There are a lot of words to describe the meat you find in your local grocery store. You may see words like choice, select, all-natural, grass-fed, angus, etc. In this post we are going to look at what the grades: prime, choice, select, and certified premium mean. Knowing what these grades mean will help you on your next grocery trip.
First off, you have to know that grading is not required. The USDA requires inspection of the entire meat process but they do not require the farm to grade their meat. Niman Ranch known for some of the best meat in the country does not grade their meat, but meat that is graded will have value based upon that grade.
Factors that go int grading beef are: the color, it's weight, meat-to-bone ratio, fat-to-body ratio, age of the cow, and other physical characteristics. Here is the explanation of each grade with a little analogy.
This is the top of the line stuff. This beef comes from a young steer. The meat is nicely formed with a great deal of marbling in it and there isn't a great deal of fat around the outer portion of the meat. The color of the beef is a nice light red with no dark spots. There is also a high meat to bone ratio. Prime beef is hard to find in the grocery store, as most of it goes to restaurants. The name "Prime rib" is usually applied to any rib cut roast, but unless it is made from prime beef it is really not prime rib.
Analogy: This beef is like the tuxedo that you rent for a wedding you are in.
This is still good meat but has one or more flaws in it, keeping it from being prime beef. Those flaws include less marbling, but still some. It has more fat around the outside. It still has a good meat to bone ratio. Even though is less marbled it is leaner. This is the best beef for your buck. It's cheaper than prime, but still of good quality. Choice beef is easy to find in the grocery store. Alton Brown, from the show Good Eats, says he prefers choice beef for the price and he thinks it has a more beefy taste.
Analogy: This beef is like the suit you wear to a wedding when you are not in the wedding party. You still look nice, but you don't outshine the groom.
This meat has a poor meat to bone ratio. It does not have much in the way of marbling, so while it might be leaner, it can be too lean. Also you may find a lot of connective tissue. Select beef is typically only used for stew meat where connective tissue can be broken down through a slow cooking process. Most butchers only carry select beef for this purpose.
Analogy: This beef is like the outfit you picked out at the last minute because you didn't have anything better to wear. With the right knowledge you can still make it work, but if done poorly people will turn up their nose at you.
This is also choice beef but it is the best of the choice beef. It's a grading program where choice beef is examined and the cuts considered the best are given the certified premium label. Different organizations grade the beef to be certified premium, based on their requirements. One example of this is beef that is labeled "Chairman's Reserve® Certified Premium Beef". In this case the organization, Chairman's Reserve has determine that this beef meets their guidelines for certified premium beef. Chairman's Reserve is a brand of Tyson foods.