What is the Best Beef? A Detailed Look at Cattle Breeds, Beef Cuts, Grades, and More

Beef is a staple food for many people around the world. But with so many different breeds of cattle and cuts of beef to choose from, it can be difficult to know what really is the “best” beef. In this detailed guide, we’ll take a close look at different factors that affect beef quality including cattle breeds, beef cuts, USDA grading, and more.

Most Popular Cattle Breeds for Beef

The breed of cattle plays a significant role in the quality, flavor, marbling, and overall eating experience of beef. Here are some of the most popular cattle breeds raised for beef:


  • Angus beef comes from Black Angus or Red Angus cattle. It has become extremely popular and makes up a large portion of beef sold in grocery stores.
  • Angus beef is prized for its generous marbling that results in flavorful, tender, and juicy meat. It typically grades Prime or Choice by the USDA.
  • Certified Angus Beef refers to the top tier of Angus that meets strict quality standards for marbling, tenderness, etc. It commands a premium price.


  • Originally from England, Hereford cattle are hardy animals that tend to have less marbling than Angus.
  • Hereford beef is typically cheaper in price and tends to grade Select or lower by the USDA.
  • However, flavorful cuts can still come from Hereford heritage. This breed makes up a significant portion of ground beef.


  • Wagyu originates from Japan and is renowned for its extensive marbling that creates remarkably tender, buttery beef.
  • In the U.S., American Wagyu is more common, which is a cross between Japanese Wagyu and Angus cattle. This combines the rich marbling of Wagyu with the beefy texture of Angus.
  • True Japanese Wagyu like the famous Kobe beef is still rare in the U.S. but highly coveted. Wagyu is usually the most expensive type of beef.


  • Piedmontese cattle originate from Italy and are known for their ‘double-muscling’ genetics that result in lean, protein-packed beef.
  • However, the leanness also causes Piedmontese beef to be tough if not cooked properly. It rarely grades above Select.
  • Braising and stewing are good cooking methods for Piedmontese to help tenderize it.

Best Beef Cuts for Steaks and Roasts

The cut of beef also significantly impacts its tenderness, flavor, and cooking method. Here are some of the most prized cuts of beef:

  • Ribeye – This well-marbled steak comes from the rib section and is cherished for its rich, beefy flavor. It can be purchased boneless or bone-in.

  • Tenderloin – Taken from the loin, the tenderloin is the most tender cut of beef. Filet mignon comes from the tenderloin. It is very lean, however, so lacks some of the bolder beef flavor.

  • Strip Steak – Also coming from the loin, the strip steak offers a nice balance of tenderness and rich flavor from marbling. It goes by names like New York strip or Kansas City strip.

  • T-bone – This cut contains both the strip steak and tenderloin separated by the T-shaped bone. It allows you to enjoy the best of both worlds.

  • Tri-tip – From the bottom sirloin, tri-tip is a smaller, triangular cut that is lean but flavorful. It shines when grilled or roasted.

  • Brisket – Brisket comes from the breast and needs to be cooked low and slow to break down its collagen. But properly cooked brisket can be amazingly tender and flavorful.

  • Chuck Roast – This shoulder cut contains a lot of connective tissue but can be mouths-watering when slow cooked into a pot roast. It’s one of the most affordable roasts.

USDA Beef Grading System

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) grades beef based on standardized criteria like marbling and maturity. Here are the main grades:

  • Prime – About 2% of beef earns the Prime grade, the highest given by the USDA. Prime beef has excellent marbling for flavor and tenderness.

  • Choice – Choice beef has less marbling than Prime but is still considered high quality. Most beef found in grocery stores is Choice.

  • Select – Select grade beef has slight marbling and is fairly tender but lacks some of the juiciness and flavor of Prime and Choice.

  • Lower grades – Grades like Standard and Commercial are very lean, tougher beef best suited for grinding or stew meat.

