People “know” meat comes from animals, but sometimes it’s easy to forget just how complex those animals are. A cow’s diet, living conditions, and lifespan can all have an effect on how steaks, roasts, or any other cut reacts to heat, and one way you can predict the outcome is by understanding the different USDA beef grades.
If you are a meat eater, you have most likely seen the little USDA shield stickers that, in addition to letting us all know that the USDA looked at this meat, tell us what grade of meat we are dealing with. There are actually eight (8!) different grades of beef, though supermarket shoppers are unlikely to encounter the bottom five grades (standard, commercial, utility, cutter, and canner). Grading is a service that is provided by the USDA and paid for by the producer or processor, and the applicable grade is given after an inspector examines a hanging carcass that is cut between the 12th and 13th rib, which makes it easy for them to see the ribeye. The age of the animal and color of the meat is also taken into consideration. According to Meatscience.org, “Any cattle that are graded Prime, Choice or Select are going to be young cattle who have not reached full maturity.”
This is 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-marbled. These cows are not the most common, however. According to Weber, they only make up “4 ½ to 5 percent of the entire graded cattle,” which is actually a pretty big increase “from just a few years ago when it was only about 2 percent.” Most of this meat goes to restaurants and hotels, but you can find it at butcher shops or fancier grocery stores from time to time. The intramuscular fat (marbling) means steaks with a prime rating remain juicy and flavorful even when exposed to dry heat, so snap ‘em up if you see them (especially if they are at all discounted).
This is the most common grade of beef. “Choice” cows make up about 65% of all graded beef cattle. Their meat is decently marbled (though not as marbled as “Prime”), and it’s what you’re most likely to encounter at the grocery store. Choice steaks can be really great, but it is worth noting that “choice” is a range, and that some steaks with this grade may be more marbled than others. Meatscience.org has some good visuals for each of the grades, but it’s always a good idea to look at the meat you’re buying and pick the one with the most intramuscular fat running through the meat. The more marbling a piece of meat has, 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 moist cooking method like braising or sous-vide cooking.)
This is most likely the lowest grade of USDA beef you’ll find in the grocery store. Some chains use this grade of beef as their house brand. Select meat is very consistent and quite lean, with very little marbling. Select steaks aren’t as tender or flavorful as their prime and choice counterparts, so slap on a marinade if you intend to use a dry cooking method, and try not to cook them very long. If you’re making a stew, braise, or any other dish that utilizes a liquid-heavy cooking method, select cuts will work just fine.
Wagyu beef comes from four very specific breeds of Japanese cows, and its grading is completely separate from the USDA system. Wagyu grading is handled by the Japanese Meat Grading Association (JMGA), and is graded on a scale from 1-12, with “12" being the absolute best and “1" being the worst. According to the Chicago Steak Company’s Steak University, “the JMGA gives a score for Wagyu beef based on its fat color, meat color, rib eye shape, size of ribeye area, and IMF%, which refers to its marbling.” Most Wagyu beef would fall into the “prime” USDA grading, thanks to its usually impressive amount of marbling.