Understanding The USDA Beef Grading System



Understanding The USDA Beef Grading System



Can you tell the difference between gourmet steaks in fine restaurants compared to the ones readily available and frozen in supermarkets? They are definitely more tender and juicy. They also seem to have a far better flavor that melts in your mouth, making them distinctly superior than any other cut of steak.

But, do you know that there are 8 grades of beef, from your Prime to your Canner? These grades can give you a professional view when choosing your steak cuts in butcher shops or when buying steak online; the same grading system the USDA conducts every day.

Only the USDA inspected meats can carry the USDA shield of authenticity, making it highly important for every meat packer. They conduct these inspections upon request to determine the quality of the beef. The grading system is based on a complex system that measures the number of marbling or the fat specs on the ribeye portion of the meat. They also base its grade by the age or maturity of the calves and how they are feed finished.

Studies show that meats with the most marbling have more flavor, are juicier and are more tender when compared to red-muscled meats. How they are feedlot finished can also affect the meat's quality. Normally, calves are sent out to pasture after 6 months of milk feeding by their mothers. Feed finish uses either corn or grains, which are not their normal diets. But, this is done to make the calves gain weight faster and have more marbling.

Breed of cattle can be another factor for grading. The Angus breed cattle of Northern American ranchers are the most expensive. They have a higher degree of marbling, have about 10 to 16 inches of ribeye area, have thicker muscles, and have no capillary rupturing; making them taste much better.

Kinds of USDA Graded Beef and the Difference

There are 3 main grades of beef that are commonly used in supermarkets, restaurants, and butcher shops, which you may also use for buying steak online; the Prime, Choice, and Select. The lesser grades are the Cutter and the Canner, which you would likely see in most frozen meals and processed meat products. More so, you can easily spot standard and commercial beef selections because they are normally ungraded, which you see in most supermarkets.

When in restaurants, ordering the highest graded beef will cost you more money than the lower grades. Let's see how each grade differs from each other:

USDA Prime Beef - This is considered as the highest quality of beef when it comes to tenderness, texture, flavor, and juiciness. These cuts are rarely seen in most butcher shops and supermarkets and only less than 2% are graded as such, which explains why they are more expensive. It comes from young calves aged 6 to 7 months old, and they have the most marbling. They can usually be ordered in upscale steakhouses and restaurants.


USDA Choice Beef - This is considered as the second highest grade of beef. Unlike prime beefs, Choice beef can be purchased almost anywhere. They come with a purple stamp marked with "USDA Choice" inside their shield symbol. They are cuts from rib areas and loin, such as your rib steak and tenderloin filets. They also come from young calves, but with moderate marbling. This leaves them with moderate flavor, and is less tender and juicy.

USDA Select Beef - This is considered as the lowest grade of beef of the three. They have fewer marbles and have leaner cuts, which makes them have a more bland flavor and less juice. Likewise, their texture is coarse and denser. Most frozen steaks in supermarkets use these kinds of cuts; leaving their consumers with a rough and undesirable experience if they are unaware of what they are getting.

Now that you are aware of the different kinds of beef, you'll never be deceived by devious marketing strategies of some meat and butcher shops. You'll even be confident buying steak online. Remember, only Prime and Choice cuts carry the USDA shield with the corresponding labels in them. If you are not sure, check their marbling and then you'll know if you're paying what your cut of beef is worth.
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