When you're doing your grocery shopping for the week or the month, you go through your selection of meats and in the beef section, you likely notice that some are USDA Prime, Choice or Select, and seem to adhere to some form of a grading system. The big question for you is related to how beef is graded. Sure, we've all heard about USDA Prime beef, and we know it's good, but do you know the actual why behind it? Most of us don't, and as consumers, it's important to know why some meat is graded one way and it will help inform you when making your next meat purchase for yourself or your family.
Knowing how beef is graded will make you more knowledgeable so you can drop random facts at trivia, which is always fun, but it will also help you to become a better consumer and more informed on what you are eating. With so many words and acronyms being thrown around now regarding what we eat, it's more important now than ever before to know what these grading systems mean and how they affect you and what you eat.
How Beef is Graded
USDA grade shields come from a highly regarded symbol of safety in American beef. Most of us consumers know to look for some sort of grading on our beef when shopping, even if we don't realize that we are doing so or even fully what it means. Beef is evaluated using a characteristic assessment process and electronic instruments to measure meat characteristics. These follow the official grade standards which have been developed and maintained by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service.
Within the grading process, it is evaluated in two ways: quality and yield. Quality grades focus on the tenderness, juiciness, and flavor of the beef. Yield grades look at the amount of usable lean meat on the carcass of the animal.
Let's look at the highest level of grading, which is Prime. This beef is produced from young, well-fed beef cattle. It usually has much more marbling than other meat and this is the type of beef that is served at restaurants or hotels or your home if you have higher tastes. These commercial industries have to stick to higher qualities, so you'll most often see them out at nice restaurants, especially steakhouses, where prime meat is better for grilling or broiling.
This beef is similar to Prime in that it is high quality, but it has less marbling. Most cuts with this grading scale will be tender, juicy, and flavorful, making them a great option for a variety of cooking styles from dry heat to simmering or roasting for several hours. This is the middle of the ranking, so it's not as high-quality as Prime, but it is also a great option for everyday meals and even family barbecues.
Select beef is uniform in quality, and a bit leaner than the higher grades. It's pretty tender, but has less marbling, even less so than Choice, so it will likely lack some of the flavor and juiciness. This meat will likely need more marinating before cooking to help keep the tenderness when cooked.
Standard and Commercial Beef
These are the final grading standards and will be sold as ungraded or store brand meat. You'll often see this type of meat used in ground beef and processed products, rather than sold outright to customers.
Looking for the USDA grade shield is a great way to determine what level of beef you are purchasing and for what occasion. For everyday meals, it's acceptable to go with lower grades, but if you are really looking for a meal to wow guests or have at an event, you'll want to go with the higher grading like USDA Prime beef. This is where you'll find tender steaks that will wow your guests and have them wondering how you prepared such a magnificent meal.