As a general rule, beef with more marbling and fat will cook up more tender and flavorful. So Prime and Choice are considered the most desirable grades for steaks and roasts.

Wagyu Beef Grading

Wagyu beef adheres to a different grading scale than USDA grades, with A5 being the highest grade in Japan.

  • A5 Wagyu – This is the top tier of Wagyu beef with extensive, fine-grained marbling. The rich marbling makes it incredibly tender, juicy, and flavorful with a buttery mouthfeel.

  • A1-A4 Wagyu – These grades have successively less marbling than A5, but still tend to be highly marbled compared to conventional beef. They can offer excellent eating quality.

  • Wagyu grades below A – Wagyu grades below A are considered lower quality with little marbling. They are not exported.

Authentic Japanese Wagyu like Kobe beef will display its Wagyu grade. However, American Wagyu beef is not graded by the Japanese system.

Dry-Aged vs Wet-Aged Beef

In addition to breed and grade, the aging process impacts the taste and tenderness of beef. Here are the differences between dry-aged and wet-aged beef:

  • Dry-aged – Beef is aged in a climate controlled environment for 30-60 days. This allows enzymes to break down the meat and concentrates flavors. It also evaporates water so the beef loses weight. This makes the beef tender and intensely flavorful.

  • Wet-aged – Beef is vacuum sealed and aged for a few days up to a couple weeks. This helps tenderize the meat but doesn’t concentrate flavors like dry-aging does. Most supermarket beef is wet-aged.

Dry-aged steak has a more complex, funky flavor profile and costs more than wet-aged. While wet-aged beef is still tender and tasty, dry-aged has an unmatched depth of flavor.

Factors Beyond Breed, Cut, and Grade

There are a few other factors that affect the eating quality of beef:

  • Feed – Grass-fed cattle tend to produce leaner, healthier beef than grain-fed. But grain-finished beef has more marbling.

  • Animal age – Younger cattle tend to produce more tender beef than older animals. Veal comes from young calves and is prized for its tenderness.

  • Gender – Bulls and cows produce beef of the same tenderness, flavor, and quality. Gender only becomes a factor if the cow has given birth, at which point its meat is no longer used for beef.

Best Beef for Grilling and Smoking

Certain cuts and grades perform better for different cooking methods. When grilling, ribeyes, strip steaks, and tri-tip work well because they can sear over high heat while staying tender inside. Well-marbled Prime or Choice grades are best for grilling. For smoking, brisket and chuck roast shine, breaking down and becoming fall-apart tender after hours of low and slow cooking. Look for grades like Choice or Select for smoking larger cuts to get the most bang for your buck.

Finding the Best Beef for You

With all this knowledge about breeds, cuts, grades, and more – finding the best beef comes down to your budget, cooking method, and preferences. If enjoying a juicy grilled ribeye is your perfect meal, then Prime grade Black Angus ribeye is probably the pinnacle. If you want to master smoking brisket, then Certified Angus Choice brisket could be your best bet. Seek out high quality, well-marbled beef for steaks and roasts. Be prepared to braise, stew, or smoke lower grades to maximize tenderness. Understand how choices like Wagyu vs Angus or dry-aged vs wet-aged impact flavor and texture. With the right information, you can confidently choose the best beef to suit your cooking style and tastes.

The Complete Guide to Cooking the Perfect Steak


What is the highest quality 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 beef is best to eat?

“What people consider the quote-on-quote best steaks are the middle meats,” says Flannery. “Those are steaks from the midsection of the animal, between the rib and the rump.” These cuts—ribeye, New York strip loin, and filet mignon—can certainly be dubbed the best, and few will disagree.

Is Wagyu better than Kobe?

Marbling. While all wagyu beef is known for its beautiful marbling, Kobe beef is truly the top of the line when it comes to fat marbling in a steak. In terms of Kobe vs. wagyu, Kobe beef will contain slightly more marbling throughout the beef that results in an overall richer flavor.

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