Quality Rankings & Grading Standards for Beef
USDA Beef Grades
The United States Department of Agriculture, or USDA, separates beef into eight different grades: Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter and Canner. The first three are the most well-known — here’s a breakdown to help you understand how beef is graded for quality.
Most restaurants and hotels serve Prime or Choice beef, and only about two percent of all beef graded by the USDA qualifies for Prime distinction. It’s an assignation for the highest quality beef in regards to tenderness, juiciness and flavor. This meat quality grade is based primarily on the marbling (intramuscular fat) and maturity. Marbling adds flavor and therefore younger cows produce the most tender meat. Prime cuts of beef are best prepared using dry-heat cooking such as roasting, grilling or broiling.
Choice beef is high quality but has less marbling than Prime. Choice roasts and steaks from the loin and rib tend to be very tender, juicy and flavorful, making them suitable for broiling, roasting or grilling. Cuts that are less tender are better for braising or simmering.
Select grade beef has a lot less marbling than Prime and Choice meat. Select is commonly available in most cuts, but just keep in mind that if it’s not prepared properly, it may be tough and dry.
Certified Angus Beef
Another grading program is Certified Angus Beef, a designation awarded by Wooster, Ohio-based Certified Angus Beef LLC. In order to earn the brand’s logo, qualifying beef must pass ten specifications regarding marbling, tenderness and consistency of flavor. Tellingly, only one in four Angus in the U.S. qualify. A cow that provides Angus certified meat must have Angus parentage and a coat that is at least 51 percent black.
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Warning: Do not confuse prime beef with prime rib — the prime rib refers to the location from where the meat is cut, not the graded quality of the beef. The grades refer primarily to the amount of fat marbling in the muscle. Prime beef must contain no less than 8 percent intramuscular fat.