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I’m as guilty as most. I’ll grab a supermarket steak based solely on appearance, not paying attention to, nor inquiring about, its grade. It’s generally my hasty assessment based largely on the size, cut, color, price and my own judgment of marbling as if I were some expert USDA meat grader in a past life. There is a little more to it than eyeballing a strip at the meat counter, which is why I’m better suited to grill a ribeye or filet.
These guys handing out those shields are highly skilled, and although some of the processes for their assessment leading to grades of Prime, Choice, Select, etc., are characteristically subjective, they also benefit from taking measurements using electronic instruments. All of that data follow the official grade standards set forth by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, helping you to determine which is the most tender, flavorful and juiciest cut of meat for your table.
Prime beef is the top dog around here. The most important factor in grading beef is its fat content or marbling. This is the fat interspersed within the lean meat. Prime beef (8-to-13 percent fat) generally comes from steers that are younger and well fed, and the marbling is abundant. The female cows (heifers) are used for breeding, so their meat is tougher. Representing less than 5 percent of all beef sold in the U.S., Prime often comes at a price.
Grilling, broiling, roasting … there will be no trouble with Prime. From roasts to steaks, it should all be tender. You may notice the price of Prime rib is extremely high. You’re getting what you pay for. However, not all Prime rib is Prime, nor is it bad if not. But if it’s an N.Y. strip I’m cooking, I have to have it Prime or I’ll screw it up.
The second-highest quality is Choice beef. Don’t feel too disappointed if you have to settle for this option. It’s great in most cases; it just doesn’t quite have the marbling of Prime (4-to-10 percent fat). Choice is still great on the grill and other dry heat cooking methods, but be extra careful to not overcook the less tender cuts. It represents the majority of steaks found in a decent supermarket butcher section.
If your Prime rib is on the cheaper side, chances are it is Choice beef. How can it be? Prime rib was named as such before there were any USDA grading systems. It is a moniker for the popular cut of meat and does not attest to the quality of the grade. If you can afford the Prime, then do so. A budget-friendly Choice Prime rib can still be excellent if prepared properly.
I do love a Prime ribeye and filet, but Choice is fine for these two tender beauties.
If labeled Select, expect a lean piece of meat (2-to-4 percent fat). Without much marbling at all, you may be able to keep a ribeye, filet or other tender cut like a blade chuck steak from being too tough on the grill, but other cuts may need a good bit of marinating. It’s best to keep these cuts for a braised dish. The lack of intramuscular fat tends to make these tougher.
Select grades are the upper tier of what should be used in stews and such. Moist heat cooking methods hit the mark with the tougher cuts of meat. There’s no sense in using Prime or Choice in these recipes.
Standard and Commercial
Meat inspections are required by law. Grading is not. If a cattle producer doesn’t want to pay the service fee for grading, the ungraded beef can be sold as a store brand. Maybe they don’t think the quality of their beef is high enough to fetch the bigger costs in the store.
It’s not all bad, but the consumer runs the risk of purchasing a tougher, flavorless cut of meat.
Utility, Cutter and Canning
These are the grades that don’t make it to the butcher’s counter without being processed. Usually from older, tougher cows, these grades come from aged steers and heifers that are physically (or perhaps emotionally) unfit to bear offspring. Once the men get droopy and the women quit reproducing it’s off to slaughter for a less than noble transition into burgers, hot dogs, jerky or pet food.
Grass-fed beef is generally leaner than grain-fed beef; therefore, you’ll find less marbling. The deeper maroon color is attractive, and although not as tender, some of you may like the flavor of the grass-fed steaks. I’ve had a couple I thought were pretty decent, definitely a different taste, but I admit to appreciating those steers who have a more diverse palate.
This is a bit outside of the jurisdiction of the USDA grades. American Wagyu is a combination of American (often Angus) and Japanese cattle breeds (black, brown, polled or shorthorn). The name Wagyu translates quite simply to “Japanese beef.” American Wagyu is graded on the Japanese grading system of numbers 1 to 5, lowest quality to highest with scores as high as 12. It’s confusing. 1 Poor (quality score of 1), 2 Below average (quality score of 2), 3 Average (quality score of 3 to 4), 4 Good (quality score of 5 to 7) and 5 Excellent (quality score of 8 to 12).
Not all of it is perfectly marbled, but the higher grades rival and surpass our USDA grade of Prime. Prime scores about a 5 on the Japanese quality score, so you can imagine the marbling and flavor of the full-on steaks from the East. The cost is reflected in the score, even for the American crossbreeds.
These cows are often massaged and treated to less stressful lives, occasionally fed beer to stimulate their appetites should their hunger wane.
I hope this helps. My resolution this year is to pay more attention to that USDA shield. Happy New Year!
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