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From the Cheap to the Costly: How Can I Tell the Differences in Meat?

Have you ever stood in the meat section of your grocery store or visited your local butcher and been confused by the different cuts of meat, their quality, and their price? Well, you are not alone.

After all, meat can go from a few dollars for a pound of ground beef to forty dollars for a pound of filet mignon. What is the difference between cuts? How can you tell the quality you are getting for the price that you are paying?

Let’s take a closer look at some lingo used in the beef industry. It will give you a better understanding of how to tell the difference between the various cuts of meat you can buy. And, it will help you find that right cut for dinner.

USDA Meat Grading

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been grading meat since 1927. This is an optional service that the USDA offers to the beef industry for a fee. Meat processors can pay for highly-trained USDA meat graders to assign a grade to the whole carcass. When the meat is butchered and sold, the appropriate USDA-grade shield can be placed on the packaging.

Per the USDA, meat graders follow the official grade standards that have been established and maintained by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). They grade beef in two ways: quality and yield. Quality refers to tenderness, juiciness, and flavor. Yield is the amount of “usable lean meat on the carcass.”

When it comes to quality, “Marbling is everything.” Marbling is the term to describe the white ribbons or flecks of fat that run through the meat. Marbling adds juiciness, flavor, and tenderness to the meat. As the beef cooks, the fat melts into the meat keeping it moist. For this reason, beef with higher amounts of marbling are assigned higher grades.

Why would the meat industry pay for this service? Well, the USDA grade has become a symbol that consumers know they can trust when determining the quality of the beef they want to buy at the store. When they see that grade shield, they know what to expect.

The Grades

Do you know that the USDA has eight beef grades? Here are the eight grades in order of highest to lowest: prime, choice, select, standard, commercial, utility, cutter, and canner.

Let’s take a closer look at the three highest grades.

USDA Prime Beef

Prime beef is the highest grade so it is the best quality meat you can buy. It comes from young, well-fed cattle. Usually, the steers are between 9 to 42 months.
Prime beef is well known for its abundant marbling. This makes it juicier and more flavorful than lower grades.

Since only a small percentage of beef is graded as prime, you usually will not find it in a grocery store. Instead, you’re more likely to find prime beef in restaurants and hotels, especially higher-end ones. This also means that it will be on the costly end.

If you are able to buy prime beef, the best cooking methods use dry heat. The marbling throughout the meat makes it great to broil, grill, or roast.
Some of the best cuts of prime steak include t-bone, strip, and porterhouse steaks. These come from areas of the cow with more marbling.

USDA Choice Beef

Choice beef is the second-highest grade. It also comes from younger cattle between the age of 9 to 96 months. According to, fifty percent of the graded beef falls in the category of choice grade beef.

Choice beef has less marbling than you find in prime beef. It still has enough marbling to make it high quality.

You can find choice-grade beef in restaurants as well as in your local grocery store or local butcher. Meat from the loin or rib is usually more tender than other cuts.

When cooking choice beef, more tender meats are great for dry-heat cooking because of the marbling. For less tender cuts, it is better to cook it with liquid using methods such as braising, roasting, or simmering.

USDA Select Beef

Select beef is leaner than the two higher grades. This is due to less marbling throughout the meat.

Since there is less marbling, select beef is not as juicy or flavorful as prime or choice meat. It can also be drier and tougher.

Select beef can easily be found in grocery stores. Due to its lower quality, it won’t be as costly as prime or choice beef.

When cooking select beef, it is best to use cooking methods that involve moisture or liquid. Marinating the meat beforehand can help with the tenderness and flavor. Select beef can also be braised, poached, steamed, or stewed.

The Other USDA Beef Grades

Since USDA beef grading is optional for meat processors, the four lowest grades of beef are usually sold as ungraded beef. This meat has little to no marbling. And, it comes from older cattle than your higher grades.

Standard and commercial beef are frequently sold as store-brand beef.

Utility, cutter, and canning grade beef may not even make it to your plate. Since it is the leanest and toughest meat, you will only find it in the grocery store in a processed form, such as ground beef, jerky, canned soup, or hot dogs. Other things, such as fat, have been added to it to improve the flavor and texture.

How important are the beef grades?

While the meat grade helps maintain a level of standards in the meat industry, especially if bought at a restaurant or grocery store, there are other things to consider when selecting meat to buy and eat.

As points out, the beef grades give you “a great guide to understanding how fatty the beef cut is and the age of the animal.” It does not take into account the cut, what the cow was fed, and how the cow was raised.

For example, many people find that grass-fed cattle, which creates less marbling, are more flavorful than grain-fed cattle with a higher percentage of marbling.

Beef Cuts

Beyond knowing about beef grades, it is helpful to have a basic understanding of beef cuts. This can help you in selecting meat that will suit your cooking needs while, hopefully, maximizing the flavor.

The most expensive cuts come from the middle section of the cow. This is the rib, short loin, and sirloin areas. The meat in these areas is more tender because it does not get much exercise. Another thing that contributes to the cost is that these cuts only make up about 8% of the meat available from the carcass. These cuts include ribeye steak, back ribs, tenderloin, t-bone, porterhouse, tri-tip, and top sirloin.

As the cuts of beef become less tender and less marbleized, they are lower in price. These cuts come from areas of the cow, such as the back and shoulders, where the muscles are worked more. These cuts typically require being cooked at lower temperatures for longer periods of time. These cuts include round roast, bottom sirloin, shoulder pot roast, chuck steak, and brisket.

As The Spruce Eats points out, ground beef and stew meat are usually the cheapest meat. They come from parts of the cow that are very lean and tough. They require either being minced with fat to make ground beef or being cooked in liquid, like a stew, to become more tender. This type of beef also makes up the highest percentage of usable meat from the carcass. This helps keep the cost lower.

However, at Grand Peaks Prime Meats we make our ground beef from the trimmings of our steak cuts, which gives it more flavor.


A final factor to consider is the freshness of the meat. This is where local butchers and farms pack a big punch for all types of meat.

The meat you buy in a grocery store has usually come from a feedlot or large factory farm. Then, it goes to a meat packing plant. There, it is packaged and then shipped to sit on a shelf until it is bought.

Many local butchers source their meat from local or regional farmers. It has a much shorter journey to go from farm to table. This means that the meat is fresher and of a higher quality.

At Grand Peaks Prime Meats, all of our products have been USDA inspected and graded. However, not all local butchers may go through the extra steps to have their meat inspected and graded. But, you can apply what you know about beef grades to the meat you buy through a local butcher by looking at it (remember the marbling) and talking with the butcher about what you want. They want your business. They are going to sell you high-quality meat to keep you coming back.

Grand Peaks Prime Meats is a local butcher in the Idaho Falls area. For 65 years, they have been taking pride in selling high-quality, prime meat to our customers. We source our meat from regional processing plants that raise their animals responsibly to ensure the highest quality. Check out our current list of available products to find what’s for dinner.

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