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You might’ve noticed a distinct shield emblem stamped onto packages of steak at your local supermarket. Or perhaps you spotted it on the menu at a restaurant touting its Prime-grade beef. Either way, you’re probably wondering why it's worth a premium over other, un-branded cuts.
That shield, as it turns out, is a stamp of approval from the United States Department of Agriculture. All beef is inspected by the USDA for wholesomeness and safety, but beef producers can additionally request that inspectors evaluate and grade the quality of their meat.
The USDA ranks beef based on tenderness, juiciness, and flavor. Department inspectors use factors such as maturity (age of the cow carcass) and marbling (distribution of fat among the muscle) to determine the expected quality of the meat when it’s cooked.
Below, we'll run you through the ranks, from best to worst.
1. Prime Grade
This is the best of the best, produced from young, well-fed beef cattle. Due to the high degree of marbling, meat at this grade becomes very flavorful and juicy when cooked. Imagine a cut of meat that’s already infused with butter or lard and you’ll have a good idea of what cooking with this is like.
Prime cuts are good for broiling, roasting, or grilling. However, this grade of beef is rarely sold in supermarkets—you’re far more likely to find it at high-end restaurants.
2. Choice Grade
The next grade down features less marbling than Prime grade, but it’s still high-quality steak. You’ll also have an easier time getting your hands on some, since it's readily available at your average supermarket.
Choice grade beef also comes from young cattle, but there’s less fat distributed in the meat compared to Prime grade. Cuts from the rib and loin do well with dry-heat cooking, while cuts from less tender regions (rump, round, chuck) taste best when braised.
3. Select Grade
This grade is also widely available at supermarkets, but it’s leaner and has a rougher texture. Since it has even less marbling than Choice grade, the meat won’t be as juicy or flavorful when cooked.
You can still find tender cuts of Select-grade beef that can be thrown on the grill for a BBQ, such as from the rib, loin, and sirloin areas. However, other cuts need to be marinated or braised to reach optimal tenderness.
4. Standard Grade
Marbling is very low at this grade. This is the ungraded or “store brand” meat tier. While that means the quality of the meat is relatively low, it's normally the best choice for consumers on a budget.
Standard grade beef is by no means unsafe or unfit for consumption. However, cuts from this grade aren’t as flavorful, juicy, or tender, so you’ll have to adjust your cooking methods accordingly.
5. Commercial Grade
Like Standard grade, this is low-quality, low-marbling, low-tenderness beef. The difference is that while Standard grade and above comes from young cattle, Commercial grade is harvested from older animals. Once again, this kind of beef is usually ungraded and unlabeled.
6-8. Utility, Cutter, Canner Grades
You won’t be able to easily purchase beef from this rank, and you wouldn’t want to anyway. This meat has no marbling and is used to make ground beef, processed meat products, and pet food. It will likely taste like whatever it’s cooked in, and impart little to no meaty flavor of its own.
If you somehow get your hands on beef from any of these lowest grades, the recommended cooking method is to feed it to your pets (or the trash can).