Often times words like choice, prime, or select are often thrown around in marketing meat along the grocery counter or in a restaurant. But what do those words mean? What really comprises of a prime beef? Or a choice beef? And how are these “grades” given?
All beef bought and sold in a retail outlet or served in a restaurant in the United States HAS been inspected by the USDA and besides inspecting beef for its wholesomeness, it is also graded. Grading is a voluntary process that categorizes carcasses, predicting its quality which in turn helps the industry and consumers determine its value. More than half the beef in the United States is graded which is paid for by the processor, but in a retail market, it is something that is necessary. Most of the beef we kill under our custom exempt slaughter classification have no need to be graded, there is no after market for them. The meat goes straight to the customer and their families. However, beef sold in our retail store has been graded because it is important for us to be able to tell consumers that the meat they are buying has graded choice. Understanding quality grades will help you understand why you pay top dollar for those prime steaks at that high class restaurant or maybe find that bargain select meat in the grocery store.
So what determines a quality grade? The main difference lies in the amount of marbling within the meat. Marbling, is the tiny white flecks scattered throughout the lean red meat. Marbling is what gives beef its good taste and well as keeps it tender and juicy while cooking. A good example of marbling can be seen in these steaks: (Can anyone name what cut it is..?)
There are eight grades given by the USDA, but as consumers you only really need to be familiar with the top three: Prime, Choice, and Select. Let’s break each one down separately so we can all get a good idea of what makes up each quality grade. Starting off first with the big daddy and highest quality grade of them all….
PRIME: Prime is the best grade given by the USDA. It represents the highest degree of marbling a beef can achieve and is truly a sign of an elite product.
Less than 2-3% of beef qualifies as USDA Prime. The fact that this small percentage of beef only makes the grade prime means that leaves a very limited supply for consumers to enjoy. Prime beef is most commonly found in high-end steakhouses or hotels, and sometimes can be found in specialized meat markets. Rarely is it found in grocery stores or everyday meat markets. The fact that there is a very limited supply of this “elite” beef product also means that it is much more expensive than the rest of the quality grades.
CHOICE: Choice is the most common grade and the majority of beef in the commercial market falls under this quality grade.
Somewhere around 80-83% of beef qualifies as USDA Choice. Within the Choice grade, there are extreme variations, mostly in the marbling. Choice essentially functions as a catch all for beef that falls in between Prime and Select. Some Choice beef has less marbling quite similar to Select, while the top levels of Choice beef have marbling that are much closer to Prime. Choice is the most common grade of beef because it contains sufficient marbling for taste and tenderness, while still being affordable to consumers and significantly cheaper than Prime. It is most commonly found essentially everywhere: grocery stores, restaurants, or meat markets. All of our beef sold in our retail store is graded USDA Choice.
SELECT: A grade of select means the beef has limited marbling and is often less tender than Choice and Prime grades.
Around 15% of beef qualifies as USDA Select. Just like choice cuts, select cuts of beef may vary in tenderness and juiciness. A grade of select just means that the beef contains the least amount of marbling, making it usually leaner than the other two grades. Since a grade of select contains the least marbling and tends to be leaner, it is often the least expensive while shopping at the meat counter. Many bargain meats are often times select grade meat. Often times it is good to be buying select if you plan to marinate the meat which increases tenderness.
With all this said, hopefully you now know more about quality grades and what it means in regards to the meat you purchase. Next time you see that USDA choice stamp on the package, you will know that it means you are not only buying a wholesome product, but also a product that has graded well in regards to its tenderness, juiciness, and marbling. Or if you want to splurge and purchase some prime beef, you will know that you will be choosing to pay for a small portion of beef produced which heralds the highest quality. Or if you are pinching pennies and on a budget, try choosing select cuts that you are going to marinate anyway. See how being an informed consumer can help while shopping the meat aisle at the grocery store, or even visiting our shop!
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