What Are USDA Beef Grades?

Beef grading in the US is a voluntary system of setting standards for beef quality. Beef packers pay the United States Department of Agriculture to grade their meat. The USDA has eight grades of beef. They are:

  • Prime
  • Choice
  • Select
  • Commercial
  • Standard
  • Utility
  • Cutter
  • Canner

Most of the beef that we consume is in the top three and you are unlikely to encounter the bottom three in a grocery store. The grading system evaluates the factors that go into how palatable the meat is such as tenderness, juiciness, and flavor. Marbling and the physiological maturity of the animal are two more factors. Along with the amount of marbling, the fat color is also important. White fat is viewed as preferable to yellow fat. White fat melts when heated, and tenderizes the meat.

The higher beef grades

Prime

Prime beef comes from cattle that have been well fed. This grade of beef is thoroughly marbled, which means there is a lot of fat distributed throughout the muscle. Marbling is also called intramuscular fat. The marbling makes it ideal for dry cooking methods like grilling and broiling. Prime beef is mostly found in food service establishments. Just under 3 percent of beef in the US falls into the Prime grade.

Choice

Choice is the next grade down. While it is also considered to be high-quality meat, Choice beef is not as thoroughly marbled as Prime. Choice roasts and steaks are ideal for dry-cooking as are many of the tougher cuts; however, you will have to exercise more care to avoid over-cooking than you would with Prime since there is less fat to keep the meat tender. The toughest choice cuts should be braised to tenderize them. Choice beef is more affordable than Prime and is widely available in grocery stores. About 45 percent of the beef graded by the USDA falls into the Choice category.

Select

Select beef is leaner than Prime or Choice. Its quality is also uniform when compared to them. While it can be tender, it is usually not as juicy as the higher grades. While you can cook the tender cuts with dry heat, you will need to braise the tougher ones or marinate them before cooking to make them tender. Select is also easy to find in grocery stores but is often ungraded and costs a lot less than the higher grades.

The lower beef grades

Standard

You probably won’t encounter Standard grade beef in a grocery store, except for the most tender cuts such as ribeye steaks. Standard beef is low-quality beef that comes from young animals. It has a thin external layer of fat but virtually no marbling, which results in relatively bland meat but you may be able to make it tender with stewing and other slow-cooking methods. Dry-cooking this grade of beef is likely to result in meat that is dry and tough. The benefit of Standard grade beef is that it is relatively inexpensive.

Commercial

Commercial grade beef tends to be tough and comes from older cattle. It is typically used to make processed beef products. While it can get good flavor because it is mature, Commercial grade beef is usually very tough even when slow-cooked.

Utility, cutter, and canner

The lowest grades of beef seldom show up in stores. If they do, they will likely not have a grade on them and should be avoided. They are mostly used to make frankfurters and similar products.