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First things first: what are beef grades?

One important thing to understand up front is that beef grades are not the same as an inspection. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has two programs for assessing meat. The first is a mandatory federal inspection to ensure that the products are safe and wholesome.

Grading, however, is done based on quality and is a voluntary service that meat producers or processors can request. A licensed Federal grader from the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service completes the grading process. Quality grades are determined based on tenderness, juiciness and flavor, which take into account marbling, color and maturity. Since this process is voluntary, meat processors have to pay for the service. Ungraded meat is just that - meat that has not been subject to the grading process. 

What does each quality grade mean?

The USDA has eight quality grades for beef. Here’s the breakdown of what each grade means:

Utility, Cutter and Canner Grades: You aren’t likely to find these grades sold in stores; rather, this low quality of beef is often used for ground beef or other processed meats.

Standard and Commercial Grades: These grades are likely what you’re buying if you purchase store brand meat. They often appear “ungraded” and, while slightly better quality than the previous grades, are still on the lower end.

Select Grade: This can safely be considered a “medium” quality of beef. Cuts with this grade tend to be tender, but leaner than the higher grades. That means you’ll likely notice less flavor and juiciness, so marinating before cooking might be necessary.

Choice Grade: This is a high quality grade. USDA Choice cuts are generally tender, juicy and flavorful, especially when sourced from the loin or rib. While you can use almost any cooking method to produce a tender piece of meat, you may need to consider braising or simmering for tougher cuts that may not do as well with dry-heat cooking, like roasting or grilling.

Prime Grade: The top quality grade, prime cuts are the cream of the crop. In order to receive this rating, the beef needs to be sourced from young cattle that have been well-fed, ensuring the highest quality of marbling and flavor. Since this grade of beef is so tender, roasting and grilling are ideal methods of preparation.

As you’ve probably guessed from the breakdown above, there’s a reason why USDA Prime beef is considered the crème de la crème. Thanks to the uncompromising standards set forth by the USDA, meateaters can know exactly what to expect, from quality to taste.

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