It’s a handy skill to able to pick a steak. Learn just a little and you’ll see an immediate – and tasty – return on your beef cooking game.
Ignore it and you’ll end up repeating the unnecessary gamble of grabbing packages at random from your local grocery’s display case and hoping for the best.
It doesn’t take much to avoid the unpleasantness that comes with picking the wrong meat. Understanding the USDA’s grading system will eliminate most of the mystery. As a bonus, just learning
the criteria by which every piece of beef is judged will make it even easier to pick the perfect specimen for your shopping cart.
There are three different grades given to beef by the USDA that apply to any meat you will find at your local restaurants, butcher shops, grocery stores and other retailers. There are no actual taste tests employed when judging beef. Instead, regulators are looking for different indicators that you can see in the beef itself.
In the following sections we’re going to teach you exactly what you need to know to understand grading, the process behind it and even what happens when you break the grading scale. When you’re finished, you’ll be the meat-picking prodigy you were always meant to be.
The following grades are organized from worst to first. There are meat grades lower than those listed, but they are not available or advertised to humans.
- Select: This is very lean meat that will be a little chewier and less flavorful than higher grades. The USDA recommends that most cuts at this grade be marinated to add a little flavor. We concur.
- Choice: The majority of meat you see in your local grocery store and butcher shops will be USDA Choice. It provides excellent flavor and tends to be very tender, especially on steaks you see on restaurant menus like New York Strip, Ribeye and Filet Mignon. Think of this steak as above average and readily available.
- Prime: Historically, only about 3 percent of beef graded in the United States is good enough to be Prime. You can sometimes find it at premium prices from local butchers and higher-end grocery stores, but much of it goes toward fancy steakhouses and other restaurants. Prime beef has excellent flavor and tenderness.
USDA Grading Criteria
The above grades are figured out by sight alone. The better you know what graders are looking for, the better armed you’ll be to find gems in every display case. Here’s what they look for:
- Intramuscular Fat, also known as marbling. This one can feel pretty counter-intuitive to anyone who has been disappointed by a grisly, fatty piece of meat, but the more fat distributed within the red meat in a cut of beef, the better.There are different kinds of fat and connective tissue in every cut of beef you shop for, with only a very specific kind of fat that is desirable in all cases. This is the marbled fat, which is deposited evenly throughout the red meat in a cut. Marbled fat resembles little specks or rivulets that run through the meat. Thick layers or concentrated globules of fat should not be considered.The more concentrated the marbling, the more highly rated the beef is. This is because marbling, unlike other fats present, will easily render into liquid while the steak cooks, infusing the beef with buttery flavor. Aside from a flavor boost, marbling will make beef more tender. No single other factor makes as big an impact on the flavor and quality of beef than marbling. Use it as your primary factor when choosing your own cuts.
- The age of the cow can be a secondary factor in grading. If a cow shows signs of age because of bone development, it can severely lower the grade of the beef associated with the animal. The grade penalties for a cow being too old are significant enough that anyone buying Choice or Prime beef can be assured they are buying cattle that show age of an animal approximately 30 months old or less.
Measuring the Best
It’s rare that cattle grade well enough to be considered Prime, but there is beef out there that has significantly more marbling, flavor and prestige than Prime. The USDA doesn’t measure – or give
credit – for anything that well-surpasses the minimum standards set to be called Prime.
For beef with that kind of extra Pedigree, like the famed Kobe Beef from Japan or American Wagyu produced by Snake River Farms, beef aficionados use the Japanese marbling scale instead of the USDA one. The scale breaks down like this:
- Beef is measured on a scale from 1 to 12, with a 1 being Select beef and a 12 being the highest level of marbling possible.
- Choice beef is approximately a 2 or 3 on the scale and Prime Beef is typically a 5.
- Most beef that rates above this will come from Japanese breeds of cattle – collectively known as Wagyu.
That’s it, that’s the big secret to finding good beef. Look for the grade and some stellar marbling. If you don’t have any information you need, ask a butcher, a waiter or another employee to fill you in.
Stick to that formula and watch your every beef experience turn into a juicy, tender masterpiece.