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The different categories of beef and their meaning

Photo: Natalia Lisovskaya (Shutterstock)

People “know” meat comes from animals, but sometimes it’s easy to forget how complex these animals are. A cow is diet, living conditions and shelf life can all have an effect on how steaks, roasts or any other cut react to heat, and one way to predict the outcome is to understand the different USDA Beef Grades.

If you’re a meat eater you’ve probably seen the little USDA shield stickers that besides letting us all know the USDA looked at this meat tell us what to note of meat we are dealing with. There are actually eight (8!) different qualities of beef, however Supermarket shoppers are unlikely to meet the last five categories (standard, commercial, utility, cut and canning). Grading is a service provided by the USDA and paid for by the grower or processor, and the applicable grade is given after an inspector has examined a hanging carcass cut between the 12th and 13th rib, allowing them to see easily. the sirloin. The age of the animal and the color of the meat are also taken into consideration. According to, “All cattle graded Prime, Choice or Select will be young cattle that have not reached full maturity.”


It’s the fancy boy meat with the most marbling and the most flavor. These cows are young and well fed, and their meat is tender and well-marble. These cows are not the most common, however. According to Weber, they represent only “4 ½ to 5 percent of all cattle graded”, which is in fact a rather large increase “compared to just a few years ago, when it represented only about 2 percent ”. Most of this meat goes to restaurants and hotels, but you can find it in butcher shops or fancier grocery stores every now and then. Intramuscular fat (marbling) means steaks with a top-notch rating stay juicy and tasty even when exposed to dry heat, so hang them up if you see them (especially if they aren’t shrunk at all).


This is the most common grade of beef. “Choice” cows represent approximately 65% ​​of all graded beef cattle. Their meat is decently mottled (but not as mottled as “Prime”), and that’s what you’re most likely to come across at the grocery store. Prime steaks can be really great, but it should be noted that “choice” is a range, and some steaks of this quality may be more marbled than others. has good visuals for each of the ranks, but it’s always a good idea to watch the meat you ‘re buy and choose the one with the most intramuscular fat running through meat. The more marbling a piece of meat, the more likely it is to do well in dry heat. (If you think your steak is on the low end of ‘choice’, you can always use a wet cooking method. like braising or vacuum cooking.)

To select

This is probably the lowest quality USDA beef you will find in the grocery store. Some chains use this quality of beef as a house brand. The meat selected is very consistent and quite lean, with very little marbling. Some steaks aren’t as tender or flavorful as their premium counterparts, so slap a marinade if you intend to use a dry cooking method, and try not to cook them for very long. IIf you’re making a stew, braised, or any other dish that uses a high-liquid cooking method, some cuts will work just fine.

What about Wagyu?

Wagyu beef comes from four very specific breeds of Japanese cows, and its grading is completely separate from the USDA system. The Wagyu Grading is administered by the Japan Meat Grading Association (JMGA) and is rated on a scale of 1 to 12, with “12” being the best and “1” the worst. According to the Chicago Steak Company’s Steak University, “The JMGA assigns a score to Wagyu beef based on its fat color, meat color, rib-eye shape, rib-eye area size and MFI percentage, which refers to to its marbling. Most Wagyu beef would fall into the USDA “premium” category, thanks to its generally impressive amount of marbling.


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