So all this talk about how farmers raise beef cattle, but what does that mean to you at the grocery store? The way farmers take care of and feed their animals affects how they grow muscle, and the muscle is what we eat as beef. In general, better care and better quality feed means the animals will have better quality meat. But we can do better than just saying “this one is good and that one is better.”
The USDA‘s Agriculture Marketing Service is responsible for grading beef based on quality. This is a voluntary program, and the farmer or processor who requests the grading must pay for the service. The benefit is that with a higher quality grade, the farmer or processor can charge more to sell the beef.
There are three quality grades that you may have seen in grocery store. Prime is the highest quality. A cut of beef that is graded prime is tender and well marbled. (Marbling is the amount of fat within the beef. On the t-bone steak above you can see the white streaks in the middle of the beef – this is marbling.) Marbling gives the beef a little more tenderness and a lot more flavor. And the animals need to eat more to get more marbling.
Remember, marbling is basically small deposits of fat. A steer that is just eating enough food to grow, but not get fat, will not have much (if any) marbling. So farmers need to feed their cattle more than they need to just grow up – they need to feed the cattle enough to also grow “out” a little bit and get just a little fat. This costs more (and the beef tastes better), so prime graded beef will be more expensive.
Choice is the next grade level. Choice beef still has some marbling, but not as much as prime beef. This is what is easiest to find in most grocery stores – it is still a good quality cut, but has less marbling and is less expensive than prime beef. (In fact, my local grocery store doesn’t carry prime beef at all.)
Select is the third quality grading. This is a much leaner grade of beef, and may have a little less flavor. (Remember, the marbling is a big part of what gives beef its flavor.) Most select cuts of beef should be marinated before cooking or should be braised, because they can dry out easily while cooking.
The next grade is standard or commercial. This grade usually isn’t labeled, and is often used for “store brand” beef.
Finally, there are utility, cutter, and canner grades of beef. These grades are not usually sold at grocery stores, but are used by meat processors to make ground beef or processed beef products (like hot dogs).
Do you look for a quality grade when you buy beef? What are you looking for when you are at the grocery store?