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 labeling requirements set by the Food Safety and Inspection Service. Consumers can find the USDA grading on the package label.
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.
USDA Beef Grades
Here are the eight USDA grades of beef, where they are found, their uses and recommended cooking methods.
U.S. Prime – 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 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.
U.S. Choice – 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. This beef 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 or braise it.
U.S. Select – Select beef is also widely available in the retail market. It is much more lean 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.
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, but 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 grades are typically reserved for making processed meat products and canned goods.