Choice vs. Prime: USDA Grades of Beef Explained

You’ve probably heard the labels “choice and prime” in reference to beef before, but what does that even mean? And how do you know what grade of beef you’re buying? Today, we’re breaking down the USDA grades of beef, so you can shop with confidence and know you’re getting exactly the right cut of meat for you!

This recipe was developed in partnership with Ohio Beef. As always, all opinions are my own.

A Standard Label for Beef Grades

We don’t all have the freezer space to consider Buying a Side of Beef, but when shopping for individual cuts of beef at the grocery store, the labels can be overwhelming! There are enough stamps, call-outs, and marketing to make your head spin even before considering the grades of beef that are on offer.

So, how do you know which of these labels might affect your real-world eating experience and which are meaningless advertising fluff?

If only there was a standardized system of scoring beef cuts to give consumers a quick, on-package reference that indicates the quality of the product we’re buying…  (*sigh)

OH WAIT, THERE IS! The USDA Shield!

Who is the USDA?

The United States Department of Agriculture is the federal agency that supports and regulates America’s farming, meat, and poultry production industries. They do research, help to identify and encourage best practices, and, critically, they oversee food production to ensure that the nation’s meat, poultry, and egg products are safe, wholesome, and correctly packaged.

A packaged steak.

What Does the USDA Do?

In short, a ton. Its sub-agencies cover everything from rural development, to agricultural marketing, nutrition, and, of course, just about everything that has to do with food production. But here we’ll spotlight 2 main things.

  1. The Department of Agriculture focuses on ensuring food safety. That means:
    • Regulating the practices of the farming and food production industries
    • Enforcing safety and animal wellness standards
    • And it means that the USDA puts inspectors in EVERY meat processing facility to supervise, inspect the facilities themselves and test foods for the bacteria that cause food-borne illness like e coli, listeria, and salmonella
  2. The USDA certifies beef quality using the USDA Grading system. 
    • Every harvested beef animal is subject to mandatory food safety inspections.
    • However USDA Grade is an optional additional certification.

Why Does the USDA Give Beef Grades?

Having different grades of beef gives consumers an easy to follow rating system on the label to ensure that the product we’re paying for meets our expectations, especially for cuts of beef (mostly steaks) where that quality matters most. It’s reassuring that a higher quality meat will accompany the higher price tag.

And consumers aren’t the only ones willing to pay for these premium standards. It is up to the producers (farmers/ranchers) to request (and pay an extra grading fee) to have their beef graded by a qualified USDA inspector. No free extra credit here.

This is a win-win, because having tiered beef grades means more choice for consumers AND at the same time, more profit incentive for the farmers and ranchers who produce beef cattle that grade higher.

Choice vs prime beef ribeye steaks.

How does the USDA grade beef?

There are a ton of factors that influence meat quality, but for grading purposes (and as a consumer) the one variable that overwhelmingly determines quality is Marbling (aka the distribution of intramuscular fat). Marbling is all of the little white squiggles and flecks in the steak. More marbling = more fat = more tenderness and flavor.

When a beef carcass is first cut, the ribeye muscle is evaluated for its marbling between the 12th and 13th rib and a USDA Grade is then assigned to every cut from that entire carcass.

(Yes, that’s the same ribeye cut we use in this Easy Prime Rib Roast with Horseradish Cream or our delicious Cast Iron Ribeye with Garlic Mushrooms.)

What Are Beef Grades?

  • USDA Prime Beef Grade label.Prime – Indicates abundant marbling, about 8 to 13 percent fat.
    • $$$ You will pay a premium price for this quality. Found mostly in high-end restaurants, hotels, and specialty butcher shops or mail-order steak services.
  • USDA Choice Beef Grade label.Choice – Indicates good marbling, about 4 to 10 percent fat.
    • $$ A great option for the at-home chef/grill-master. Carried by some restaurants, chain steakhouses, grocery stores and butcher shops.
  • USDA Select label.Select – Indicates slight marbling, about 2 to 4 percent fat.
    • $ The value option found in many stores. Because marbling is scarce, evaluate each cut and select a cooking method carefully. Select beef may lend itself better to lower “doneness” preferences for steak, a “low & slow” cooking method, and/or marination.

There are USDA Beef Grades below “Select,” but this beef will end up in ground sausage, jerky, mince, more processed or artificially enhanced food products.

