USDA Grading 101: What is Prime Beef?

Does spending an extra buck on something called prime beef matter, versus just stopping at your local store and grabbing something that’s not marked prime?

Well, that’s easy. Are you a lover of juicy, tender and flavorful steak? 

Here’s the scoop about what prime beef is and why spending the extra dough on it is totally worth it. 

After all, if you’re going to have steak, don’t mess around. Go straight for the good stuff.

What is Prime Beef?

Prime is the “grade” the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) gives to beef. It is defined by the amount of marbling and the maturity of the beef. Prime is the juiciest, most tender, and most flavorful meat. The highest USDA grades are prime, choice (high quality, but less marbling)  and select (still good quality, but leaner, less marbling, and less juiciness and flavor). 

Prime beef is also the most marbled, which is the amount of fat interspersed with the lean meat. The more marbling a cut of beef has, the better the cut of meat is! 

More marbling = tastier and juicier. 

Marbling refers to the white specks and streaks inside the meat - not the fat on the outside of the steak that is trimmed away or the fat between two seperate muscles. As is obvious by the name, it can resemble a marble pattern in the meat and is caused by different factors- one factor being the cattles’ diets. Grass fed beef will have less marbling than grain fed beef (they fatten grain fed up more). 

If you want the very best beef, prime is the way to go.

Where to Find Prime Beef:

Most grocery stores typically carry choice or select, as they are more affordable and will be sold through faster, and turning over inventory is the most important thing for a grocery store. Prime beef is generally found in restaurants and hotels, and less than 2% of beef produced in the United States is graded as prime. The grading system of beef is voluntary and when requested, is performed by licensed federal graders who grade it according to the standards of the USDA. The grading by the USDA ensures the quality of the meat, the safeness of the meat, as well as accountability, which is critical with raw meat.

If your store does sell it, you can spot the cuts of meat that have been given a prime grade because they are marked with a purple stamp that says “USDA Prime'' inside a shield. There’s no nonsense when it comes to the prime label, because when it comes to grading the meat, using the shield symbol, and any language that describes the meat, misuse of any of it is illegal. 

Therefore, be reassured that if a restaurant serves something called prime rib or a store sells it with that label, that stuff is legit and is most likely absolutely delicious. 

Now that you’re a connoisseur when it comes to what prime beef is and how to spot it on the fly, now’s the time to master the best cuts of steak to serve.