While there are eight beef grades, most restaurants and markets carry the top three: prime, choice and select. Part of the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s beef grading scale, the labels are based on the cow’s age, the meat texture and the amount of marbling—the flecks of fat in the meat that make it tender and flavorful. (Cuts on the lower scale are used for hamburger or canned goods.)
What it is: The top of the line, USDA Prime should have plenty of marbling. Cuts should be juicy and packed with flavor.
Notes: The label must say USDA Prime. If a label just reads “Prime,” the meat isn’t necessarily a USDA-quality grade. Real USDA Prime is pricey, which is why only a few restaurants offer it.
What it is: USDA Choice has less marbling than prime, but it’s still a quality grade.
Notes: USDA Choice is popular in restaurants because it’s less expensive than USDA Prime but still offers the flavor. Within this grade, there are three levels of marbling. So the USDA Choice at a casual steak house chain might be below the level of a steak sold at an upscale restaurant, even though both are USDA Choice.
What it is: The third grade lacks the liberal marbling that makes steak juicy and lends that buttery quality to meat. The cuts are generally leaner, which can make some tough.
Notes: USDA Select typically does not appear on a steak house menu. At home, try marinating or braising this grade to make it more tender.