What Do Beef Grades Mean? Different Grades Of Beef

What Do Beef Grades Mean? Different Grades Of Beef

When purchasing beef, you may have noticed labels such as "prime," "choice," or "select" attached to different cuts. These labels indicate the grade of beef and provide valuable information about its quality, tenderness, and flavor. In this article, we will delve into the world of beef grades, exploring what they mean, how beef is graded, and the various grades of beef available in the market.

What Do Beef Grades Mean?

Grading for beef quality means evaluation of traits related to tenderness, juiciness, and flavor. Prime, Choice, and Select are the USDA grades of beef that are sold in retail stores. Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter, and Canner are the lower grades that are primarily ground or utilized in processed meat products.

What Do Beef Grades Mean?

How Is Beef Graded?

Beef quality grades are determined based on the meat’s intramuscular fat marbling and the maturity of the cattle at the time of slaughter. These USDA meat grades help identify the juiciness and tenderness of the meat when cooked.

The USDA also grades beef according to its yield, which refers to the quantity of lean meat on a carcass. In order to market cattle, this number grade is utilized during the harvesting and distribution process.

What Are the Grades of Beef?

Prime Beef - Highest Grades of Beef

Prime beef is the highest grade of beef and represents the finest quality available. It is characterized by abundant marbling, which contributes to its exceptional tenderness, juiciness, and flavor. Prime beef is usually found in high-end steakhouses and specialty markets, and it is known for its rich, buttery texture.

  • Prime Beef Marbling: Abundant, 8-13% Fat
  • Prime Beef Source: Young, well-fed cattle (Between ages of 9-30 months)
  • Prime Beef Characteristics: Extremely tender, juicy, and flavorful
  • How to Cook Prime Beef: Grilled, broiled, roasted, sous vide
  • Prime Beef Cuts: Prime rib, wagyu
Prime Beef

Choice Beef

Choice beef is the second-highest grade and is more widely available than prime beef. It offers a good balance between quality and affordability. Choice beef exhibits less marbling than prime but still provides excellent flavor, tenderness, and juiciness. Many consumers prefer choice beef for its value and versatility in various cooking methods. Angus beef is the most well-known example of choice-grade quality meat.

  • Choice Beef Marbling: Moderate, 4-10% Fat
  • Choice Beef Source: Young, well-fed cattle (Between ages of 9-30 months)
  • Choice Beef Characteristics: Tender, slightly juicy, quality at a lower price point
  • How to Cook Choice Beef: Braised, roasted, simmered
  • Choice Beef Cuts: Ribeye, sirloin
Choice Beef

Select Beef

Select beef falls below choice in terms of marbling, tenderness, and flavor. It is leaner and has less intramuscular fat, resulting in a somewhat lower level of juiciness and tenderness. Select beef is often a more budget-friendly option, suitable for dishes that benefit from longer cooking times or tenderizing techniques.

This grade of beef is often one of the top options in local grocery stores, favored for its affordability while still bearing the USDA badge of quality. 

  • Select Beef Marbling: Modest to small, 2-4% Fat
  • Select Beef Source: Young, well-fed cattle (Between ages of 9-30 months)
  • Select Beef Characteristics: Lean, affordable but meets quality standards of USDA
  • How to Cook Select Beef: Smoked, braised, stewed
  • Select Beef Cuts: Brisket, chuck, shank
Select Beef

Standard Beef

Standard beef represents a lower grade in terms of meat quality and is often sourced from a more mature cow (aged between 30-42 months). It has minimal marbling and tends to be leaner, resulting in a leaner texture and reduced tenderness. Standard beef is typically used for processed meat products or in applications where tenderness is not the primary concern.

Commercial Beef

Commercial beef is primarily sold in large quantities to food service establishments and institutions. It is often used for ground beef or other processed meat products. Commercial beef may have even less marbling and tenderness compared to standard beef.

Utility, Cutter, and Canner Beef

Utility, cutter, and canner beef are grades generally not available to consumers. These grades represent older cattle with less desirable meat quality characteristics. They are typically used in processed meat products or for other non-retail purposes.

Prime vs Choice vs Select Beef

Here are table comparing the three top grades of beef:

Beef Grade

Marbling

Price

Tenderness

Flavor

Prime

Abundant

High

Excellent

Rich

Choice

Moderate

Moderate

Very Good

Excellent

Select

Very Little

Affordable

Good

Moderate

Canadian Beef Grades

By understanding Canadian grades of beef and their criteria, you can make a more informed decision about purchasing beef!

Prime-Grade Beef

Prime grade beef features abundant marbling, its red meat laced with even fat distribution. The presence of this fat means a more tender and juicy cut of beef that should work well in all conditions.

Only 2% of graded beef is given a Prime grade.

AAA-Grade Beef

Unlike Prime beef, AAA-grade beef has only a small amount of visible marbling. The AAA grade is a high-quality category that will provide a juicy and tender cut of beef that is resilient to various cooking methods.

Up to 50% of graded beef reaches AAA quality and status.

AA-Grade Beef

AA-grade beef is a slight step down from AAA-graded beef because it has only a slight amount of marbling, 

45% of graded beef falls under the AA heading and AA-Grade beef can still provide an excellent cooking and dining experience.

A-Grade Beef

A-grade beef is the lowest of the four high-quality grades and only constitutes 3% of graded beef in Canada. However, it is still considered adequate enough to be listed as high quality.

Conclusion

Understanding the grades of beef empowers consumers to make informed choices when purchasing beef. Prime beef offers the highest level of marbling, tenderness, and flavor, while choice beef provides an excellent balance of quality and affordability. Select beef is leaner and less tender, making it suitable for certain cooking methods. Standard and commercial beef are often used in processed products, while utility, cutter, and canner beef have limited applications. By familiarizing yourself with beef grades, you can select the appropriate grade for your desired culinary experience, ensuring a satisfying and enjoyable meal.

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