What is USDA Prime Beef? A Look at the Highest Quality Grade

When it comes to quality beef, the USDA Prime grade sits at the pinnacle. But what defines Prime beef, and why is it considered the gold standard for steaks and roasts? Let’s take a closer look at what makes this top tier beef so special.

USDA Beef Grading System

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversees mandatory grading for all commercial beef sold in the U.S. Experienced USDA meat graders evaluate carcasses and assign quality and yield grades according to strict standards.

There are eight total USDA quality grades for beef, with Prime at the top:

  • Prime
  • Choice
  • Select
  • Standard
  • Commercial
  • Utility
  • Cutter
  • Canner

The top 3 grades – Prime, Choice, and Select – are sold at retail to consumers. Lower grades are used in food manufacturing and processing.

What is USDA Prime Beef?

USDA Prime is the highest quality beef grade awarded. Here’s an overview of Prime beef attributes:

  • Marbling – Abundant marbling, or fat interspersed within the muscle, is the hallmark. Prime beef is very well marbled with a BMS score of 7-8.

  • Age – Typically comes from younger cattle under 30 months of age when marbling is at its peak.

  • Color – Has a bright cherry-red color from ample marbling. Fat is creamy white.

  • Texture – Extremely tender, juicy, and buttery due to extensive marbling.

  • Flavor – Excellent beefy flavor and juiciness from high levels of marbling.

USDA Prime makes up less than 2% of all graded beef in the U.S. It’s the cream of the crop in terms of eating quality.

Where Can You Find Prime Beef?

Due to its exclusivity and high cost, true USDA Prime beef is found primarily in:

  • High-end steakhouses
  • Upscale hotels and restaurants
  • Specialty butcher shops
  • Some high-end grocery retailers

Think of Prime beef as thefilet mignon or lobster of the beef world – a luxury ingredient used by top chefs. Because of limited supply and labor costs, you’ll rarely find Prime beef at average supermarkets or in fast food.

How to Cook Prime Beef

With its extensive marbling, USDA Prime beef is optimized for juicy, flavorful results when cooked using dry-heat cooking methods:

  • Grilling – The quintessential way to enjoy Prime steaks. Cook quickly over high direct heat.

  • Broiling -Cook under direct top-down high heat in the oven. Works well for thicker cuts.

  • Roasting – Oven-roast Prime rib roasts, keeping meat thermometer handy.

  • Pan-searing – Cook steaks in a cast iron skillet to caramelize the exterior.

Slow, moist-heat methods like braising or stewing aren’t necessary for Prime cuts given the high native tenderness. Simple seasoning lets the luxurious beef flavors shine.

Is Prime Beef Worth the Splurge?

With its steep price tag, is Prime beef worth the investment over lower grades like Choice or Select? Considerations include:

  • Special occasions – Makes memorable meals for anniversaries or impressing guests

  • Steak lovers – Serious carnivores will appreciate the succulence and flavor

  • Sharing – Can buy one high-end Prime steak to share between two people

  • Moderation – Enjoy Prime beef every so often as a treat, not everyday meal

While expensive, USDA Prime provides a unmatched beef eating experience, making it worth the occasional splurge for many beef lovers. Its melt-in-your-mouth tenderness and richness is hard to replicate at lower grades.

Other High-End Beef Options

While scarce and pricey, USDA Prime isn’t the only elite beef available. Other high-end beef options include:

  • American Wagyu – Derived from Japanese Kobe genetics and revered for intricate marbling.

  • Dry-Aged – Aged beef intensifies flavor, like a fine wine. Subprimal cuts are aged for weeks or months.

  • Heritage Breeds – Cattle breeds like Devon, Highland, or Longhorn have beefy, complex flavors.

  • Grass-Finished – 100% grass-fed cattle tend to have a lean yet robust beef profile.

Trying a variety of luxurious beef types can be an enjoyable (if not cheap) way for steak aficionados to explore new flavors and textures.

So while every day supermarket beef is affordable and consistent, there’s nothing quite like experiencing melt-in-your-mouth USDA Prime beef in all its lip-smacking glory. It’s a cut above Choice or Select, and worth keeping an eye out for at high-end restaurants or gourmet retailers.

Beef Grades Explained – Select vs Choice vs Prime Steaks


What is the highest USDA grade of beef?

USDA-graded beef sold at the retail level is Prime, Choice, and Select. Lower grades (Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter, and Canner) are mainly ground or used in processed meat products. USDA Prime has abundant marbling (flecks of fat within the lean) which enhances both flavor and juiciness.

What is the difference between USDA prime and Angus beef?

Less than 2% of all beef produced in the US will earn the prime designation. Angus is a breed of cattle, not a quality of beef. It does not imply that the beef is organic, natural, or of a higher grade than any other type of beef. Angus cattle were specifically bred from the indigenous cattle of Scotland.

Is USDA Prime the best?

The best grade of meat defined by the USDA is prime. Only 2% of all meat graded by the USDA makes it to this superior category. Prime has the highest amount of marbling. Marbling is a positive attribute that shows a higher level of flavor will be present in the cut of meat.

Is USDA prime better than Wagyu?

A5 is leagues above Prime in terms of marbling. The large amounts of intermuscular fat are what separates A5 Wagyu from USDA prime meats. It will always be more juicy, and tender and have a richer flavor to it. However, a good cut of USDA prime can still be juicy and tender if cooked in the right way.

Leave a Comment