What if my beef doesn’t have a grading label?

As we mentioned earlier, grading is an OPTIONAL choice, so some beef you find in the grocery store will not be marked.

If that’s the case, use your eyes to pick! Look for steaks that have a lot of fat (or white ribbons and flecks and squiggles) running throughout them. This is likely a choice or prime steak.

Closeup of a steak shows marbling.

Why Does Marbling Matter?

Marbling matters for 3 main reasons. More intramuscular fat increases the Tenderness, Lubrication, and Overcooking Insurance we get from a steak or roast.

  • Tenderness – We like when meat comes apart with minimal chewing. Sure, you could perforate a lean steak mechanically by poking hundreds of tiny holes in it to achieve that desired texture. But when the intramuscular fat in a steak melts or becomes soft, marbling provides that same effect naturally. Plus it also gives you…
  • Lubrication – We love fat when it is soft and melty. It makes cooking more non-stick and flavorful, and gives you that “melty in your mouth” feeling.
  • Overcooking Insurance – Because a well marbled, highly graded steak naturally provides more tenderness and lubrication, it also gives you better overcooking insurance. If you cook a lean steak too long or too hot, it becomes tough and dry as all of the fat and moisture cook away. But when more marbling is present, even a well done steak has higher natural perforation and moisture from fat to maintain a good eating experience.

Help yourself avoid disaster by matching your cut of beef to an appropriate cooking method using this handy chart! *Hint: Sometimes the crock pot is the answer you’ve been searching for.

So, What’s the Right Beef Grade for Me?

The answer is, it depends! You might make a different decision based on your budget, the occasion, or your desired eating experience.

  • For instance, if you prefer steak well-done, picking up a well-marbled steak will mean you can still have good flavor and tenderness. That’s the “overcooking insurance” at work.
  • If you’re having a casual grill night at home, a choice steak is probably just fine. If you’re wanting to make a steak for a special date night, you might opt for prime.
  • And, of course, budget is also a factor. In most cases, you’ll want to look for the highest graded beef that fits in your budget.

How to Make a Great Steak No Matter the Grade

While beef grades are helpful to understand, you can make a great steak whether it’s select, choice, or prime!

To make flavorful, tender steak, we always recommend:

  • Blot the steak with paper towels. Drying the exterior of the steak will help it achieve that crisp, browned crust.
  • Salt the steak ahead of time. Sprinkle Kosher salt generously on both sides of your steak and let it sit at least 20 minutes before you plan to cook it. This allows the seasoning to really permeate throughout the steak and retain moisture.
  • Sear over high heat and cook to medium or less. High heat on a grill or cast iron skillet will give you a nice sear before the interior is overcooked. For maximum flavor and tenderness, especially when cooking a lower-graded steak, we recommend cooking no higher than medium.
A cast iron skillet with 2 cooked steaks.

What About These Other Labels?

When it comes to beef quality, the USDA shield is THE label to look for. This seal is backed by an organization with strict national standards, and one with enormous accountability. (After all, they’re on the hook to make good on their promises of food quality every time there is a recall.)

Stores may try to wring a few extra dollars out of your pocket with some flashy stickers or quasi official-looking marketing, but at the end of the day, USDA beef grades are the gold standard for a quality rating system.

The breed of the cattle, how long it’s been aged, and how “natural” the product is are all claims that can be arbitrary, misleading, impossible to verify, or lacking in context and governing standards.

Now that we know more about USDA Beef Grading, let’s take this knowledge with us to the grocery or butcher shop the next time we are planning a cookout and become better beef shoppers.

Looking for Steak Recipes?

If you’re hunting for the best way to prepare a beautiful cut of beef, you came to the right place!

These Grilled Steak Kabobs with Basil Mint Chimichurri are a good place to start.

Keep it light with our Marinated Skirt Steak with Simple Summer Salad, or give your fork something to twirl with our Steak Pasta with Gorgonzola.

If you’re really trying to impress (perhaps a romantic dinner), our Sous Vide Filet Mignon is an easy choice, or go with our Steak and Scallops (Surf and Turf) for 2.

We love beef, and even have a whole second site dedicated to delicious Ground Beef Recipes!

More Information About Beef

If you’re curious about beef farming, meat production, nutrition, or just need more cooking tips and recipes, be sure to visit www.OhioBeef.org, and follow the Ohio Beef Council on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Their online resources are packed with great information!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.