Grass-fed beef cattle grazing on organic beef pasture

How to Identify Top-Quality Grades of Beef

Shopping for beef isn’t as straightforward as snagging a package of flank or sirloin. Along with navigating which cuts of meat you want to enjoy, knowing how to determine the quality of your beef is important to know too.

To help people understand the ins and outs of the tenderness, juiciness, and flavor of different cuts of meat, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines and regulates meat grades.

To determine the grade of meat, factors like flavor, marbling, and yield (the amount of edible or usable meat that can be obtained from the animal), are all taken into account.

You may have seen beef that is designated as “prime,” “choice,” or “select”, but never truly understood what those terms meant. If you have always wondered how to choose your beef based on the grade, here are some categories to understand:

Prime Beef is considered by some as the highest grade. It is produced from young cattle and has the most marbling of all the grades. Prime beef is made from young cattle that haven’t had time for their muscles and connective tissues to firm up by walking and running. Typically, prime beef cuts are found in high-end restaurants and are best for dry-heat cooking such as broiling, roasting, or grilling.

Choice Beef is also high grade but with less marbling compared to Prime. These cuts will be most tender when braised, roasted, or simmered using liquid in a tightly covered pan or slow cooker.

Select Beef cuts are uniform in quality and are leaner than the other cuts—when looking at them, you will notice much less marbling. These cuts are ideal for marinating before cooking to maintain tenderness; braising or slow cooking are other methods to keep the meat as tender as possible when cooking.

Two other designations, or grades, are standard and commercial and are usually sold as ungraded, private/store-branded, or used to make ground beef or processed products. It is important to note that meat grading is a voluntary process, and producers pay for the designation.

In the marketplace, it is illegal to misrepresent the grade of meat or misuse the symbol. It is prohibited to mislead the consumer when describing the meat and its quality or tenderness—such as on a restaurant menu. Meat grading and meat inspection are different. The USDA inspects meat to ensure it is safe and wholesome. They also ensure that it is packaged and labeled correctly during this process.

What about Organic Beef?

Organic beef is also regulated by the USDA and must follow specific requirements to be labeled as such. Organic refers to how the animals are raised and handled during and after slaughter, and it is different and separate from grading. It has more to do with how and where the animals spend their days, the food they eat, and the types of medicines allowed to treat and care for them.

For meat to be labeled Certified Organic, products must meet the following criteria:

  • Born and raised on a Certified Organic pasture;
  • Do not receive antibiotics or growth-promoting hormones;
  • Are fed Certified Organic grains and grasses;
  • Have outdoor access all year unless there are health or weather concerns;

Deciding to purchase organic beef reduces the chemicals and hormones you and your family are exposed to. Organic beef tends to also be higher in omega-3 fatty acids vs. conventionally grown alternatives. Choosing organic beef may be a more healthful choice for you and your family, and in some cases, tastes better too.

Choosing Beef That Meets Your Needs

Beef is one of the most popular protein sources out there. Adding it to many dishes can elevate the nutrition and flavor with ease. Understanding the grades and terms associated with beef quality can help you navigate your choices with ease, helping you get exactly the right tenderness, juiciness, and marbling in your protein source that you desire. 

For quality organic beef, leaning on Greensbury Market can help you have access to high-quality cuts that are tender, delicious, and perhaps most importantly, Certified Organic. So, whether you are a New York Strip lover or a Prime Rib Roast fan, knowing that you can have access to a wide variety of organic beef delivered to your doorstep can help you enjoy high-quality and delicious beef with minimal effort.

Written by Lauren Manaker MS, RDN, LD for Greensbury Market, Corp. 

Lauren Manaker is an award-winning registered dietitian based in Charleston, South Carolina. She earned a bachelor's degree and master's degree in human nutrition and is passionate about helping people achieve their nutrition goals. She currently acts as a consultant, food blogger, and freelance writer for outlets including Eating Well and POPSUGAR. When Lauren isn't working, she is enjoying the outdoor life with her daughter, husband, and rescue-pup.