What Is the Difference Between Prime Beef and Choice Beef?
I get asked this question about the difference between prime beef and choice beef all the time. Which one is better? Which one tastes better? Which one costs more?
There are several more categories of beef grades, but we don't hear about them because they are not sold in our local supermarkets. The two you see most often are USDA Choice and USDA Select, and if the store has a good meat department, USDA Prime.
How Is Beef Graded?
There are two ways beef is graded. Quality and Yield
For quality, beef graders look at the ribeye muscle between the 12th and 13th ribs. They're looking at the meat's texture, color, firmness, and amount of marbling. They are also looking at the age of the meat. Younger meat grades higher than older meat.
Yield Grades look at the amount of "usable lean meat on the carcass."
Marbling is one of the characteristics USDA Meat Graders look at. Marbling refers to how much fat there is between the muscle fibers of the meat. The more marbling, the higher the grade, but this can be misleading.
Years ago, when cows were not fed massive amounts of corn grain to fatten them up at feed lots in a shorter time, marbling may have meant more than it does today. In addition, because corn is not a natural part of cow's diet, ranchers must give them antibiotics and other drugs to keep them healthy.
Feeding them large amounts of corn makes them fatter with more marbling. The jury is out on its effect on flavor, but some "experts" say we are so used to corn-fed beef and relate its flavor to quality no one would enjoy entirely grass-fed steaks because they would taste "grassy." I can't say because I don't find much grass-fed beef available.
Grading Versus Wholesomeness
You may not know that all meat is inspected for wholesomeness and is mandatory and paid for with public funds. However, if a meat processor wants to grade for quality, it is voluntary and is paid for by them.
Therefore, it makes sense that a meat processor would pay for grading because they can get much more money for beef that is graded Prime and Choice than the other grades.
If you want to learn more about Inspection and Grading, I recommend you go to the USDA site or check out this excellent video about how meat is graded.
The Other Grades of Beef
Although I'm going to feature the difference between Prime and Choice, I thought you might be interested in some of these lesser know grades. The image above shows the different Grade "Shields" used to mark the various grades.
The graders are skilled USDA meat graders who assess the meats following USDA Official Grade Standards.
Select (once called Good) is two grades down from Prime and Choice. It will be significantly leaner than the top two grades, which means it will not be as tender or have as much flavor. It is excellent for grilling or if it has first been marinated. And it will be significantly less expensive than Choice or Prime.
USDA Standard and USDA Commercial
If you find an ungraded piece of beef at your supermarket, it will most likely be Standard or Commercial. It will be of lower quality, less tender, and with little or no marbling. Commercial often comes from older animals.
And don't be fooled by store brand names like "Blue Ribbon Select." It doesn't mean anything and may not be very good. You want to see the USDA grading.
USDA Utility, Cutter, and Canner
This is used for cheap ground beef or processed meat products like bologna and hot dogs. Luckily, these grades of meat are not available at your supermarket unless you are buying hot dogs, but if available, they are not worth buying. They also come from cows getting up there in years and have no marbling.
You'll immediately notice the difference in marbling from the photo above to the photo below. See those white flecks throughout the meat? That's the marbling.
Choice steaks will have marbling but not as much as Prime. Choice beef will also be younger than Select, Standard, and Commercial.
Most Graded Beef Is Choice
Interestingly, USDA Choice represents around 50 percent of all graded beef. You can find USDA Choice in most supermarkets, which is the go-to beef grade in restaurants. So if a restaurant is selling Prime, they will let you know, which will be reflected in the check.
And remember, if a steer is graded Choice, the entire steer is graded Choice. That means if you buy a flank steak or chuck steak, it will be Choice too.
USDA Choice is an excellent grade of beef. However, some say it is less tender, has a slightly coarser texture, and is as tender or juicy as Prime. That might be true, but a lot depends on how you cook your beef.
For example, if you like your meat medium-well or well done, don't waste your money on Prime. You'll cook the tenderness and juiciness right out of the steak.
Depending on what cut of Choice beef you are preparing, Choice grade lends itself to grilling, frying, roasting, or braising.
