The USDA grading system for meat is something you’re likely to run into if you’re shopping at a Seattle butcher shop or heading to West Seattle restaurants known for their beef. If you’re asking yourself how to shop for the perfect steak, then understanding the USDA grading system is a good place to start.
The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) grades meat based on tenderness as well as quality, meaning that when you buy USDA-grade beef, you are paying for flavor and safety. Learn more about the USDA’s system for grading beef—and what to look for when shopping for the perfect cut—below.
When it comes to USDA beef grades, the two main criteria that the United States Department of Agriculture considers has to do with the amount of marbling (or fat) in the beef, as well as certain factors that impact the flavor and juiciness of the meat.
USDA Beef is ultimately graded and categorized as prime, choice, or select. While all of these words sound good, some are better than others. Even so, each cut and grade does have its own uses, so it helps to understand the ins and outs of each grade before deciding to spend top dollar on some prime beef.
USDA Prime Beef is the type of meat most commonly found in hotels and notable Seattle restaurants. This has to do with the fact that it is juicy, has abundant marbling, and is perfect for roasting, grilling, smoking and broiling. Generally, USDA Prime Beef comes from younger cattle who are well-fed.
The second grade of USDA beef, Choice Beef, is juicy, but not as high-quality as prime beef. Choice beef has less marbling, so tenderness is somewhat impacted by the cut of meat you’re buying. For example, if you head to your favorite Seattle butcher shop and get a steak from the loin or rib, choice beef will still be quite high quality and tender. On the other hand, cuts from the round may be dryer and require extra liquid for cooking.
If you’re health conscious you may appreciate that USDA Select Beef is the leanest of cuts with very little marbling. However, that lack of marbling also means that the meat is less juicy and tender, so it may lack flavor. If you’re planning on grilling or marinating your beef, a select cut could be a good choice.
Marbling is evaluated based on how much fat is streaking the meat. Generally speaking, the more marbling, the more fat, and the more tender the meat is. This, in turn, imparts more flavor, even if you’re not eating the fattier parts of your beef cut.
In terms of grading, the USDA assesses marbling and ranks it as moderately abundant, moderate, or slight. Slight marbling is usually more common with select beef whereas moderately abundant marbling is more common in flavorful cuts of prime beef.
USDA Prime Beef is the highest grade of beef. This is why it is so frequently found in restaurants and high-end eating establishments like hotels. If you’re shopping for steak to prepare at home and are used to Seattle Wagyu, you’ll want to purchase prime beef as it is going to be the highest quality meat you can get your hands on.
Still got questions about the USDA grading system and how it affects the way you shop for and prepare your meats? Head over to a friendly Seattle butcher shop like Lady Jaye’s and they can help walk you through the do’s and don’ts of properly seasoning and cooking your steak.
For many, shopping for steak is a personal endeavor. Other than the USDA grading system there are some other considerations that you should keep in mind.
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