Have you ever wondered why gourmet steaks in high-end restaurants are more tender and juicier than the steaks readily available fresh and frozen in supermarkets? The primary reason is that those are cuts of different steak grades.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) grades beef based on the animal’s maturity at slaughter and the degree of marbling. The USDA started grading beef in 1927, and the gradings have since become a symbol of safety and quality for American beef.
American farmers created the USDA grading system as a marketing strategy to counteract an agricultural recession by creating a demand for marbled meat from corn-fed, purebred cattle. Read on to learn more about beef grades.
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The USDA grades beef in two main ways:
- Quality steak grades for juiciness and tenderness
- Yield and flavor grades for the quantity of usable lean meat
Marbling is the primary factor that determines the beef grade. It refers to the white flecks of intramuscular fat in meat, especially red meat. As the name implies, this fat creates a pattern like that found in marble.
Marbling affects the meat’s tenderness, textures, juiciness, and flavor. These attributes significantly contribute to the meat-eating experience.
Highly skilled USDA meat graders evaluate the degree and distribution of intramuscular fat in the ribeye muscle after a butcher has cut the carcass between the 12th and 13th ribs. The degree of marbling in the meat determines its quality grade.
The USDA grading system has eight beef quality grades:
USDA Prime grade is the best-quality beef and the most expensive on the market because it has the highest degree of marbling. The intramuscular fat makes Prime grade tender and juicy, with a rich beef flavor. USDA Prime accounts for about 5% of all beef sold in the United States.
USDA Choice beef is high-quality meat derived from younger cattle and has less marbling than Prime grade. It accounts for about 50% of all graded beef and is readily available in retail outlets such as your local grocery store.
Select is leaner than Choice and Prime grades because it features much less marbling. Due to low intramuscular fat content, this beef cut may be dry with a tough texture and poor flavor. It is a more affordable option, followed by Standard.
Besides marbling and beef maturity, the USDA grade may also depend on the texture and color of the beef.
Contrary to many people’s belief, Wagyu is not a beef grade but a reference to Japanese cattle. Wagyu beef falls under the Japanese Meat Grading Association (JMGA) guidelines and is graded based on a 1-5 scoring system, with 5 being excellent.
Besides steak grades, steak temperatures and cooking time may also determine beef flavor. To get your desired level of steak doneness, you should accurately measure your steak’s internal temperature with a meat thermometer.