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Grades of Beef - USDA Prime, Choice, Select, Black Angus, Grass Fed - What Do They All Mean?
Buy the Right Steak!
Choice, prime, Angus, organic, select…! Wow, buying a piece of meat sure can get confusing, and the prices can range pretty drastically too. So what do these terms mean, and what do you need to know to buy a piece of meat your family is going to enjoy, at a price you can afford?
USDA Grading System
The USDA runs a voluntary meat gradient system for beef producers. The grades are as follows and in descending order of quality and price
Meat is graded by the amount of marbling in the beef. Cuts of meat with greater fat quantities inside the grain are awarded higher gradient scores. The fattiest cuts – USDA Prime, comprise only 4% of beef going to market, and these expensive cuts are destined almost exclusively for hotels and restaurants.
50% of retail meat is of USDA Choice quality, and most of the remaining supermarket meat is of Select quality. Lower quality meat is not normally passed through the USDA grading system.
Why is Marbling Important?
Intramuscular fat is important for high heat and dry heat cooking techniques, such as pan frying, broiling or grilling – how we typically cook our steaks. The greater quantities of fat within the grains of meat keep the cooked steaks juicy and tender.
As a general rule, if you have the choice of buying a USDA Choice sirloin, or a USDA Select rib eye, for example, and both were of a similar price, you would be better off going for the normally tougher and cheaper sirloin, of a higher USDA grade.
Here is a short glossary of other beef terms you might see on a supermarket label.
Angus (Black Angus)
This is a breed of cattle loved by ranchers for putting on weight and fat quickly, and which often develops a high marbling in the meat.
Japanese style steak. The term Wagyu refers to a few breeds of cattle that have been bread for very high marbling in the meat. Wagyu cows are fed a unique diet (which has traditionally included beer) to provide a unique and delicious tasting meat. Japanese Kobe beef is some of the world's most expensive meat. Japanese Wagyu cows have been bred with American Angus cows to produce an also very tasty American Kobe beef.
An organic certification indicates that the cow has been raised hormone free.
Grass fed beef is raised primarily on pasture grazing rather than feedlot corn. Grass fed beef is more costly to produce, but aficionados say it presents with more complex meaty flavors. Grass fed cows are not generally as well marbled as corn fed cows, and grass fed beef is not generally entered into the USDA grading system for this reason.
- USDA website
If you want to learn more about why and how the USDA grades beef - go the source here!