks on a black slate surface with fresh thyme, rosemary, peppercorns, and finishing salt scattered nearby. This image represents the USDA grade of prime for beef.

Prime Beef

The highest quality grade that beef can receive from the USDA is prime. Prime beef comes from young (9-30 months), well-fed beef cattle. It has “slightly abundant” to “abundant” marbling, and higher-end restaurants usually use it. Only 4-5% of cattle will receive a Prime grade. Prime roasts and steaks are excellent for dry-heat cooking such as broiling, roasting, or grilling.

 

Photo of a stack of raw beef steaks. This represents the USDA grade of Choice.

Choice Beef

The USDA grade “Choice” for beef is still high quality meat but with less marbling than Prime. About 65% of cattle receive a Choice grade, and this is the most common grade for beef you find in the grocery store. Choice roasts and steaks from the loin and rib will be very tender, juicy, and flavorful and are suited for dry-heat cooking. Many of the less tender cuts can also be cooked with dry heat if not overcooked. Such cuts will be most tender if braised, roasted, or simmered with a small amount of liquid in a tightly covered pan.

 

Photo of various cuts of meat on a wooden surface with sprigs of fresh parsley. This represents the USDA grade of Select.

Select Beef

The USDA grade “Select” indicates beef that is uniform in quality and leaner than the higher grades. About 25% of cattle receive a Select grade. This beef is fairly tender, but, because it has less marbling, it may lack some of the juiciness and flavor of the higher grades. Only the tender cuts should be cooked with dry heat. Other cuts should be marinated before cooking or braised to obtain maximum tenderness and flavor.

 

Photo of cubed beef in a styrofoam tray on a wooden surface. Image represents Standard and Commercial beef grades.

Standard & Commercial Beef

The USDA grades “Standard” and “Commercial” are often sold as ungraded or store brand beef. The consumer should know that if meat is ungraded, it most likely below the standard of “Select” beef. Preparation of this product will need to take into account that it will be lower in flavor, less juicy, and tougher in texture than the top three grades.

 

Photo of raw ground beef on parchment paper on a wooden board that is resting on a surface of whitewashed wood. Fresh herbs are nearby. Image represents Utility, Cutter, and Canner beef grades.

Utility, Cutter, & Canner Beef

The USDA grades “Utility,” “Cutter,” and “Canner” are almost never sold at retail. Only about 1% of cattle receive one of these grades, and this beef usually comes from older cattle. The beef from these grades typically goes into cheap ground beef or other processed products like sausage, hotdogs, cured meats, beef jerky, canned meat, etc.

 

Now that you know how to choose the right beef product, you may want to fire up the barbecue! Here are the Top 10 Essentials You Need to BBQ, and here is How to Smoke a Brisket. However you prepare your beef, we hope you enjoy every bite!

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