USDA Quality Grades
Ever wonder what a prime roast is, or whether you should purchase grass fed beef? If you’ve spent any time reading labels in the meat department, you know that there’s quite a bit of technical jargon, and all of the different terms may seem confusing. But those labels aren’t just slick marketing terms—they tell you exactly what’s inside the package. However, labels are only useful if you understand what they mean. Another reason to understand labels is that they often determine the price you’ll pay at checkout. For example, feeding cattle grass for their entire lives is a more costly way to raise them, and you’ll see that reflected in a higher price tag for grass fed beef. Another example is the fact that higher grades of beef are more expensive due to their desirable qualities, like tenderness and flavor.
Remember that you get what you pay for—and to help you make the best decision with your dollars, here’s a handy guide to decoding beef labels:
In addition to inspecting meat to make sure that it is safe to eat, the USDA also “grades” meat for quality. That means that the meat is evaluated according to specific standards for tenderness, juiciness, and flavor. These standards are set at the federal level, which means that no matter where a consumer purchases USDA quality graded meat, it will have met the same standards.
There are eight different USDA grades for beef. However, consumers will usually only come across three of them in at the grocery store: Prime, Choice, and Select. Other grades of beef are typically used to made ground beef, processed food products, or sold as ungraded or “store brand” meat.
- Prime grade beef is from young, well-fed cattle and has abundant marbling (streaks of fat running throughout the meat). This makes Prime roasts and steaks perfect for dry-heat cooking methods like grilling, roasting, or broiling. Usually, the beef served in restaurants is Prime grade.
- Choice grade beef is high quality, but doesn’t have as much marbling as prime grade beef. Choice roasts and steaks from the loin and rib will be very tender and juicy, and they can be cooked with dry-heat cooking methods. However, less tender cuts—such as rump, round, and blade chuck—will have the best texture if roasted or simmered with a small amount of liquid in a tightly covered pan.
- Select grade beef is leaner than Prime and Choice grades. Since it is very uniform in texture and has less marbling, it may not be as juicy or have as much flavor as higher grades of beef. Only tender cuts of Select grade beef (like loin, rib, and sirloin) should be cooked with dry heat. Other cuts should be marinated before cooking or cooked with liquid for the best texture and flavor.