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Prime, Choice Or Select; What Do They Mean?

By Judith Blake The Seattle Times

What do the different beef grades mean? Grades are about quality tenderness, juiciness, flavor.

The law doesn’t require grading. If packers want the U.S. Department of Agriculture to grade their beef, they must pay for the inspection. Some do this, others don’t, depending on whether they think they’ll gain a marketing advantage.

The three main USDA grades seen in stores and restaurants are:

Prime: This beef has the most fat marbling throughout the muscle, making it the most tender and juicy.

Only a tiny fraction of all beef is graded prime; it’s available mainly in upscale restaurants and specialty meat markets. A large share of U.S. prime beef goes to Japan.

Choice: This beef, with less fat marbling than prime, is the grade most widely available in groceries. Some packers pay the USDA to further grade choice beef for special labeling, such as Certified Angus Beef or Sterling Silver. Packers or stores also may do their own sorting of USDA choice beef, then apply their own brand labels to the higherquality meats.

Select: This is the leanest of the three main grades, but the meat is generally less tender and juicy.

Here are some tips for choosing steaks:

Know your butcher and ask questions.

Look for fat marbling, if tender, juicy steak is your first priority. Choose such cuts as tenderloin, T-bone, porterhouse and New York. And expect to pay plenty; tenderloin recently was $8.99 a pound in a local store.

Choose cuts with “eye” or “round” in the name - such as eye round, top round, round tip - if low fat is your goal.

Consider steaks from the chuck area, such as chuck eye, boneless shoulder or blade, if you have economy in mind.

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