The beef grading system developed by the United States Department of Agriculture is a voluntary grading system based on the meat's maturity and level of fat marbling. These two factors are indicators of the beef’s tenderness. Beef that is given a higher grade is usually from younger cattle and has more fat marbling.
To receive a USDA grading on beef, manufacturers must pay for a trained inspector to grade the beef at the slaughterhouse. Once the beef is graded, the manufacturer must comply with the labeling requirements set by the Food Safety and Inspection Service. Consumers can find the USDA grading on the meat package label.
USDA Beef Grades
There are eight grades of beef designated by the USDA, only the top five of which are usually sold to consumers. Lower grades are most often used for processing and use in canned goods. The different beef grades are found in specific cuts of meat; each has its own unique uses and recommended cooking methods.
This is the highest grade of beef with the most fat marbling. This meat is very tender and only accounts for about 2.9 percent of all graded beef. U.S. Prime is usually reserved for high-end dining establishments. Because this grade of beef has such a high level of fat marbling, it is excellent for dry-heat cooking methods. These include roasting, grilling, frying, broiling, and baking.
Choice beef is widely available to consumers in supermarkets and restaurants. This beef has a good amount of fat marbling, although less than U.S. Prime. U.S. Choice accounts for roughly 50 percent of all graded beef. It can typically be cooked with either dry or moist heat methods without causing excessive dryness. U.S. Choice is an excellent economic alternative to U.S. Prime. You can grill, fry, roast, or bake this beef as well as stew it or braise it.
Select beef is also widely available in the retail market. It is much leaner than U.S. Choice and tends to be less tender or juicy. U.S. Select was formerly labeled as “Good.” Due to the low-fat content in this meat, it should be reserved for moist heat cooking methods to prevent drying. Moist heat methods include braising, stewing, steaming, and poaching. Cooking in a slow cooker is one example. These methods help break down tough fibers that are usually present in this meat.
U.S. Standard and U.S. Commercial
Standard and Commercial grades are very low in fat content and may be considerably less tender. When sold in the retail market they typically go ungraded or are labeled under the store brand name and sold for lower prices. Consider using moist heat methods to cook this beef. They are suitable for stew and slow cooker recipes that will make them less tough; grilling or frying may result in dry and chewy meat.
Utility, Cutter, and Canner Grades
These grades may be completely devoid of fat marbling or cut from older animals. These three grades are typically reserved for making processed meat products and canned goods. It is not likely that you will find these in a supermarket, and if you do, you probably will not want to cook with them.