Monday, July 20, 2009

Prime, Choice, Select Beef. What does it mean for the consumer?

Imagine yourself at the grocery store and standing in front of the meat counter for 20 minutes trying to decide what cut of beef looks better for a weekend cookout with your family. This does not have to be you; furthermore the average consumer would much rather being spending this time with their family instead of in the grocery store. Increase your family time and learn what makes a high quality cut of beef.

Selecting the right cut of beef can be as easy as consuming a juicy, tender steak. First you will have to understand the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) beef grading scale. You probably have seen the words “USDA Select”, USDA Prime”, or USDA Choice” on the beef label in your local grocery store. Although there are eight different quality grades, these are the three main grades that are typically seen in the meat case of your friendly neighborhood food store. So what’s the big deal? Why are there three major grades and what is the difference?

Quality grades help to determine the divergence between cuts of meat. The United States Department of Agriculture hires well qualified graders that inspect the beef to makes sure what you buy in the grocery store is safe to eat. These graders also rate the carcass using the quality grades prime, choice, and select. A quality grade, according to the USDA is an evaluation of characteristics that affect palatability of meat, such as the age of carcass, texture, and the amount of marbling. Marbling is the dispersion of fat within the ribeye muscle of the carcass. Marbling is what separates prime, choice, and select grades of beef. Marbling is most nearly known by the consumer as the white flecks of fat within in the beef. In other words, this is what helps to determine how much tenderness, juiciness, and flavor is in your piece of meat. A much simpler way to explain it is that these grades evaluate quality.

Prime, Choice, Select are the three most important grades to know as a consumer. USDA Prime is the top grade of beef available on the market. When beef is graded prime, it is guaranteed to be tasty, tender, and extra juicy. Prime Beef has a buttery flavor that makes it surely a cut above any other grade. Prime has the most amount of marbling, so it will be easy to cook this steak to perfection. Remember just because the word prime is on the label does not mean it is the prime quality grade. The label must read “USDA Prime”. An example of this is when you see prime rib in the meat case. Prime rib is a cut of beef rather than the grade of beef.

USDA Choice beef is the second highest grade on the scale. When you are cooking for a crowd of people, choice grade beef is probably your best bet. Choice is typically lower in cost and quality, but still provides a juicy, tender, flavorful meat product. When you compare Choice to Prime, Choice is slightly coarser in texture.

USDA Select beef is the lowest grade of beef that you will find at a grocery store or restaurant. Select beef is much leaner than Prime or Choice or it does not have the same flavor or texture. Select has little marbling which makes it less juicy and tender, but if you cook it correctly you will still have an enjoyable piece of meat. Select beef will be much cheaper in price than USDA Prime or USDA Choice grades. So next time you are the grocery store, shopping for quality steaks, save yourself time by looking for the USDA shield that reads "USDA Prime", "USDA Choice", "USDA Select". Know what type of beef you are looking for. If the beef is for your family dinner, Choice is probably your best option. If the beef is for a celebration, then you might be interested in Prime. If you are not sure about the grade, it always is helpful to ask your meat department about the beef you are buying.

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