In 1926, the USDA implemented standards for grading the quality of beef, and grading remains an effective tool for assessing beef in terms of tenderness, flavor, and juiciness. The USDA lists eight grades for beef, but only the top three (prime, choice, and select) appear in most supermarkets. These better grades go to meat that’s fine grained, well marbled (meaning it’s laced with tiny flecks of fat), tender, and very flavorful. Lower grades of beef are sent to processors, institutions, and other commercial operations.
Prime is the highest grade. It’s produced in small amounts (about 2% of all beef production) and sold to high-end restaurants and meat markets, and overseas. Prime beef has the most marbling, which makes it especially tender, juicy, and very flavorful—as well as expensive.
Choice, the next grade down, accounts for close to half of all graded beef. It can have anywhere from a moderate to a small degree of marbling. This means that the quality of choice cuts can vary significantly, so scan the meat case for pieces with the best marbling. Some markets use the term “top-choice” to indicate the best of choice, but this isn’t an official grade.
Select is the lowest and least expensive grade of beef sold in supermarkets. Expect select cuts to be lean, tougher, and less juicy than choice or prime cuts. Select beef is best used for pot-roasting and stewing. Some markets also carry private-label or “branded” beef, like Certified Black Angus and Premium. Since grading isn’t required by law (unlike inspection, which is mandatory), keep in mind that some of these brands may not have been graded. When buying private-label beef, you’re relying more on the reputation of the brand and on your own ability to judge quality.