Understanding USDA Steak Grades for Grilling

Understanding USDA Steak Grades for Grilling

A great steak begins with the right steak. There are a couple things to look for when buying a great steak. The first consideration is grade. Grade is primarily based on the quality of the meat as determined by marbling and age. The second factor is the cut. Finding the right cut for what you want to grill is generally based on your budget and your preferences.

Take a little time to familiarize yourself with USDA grades and the various cuts of beef available. It’s all about buying the best meat, not the most expensive.

The USDA grading system is a voluntary system paid for by the beef industry that dates back to the early 1920′s. US Department of Agriculture inspectors assign a grade to each beef carcass during processing to help ensure uniform quality. Inspections by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to ensure a meat’s safety for consumption are mandatory. After inspection, a producer or processor can pay a fee to have their beef graded.

what are usda beef grades?

Beef is evaluated by highly-skilled USDA meat graders using a subjective characteristic assessment process and electronic instruments to measure meat characteristics. These characteristics follow the official grade standards developed, maintained and interpreted by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.

How is beef graded? What determines the grade of a steak?

Beef receives a quality grade for tenderness, juiciness and flavor and a yield grade for the amount of usable lean meat on the carcass.

Grades are based on the amount of marbling in the meat and the age of the animal. Marbling is the flecks and streaks of white fat distributed throughout the meat. In general, the more marbling, the higher the grade and the more tender, juicy and flavorful the meat will be. Age Younger animals receive higher grades because beef is best in flavor and texture when cattle are between 18 and 24 months old.

What is marbling and why is it important?

Marbling refers to the white flecks of fat that you see in the beef. It plays a major role in quality grades because the more marbling there is, the more flavor there is. Higher marbling levels protect beef from overcooking and make the meat juicier too. When a steak has sufficient marbling, you’re less likely to dry the meat out over high heat or low.

Look for beef that is bright red with creamy white fat evenly distributed throughout the meat. Ideally, you want thin streaks of fat. Thick streaks mean the steak contains a lot of connective tissue. Beef with a lot of connective tissue needs to be cooked low and slow to tenderize it. If the meat is free of all fat, the cut is leaner and often more tender, but not as flavorful. With more marbling, the meat is less tender, but more flavorful. There’s the rub, finding the steak with just the right amount of marbling to make it both tender and tasty.

usda grades of beef

There are eight distinct grades of beef recognized by the USDA. In order of descending quality they are Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter and Canner. Beef graded USDA Select is generally the lowest grade you’ll ever see at the supermarket. Unlabeled cuts of meat are either commercial or utility-grade, or more likely were never graded in the first place.

What are the different USDA grades of steak?


USDA Prime

Prime is the best quality grade given by the USDA. Prime is produced from young, generously grain-fed beef cattle. It has abundant marbling and is generally sold in high-end steakhouses or butcher shops. Prime roasts and steaks are excellent for grilling just as they are with just a little salt and pepper.

What is the Best Grade of Meat?

The best grade of meat defined by the USDA is prime, known for being juicy, flavorful and tender. Prime has the highest level of marbling over other quality grades. Only 3% of all meat graded by the USDA makes it to this superior category.

Is USDA Prime Beef Grass-Fed?

Grass-fed beef is sometimes graded USDA Prime, but not usually. Many grass-fed beef producers skip the optional USDA grading process to avoid a lower rating due to the lower amount of marbling. Not all grass-fed beef is absent the marbling necessary to produce the signature flavor of Prime meat, but grass-fed cows are lean and commonly rank no more than BMS 1-2.

What is a USDA Prime grade steak?

Prime grade steaks are rib-eyes, tenderloins, strip steaks, T-bones and porterhouses.

Why Prime Grade Beef?

Nothing comes close to the quality, tenderness, and juiciness of Prime grade beef with its abundant marbling and incredible flavor and tenderness, prime is the most sought-after and delectable grade of meat on the market. Since Prime is usually exported to other countries or sold exclusively to fine dining restaurants, it can be more difficult to find and considerably more expensive. Your next best option is Choice.


USDA Choice

Just below Prime on the USDA scale, Choice is still high quality beef with fewer streaks of marbling than Prime. However, like Prime beef, Choice cuts are also tasty when grilled, but you’ll want to keep a closer eye on them to avoid overcooking. Grocery stores and restaurants most commonly carry Choice grade meats. Choice meat makes up about 45% of the meats graded by the USDA.

Is Choice better than Prime?

Prime is the higher of the two grades, but Choice represents superior value. Think of the USDA's Select, Choice and Prime grades as Good, Better and Best.

What is the minimum marbling score for USDA Choice beef?

Different countries have different beef grading systems. And so, a universal grading standard known as the “Beef Marble Score” or BMS is used as the worldwide standard. This system has 13 grades of beef, ranking from 0 (no marbling) to 12 (extreme marbling).


USDA Select

Lower on the quality grade scale, Select is usually leaner than the higher grades. While still fairly tender, it has less marbling and may not be as juicy and flavorful as the higher grades. Only the tenderest cuts (loin, rib, sirloin) are grill-ready. Other cuts should be marinated before cooking for maximum tenderness.

HOT TIP: If you don’t see Prime, Choice or Select on the label, it usually means the product received a Standard grade. With only scant traces of marbling, it likely will not be very flavorful.


USDA Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter & Canner

While Standard and Commercial meat is okay for consumption, it has very little marbling and is generally sold as store-branded meat without a grade. Utility, cutter and canner meat are rarely sold at the retail level. This grade of meat is used in processed foods and for ground meat.

What are USDA grade shields?

The USDA grade shields are regarded as symbols of quality American beef.  Large-volume buyers such as grocery stores, military institutions, restaurants, and even foreign governments use the quality grades as a “common language” within the beef industry, making business transactions easier.  The shields also mean you can shop with confidence, knowing that your beef will have the quality and consistency that you count on to make your dishes delicious.

what are the best cuts of meat for grilling?

Choose steaks that are firm to the touch with a bright red color and no gray or brown spots. Be sure to check for internal marbling to ensure the steak’s juicy tenderness. Here are some of the best-selling cuts of beef. They’re so good that none of them require marinating or tenderizing. Although these steaks will only require the simplest of preparations for exceptional flavor, you can experiment with rubs and marinades to add more layers of flavor.



Two steaks in one, the t-shaped bone runs down the length of the cut with a New York strip steak on one side and a tenderloin filet on the other. If that sounds a lot like a porterhouse, that’s because a porterhouse steak is the same cut as a T-bone steak except it is larger with a bigger tenderloin portion.



Very well marbled, this steak is full of flavor, tender and great for grilling. Often referred to as a Delmonico steak, it is one of the richest tasting and beefiest cuts available.


New York Strip

A rectangular-shaped steak that’s lean and full-flavored with a bit of chew. Not as robust as a ribeye, it has good marbling, a strong beefy flavor and no large pockets of fat.


Beef Tenderloin

Also known as filet mignon, beef tenderloin is lightly marbled with fat and has a mild flavor. The meat is extremely tender with a buttery texture. It’s a low-fat cut that’s even better when  wrapped in bacon, as most good things are.

What is the most tender cut of beef?

The most tender cut of beef is the tenderloin. Cuts like chateaubriand, filet mignon and tournedos are from this area. Just remember that the tender cuts are not as flavorful as those that are less tender.

What is the most flavorful cut of beef?

The rib-eye and sirloin cuts are less tender but far more flavorful than any other cut.

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