When it comes to the quality ratings of beef, it can be tricky to sort through all the details and figure out which grade of meat you want to purchase. We break down the comparison for you here with everything you need to know about the differences between Choice Vs Prime Beef and how to choose.
🥩 Choice Vs Prime at a Glance
|Prime||Most Intense Flavor||Even fat distribution||Excellent|
|Choice||Good, Moderate Flavor||Moderate fat distribution||Good|
|Select||Least Intense Flavor||Uneven fat distribution||Low|
🍖 USDA Beef Grades
The quality of the beef you purchase in the United States is regulated by the U.S. Government. The U.S. Dept of Agriculture inspects all beef before it can be sold as shown in this video. These inspections are carried out by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
An inspector checks the quality of meat. Grading is optional and some smaller farms may choose not to pay for grading. If a grade is requested, the inspector assigns a grade based on the age of the cow (maturity), color, firmness, texture, and the amount of marbling present and gives a grade of choice vs prime or even a lower grade such as the select, commercial, or canner grades.
A higher grade should indicate better meat with more flavor, more marbling, and more tenderness. The three possible grades you can expect to see at the grocery store are represented by shield stickers on each package of beef.
These are select, choice, and prime. Select is the leanest and cheapest option.
Choice has more marbling, with as much as 4-10% fat content.
Prime is the best possible cut with the most marbling and the most flavor. Prime is considered the highest quality of beef available and is in high demand for commercial purposes such as restaurants and hotels.
Within the grading system for choice vs. prime, you also have variations in flavor depending on the age of the cow, the type of feed used and the amount of marbling in the meat. Grass-fed beef tastes very different from grain-fed beef. Wagyu beef is in a class of it’s own.
🥘 Practical Differences
Taste. Prime cuts have the best and most intense flavor. Typically, prime beef does not need much seasoning to be amazing. Choice meat is still very tasty.
Fat Distribution. Marbling of fat throughout the meat helps it stay moist during the cooking process and keeps the meat tender. Prime beef has the most marbling, with choice beef running a close second. Sometimes the margins between the two grades are very slim so you can definitely find some beautiful marbling on choice cuts.
Tenderness. In general, the more marbling present the more tender the meat. So if you want the most tender meat available, go with prime beef or look for a well-marbled choice cut. Prime beef is often described as buttery soft or melt-in-your-mouth. Cooking methods make all the difference though, and choice beef can also melt in your mouth when prepared with care.
🍲 How to Choose
The bottom line is that you will find variation between cuts of meat and the grades they are given. Sometimes the line between choice vs prime is a very fine line. You can definitely find beautiful cuts of choice beef. So when you go to the grocery store or plan out your meals, here are some things to consider.
Price. Prime cuts tend to be more costly. Settle on a budget and then buy the highest quality cut of meat you can afford. Definitely look for those choice cuts that are close in quality if budget is a factor.
Recipe. If your recipe of choice uses a marinade or heavy seasoning, prime beef probably isn’t necessary. Consider what the recipe calls for and substitute with something similar if a different cut of meat is more affordable but will work.
Cooking Method. A choice brisket cooked low and slow in a smoker is still going to be tender and delicious. Cooking methods can make a huge difference.
Preference. Sometimes, we get in the mood where only a good ribeye will do. If a specific cut of meat is the only way to get the results you want, splurging on prime beef is definitely worth it. If you just want something tasty off the grill or smoker, you have a lot of choices.
|Recipe||Unaltered||Seasoning||Marinade or Season|
|Cooking Method||Dry Methods||Dry or Wet Methods||More Wet Methods|
|Preference||Best Flavor||Excellent Flavor||Good Flavor|
|Availability||Very Hard to Find||Possible to Find||Most Easily Found|
Prime. While select beef is always available in the grocery store, and it is possible to buy choice beef at a grocer or butcher, finding prime beef can be challenging. Only 2.9% of all beef slaughtered in the United States qualifies to be prime grade. That means you have a very finite supply. Of course, prime beef is in high demand and is mostly sold to restaurants or select stores like Wild Fork or Snake River Farms. You can purchase prime cuts from a prime beef purveyor or excellent butcher.
Choice. Fifty percent of all slaughtered beef ends up with a Choice grade. This grade of beef is readily available at your grocery store or butcher and is also used by restaurants to produce delicious meals.
🍴 Preparation Methods
As has been mentioned, your cooking method of choice will make all the difference.
Choice Cooking Methods. Choice meats can be grilled, smoked, roasted or broiled with great success. You may need to alter cooking times and temperatures to get the desired result. Use braising, boiling or roasting with marinades to aid with moisture for lower quality cuts. Nothing is worse than dried out shoe-leather beef, so matter what cut of meat you choose, do not overcook it.
The biggest difference can be found in strip steaks such as New York Strip or Porterhouse Steaks. For these cuts, it makes a huge difference whether you have choice vs. prime.
The least impact is found on cuts like ribeye – which is already naturally well-marbled and flavorful and filet mignon – which is already so tender a higher grade won’t impact the finished product as much.
In general, prime cuts are sold to commercial industries such as restaurants, hotels, and casinos. You can purchase prime cuts of beef to cook at home by finding a prime beef purveyor or specialty market. Expect to pay a premium. Only 2.3% of all beef slaughtered in the United States qualifies as prime beef.
While the vast majority of what you will find at a local grocery store is select beef, it is possible to find choice beef at your supermarket. Just pay attention. You can find the grade on the packaging. You can also find choice beef at your local butcher, specialty meat shops, and higher-end stores.
Select beef is the most common grade sold at grocery stores. Look for a shield on the packaging to know for sure. Since it requires payment, not all beef is graded. look for the most evenly dispersed fat when purchasing meat at the grocery store.