The Three Main Grades of Beef – Prime, Choice, and Select

When buying beef at the grocery store or ordering a steak at a restaurant, you’ll typically see labels indicating the “grade” of the meat. But what do these beef grades really mean and how do they differ? In the U.S., there are three main grades of beef sold at the retail level – Prime, Choice, and Select.

An Overview of USDA Beef Grading

In the U.S., the grading system for beef is overseen by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). They assign eight different quality grades to beef based on two factors:

  • Degree of intramuscular fat (called marbling)
  • Estimated age of the animal at slaughter (maturity)

Out of the eight total grades, the top three – Prime, Choice, and Select – are those approved for retail sale. The other five grades are rarely seen by consumers, used primarily for processed products or ground beef.

Now let’s look at what distinguishes each of the top three retail grades of beef.

Prime Beef

Of the three main retail grades, Prime beef is the highest quality and most exclusive grade. Some key features:

  • Comes from young cattle under 42 months of age.

  • Displays abundant marbling throughout the meat.

  • Makes up only about 2-3% of all graded beef in the U.S.

  • Fetchs the highest market price per pound.

  • Typically reserved for fine dining restaurants and high-end butcher shops.

Due to its extensive marbling, Prime beef is incredibly flavorful, tender and juicy when cooked properly. It’s considered the premier choice for high-quality steaks and roasts.

Choice Beef

After Prime, Choice is the second highest grade of beef you’ll find at retail. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Comes from young cattle under 30 months of age.

  • Features a moderate amount of marbling. Less than Prime but more than Select.

  • Makes up over 50% of graded beef in America.

  • Found at most grocery stores and restaurants nationwide.

  • Offers excellent tenderness and flavor at a more affordable price than Prime.

For most consumers, Choice beef provides the best value for delicious steaks and roasts that still boast plenty of marbling for great taste.

Select Beef

Select is the third major grade of retail beef:

  • Displays only a small amount of marbling.

  • Yields cuts that are leaner than Choice or Prime.

  • Makes up about 30% of graded beef sold.

  • Typically labeled as “value packs” at the grocery store.

While flavorful, Select steaks lack some of the juiciness and tenderness of higher grades due to less fat content. But special cooking techniques can help compensate.

Minor Grades of Beef

The remaining grades – Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter and Canner – are rarely if ever seen at retail. Here’s a quick look:

  • Standard – Very little marbling, used for ground beef or processed meats.

  • Commercial – Similar leanness to Standard but lower quality meat.

  • Utility – Extremely lean with less desirable color and texture.

  • Cutter – Low quality with slightly objectionable characteristics.

  • Canner – Lowest grade, unsuitable for anything but canned pet foods.

How Marbling Impacts Flavor and Tenderness

The key distinction between Prime, Choice and Select grades comes down to marbling. This refers to the thin ribbons and streaks of fat interspersed within the lean muscle. Extensive marbling has two major benefits:

Enhanced Flavor – Fat carries a lot of beef’s signature flavor, so more marbling means more beefy taste.

Improved Tenderness – Fat acts as a lubricant that makes beef more succulent and tender during chewing.

That’s why the most marbled grades like Prime and upper Choice yield such melt-in-your-mouth delicious steaks when prepared properly. Select can still be flavorful, but requires extra care to prevent tougher results.

Cooking Tips for Different Grades of Beef

To get the best results from each grade of beef, tailor your cooking methods accordingly:

  • Prime – Quick, hot cooking like grilling, broiling or pan searing. Avoids overcooking this tender meat.

  • Choice – Still does well with dry heat cooking, but can withstand lower temps if desired.

  • Select – Benefits from marinades, slower braising, or stewing to maximize tenderness.

No matter the grade of beef, always let meat rest 5 minutes before slicing for juiciest results. Overall beef grade is just the starting point – proper cooking makes all the difference.

Grading Beef Provides Useful Guidance for Shoppers

Understanding the USDA’s beef grading system sheds valuable insight on the quality of meat you are buying. While higher graded beef costs more per pound, the satisfying eating experience is often worth the splurge for a special occasion steak dinner. Look for Prime roasts at upscale butcher shops or Choice New York strips at the neighborhood grocer. Or select a budget-friendly cut of Select sirloin for weeknight meals. The grades help you set accurate expectations for tenderness, flavor and price.

  • Prime – Very heavily marbled. Ultimate in tenderness and flavor.

  • Choice – Moderate marbling. Excellent quality for restaurant and home use.

  • Select – Leaner with less marbling. Works well when prepared carefully.

So next time you shop for beef, use the USDA grades as your guide to great taste and satisfaction!

Beef Grades Explained – Select vs Choice vs Prime Steaks


What is the best grade of beef?

Prime beef is the highest grade a piece of beef can receive. If the USDA awards a prime quality grading, that means that the beef has abundant marbling, with 8-13% fat, and is from a young, well-fed cow. Only about 2-5% of beef sold in the foodservice industry receives this grading.

What is better choice or select?

Choice (better) – The next grade after prime is Choice. Much of today’s supermarket meat is USDA Choice. It is the most popular grade overall and often bears a brand name. Select (good) – Select is the lowest grade available to the consumer and makes up the rest of meat in the supermarket.

What are the 3 highest grades of beef in the market today?

The beef industry has been using eight quality meat grades since 1927. The grades are Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter, and Canner. The three quality grades recognized by the consumers are Prime, Choice, and Select.

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