Choice Steak Buying Tip
We purchase most of our steaks at Costco, where they have Prime steaks right next to the Choice steaks. If you spend an extra minute comparing the two, you'll likely find a package of Choice graded steaks with almost as much marbling as Prime steaks next to it. I find this a great value.
Making up a small percent of graded beef, USDA Prime is considered the top tier of beef. It is described as "melt in your mouth," "the ultimate in tenderness," "buttery," and "the juiciest" beef you can buy.
This may all be true, but it depends on how you prepare it. It doesn't matter how much marbling Prime beef has; if you overcook it, it can end up like shoe leather. In my opinion, one should not cook any Prime steak more than medium, and it is better at medium - rare, but everyone has their likes and dislikes.
Saying that, I wonder if you grill a Prime steak and Choice steak to medium-well or well done, would the Prime be juicier and more tender than the Choice? Just a thought.
Where to Buy USDA Prime
I see more and more Prime cuts at the supermarket especially high-end stores like Wegmans and Whole Foods, but that wasn't always the case. There was a time I could remember having to go to a specialty butcher shop to purchase Prime. With so little of all graded meat being Prime, that makes sense.
The percentage of graded beef being Prime changes yearly, and over the last few years, that number has gone up. The fascinating article Making the grade for Choice and Prime Beef by Steve Kay on 5/23/19 looks closely at this phenomenon.
According to the article, back in November of 2008, just 3.21 percent of graded beef was Prime, but in November 2018, the percentage was 9.81 percent. He points out that in 2008, the "warehouse giant Costco introduced Prime beef to its members."
According to Bob Huskey, Costco's meat department guy, 18% to 20% of Costco's beef sales are Prime, which is going up yearly.
The reason for Costco to get into Prime beef was the recession in 2008, when the economy took a downturn, and the demand for Prime beef went down. So the meat packers needed another outlet to sell their Prime meat and turned to Costco.
I was just at Costco last week and what surprised me was the slight difference in price between Choice NY Strip Steaks and Prime NY Strip Steaks. So if you want to purchase some great steaks, now is a good time.
USDA Prime Beef Buying Tips
Although everyone has their favorite cuts of beef, some say the ribeye is the best. Others say the NY Strip, and then some say Filet Mignon from the tenderloin. So if any of those is the best cut, a Prime cut would be even better. Not so fast.
Ribeyes are considered superior because they naturally have a lot of fat content throughout the meat, so whether they are Prime or Choice, they will be flavorful. I prefer the Choice ribeyes over Prime because of the natural amount of fat.
The Filet Mignon, the most naturally tender cut of beef, will also be both tender and flavorful, whether Prime or Choice. However, when it gets to the NY Strip Steak or a Kansas City Strip, you may notice a difference in texture and flavor, so save your money on the others to splurge on the Strip steaks.
I don't think I've ever purchased a Prime roast, but I will start looking for one and give it a try. I've also never seen Prime burger meat at the supermarket and wonder what they do with all the other cuts from a Prime steer. Who gets them?
Beef Grades to Be Wary Of
What you have to be careful of is supermarket labeling used to get you to think you are buying steaks and beef that are better than they are. For example, "Premium" is not a USDA grade and doesn't give you a clue about the quality of the beef. I'm not saying that their Premium beef is not good, but how do you know if it doesn't have the USDA Shield?
Some other "buyer beware" marketing names supermarkets give beef are:
- USDA certified tender
- Butcher Shop
- Texas Star Beef
- Hotel Cut
- USDA Heavy Beef
- Top Choice
- Best Cut
- Prime Cut
- Choice Cut
And then some markets give their meats descriptions with the words Prime or Choice but without the USDA shield. Without the shield, buyer beware.
If you don't see a USDA Shield, as the butcher behind the counter to tell you exactly what grade of beef the meat is. If they don't know, don't buy, or if you do, don't be upset if the meat is tough and chewy.
What Makes the Perfect Steak
If you want to find the "perfect" steak and learn everything you want about the beef industry, I recommend you read Mark Schatzker's book Steak: One Man's Search for the World's Tastiest Piece of Beef. To learn more about this fantastic look at beef, check out my interview with Mark at What Makes the Perfect Steak.