To bring a national, uniform standard to beef production, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) operates a voluntary grading system. The aim is to guarantee a safe standard for high-quality American beef so that consumers know what to expect based on what’s on the label. But, while top chefs can likely identify the eight grades of USDA beef by sight alone, you may not know what each means if you’re searching for the best beef for your burgers to cook at home. So, how does that grading system work, and how can you use it to your advantage when choosing the right Burger blend? Let’s dig in.
The Origins of the USDA Grade System of Beef
USDA beef grading is a long-established practice that dates back to 1927. The original intention was to standardize production and packing on the industry side, and encourage consumers to buy fattier cuts of meat from corn-fed cattle on the customer side. There are eight grades of USDA beef, and each one is based on the amount of marbling in the meat and the age of the cattle at slaughter. Graders look at the rib eye steak to measure marbling, found between the 12th and 13th rib.
Be alert! Certification is voluntary. Any manufacturer could label lower-standard meat as ‘Prime Value,’ for example, with no guarantee of quality. Only those labels that include the USDA certification and logo have passed inspection for accurate, authentic grading. Every Schweid & Sons package clearly labels the meat grade on the front of the package, when applicable.
The Highest Grade Premium Cuts
The top three grades come from younger (male) cattle that haven’t reached maturity, typically between 9 and 30 months old. Because beef becomes coarser and darker with age, these grades give themselves away with cherry-red, succulent meat characteristic of younger steers.
USDA Prime Beef
With extensive marbling and around 8 to 13% fat, this is beef at its best. The top pick for restaurant and hotel chefs, Prime beef lights up any menu with the promise of tender, tasty meat that’s bursting with flavor — which makes it an excellent grade to use in fresh beef Burgers. It can be grain-fed or grass-fed. Grain-fed beef tends to have more marbling, but grass-fed is often more sought after for flavor. And search you must, because Prime is an exclusive label, representing less than 3% of US beef.
Bring out the best in a Schweid & Sons Burger by keeping it simple – start with your favorite blend like The One Percenter and just add salt, pepper and fierce dry heat.
It may be a step down from Prime, but the higher grades of USDA Choice beef can be remarkably similar in flavor and quality. Choice is the most widely available USDA beef grade, representing just over half of the beef sold in supermarkets. It has less marbling than Prime, with around 4 to 10% fat, but holds up just as well as grilling and frying. Season the same for Prime but baste with butter to compensate for the lower fat content and be careful not to overcook the Burger.
With just 2 to 4% fat and barely noticeable marbling, USDA Select is lean and can lead to a dry Burger when grilled. You’ll often find it sold in supermarkets as blade chuck already diced or cubed, ready to release its full potential in a stew or curry.
Where Store Brand Meets USDA Grade
Outside the top three grades listed above, carrying the USDA label is less of a selling point from a marketing perspective and many producers choose to exclude once below USDA Select. That doesn’t mean the quality is entirely inferior, however. All beef sold in supermarkets has to pass the meat inspections required by law.
Found in supermarkets, USDA Standard is affordable and extremely lean. But, of course, that means there’s less fat flavor to draw on, so you’ll have to work harder to restore the taste and tenderness with a zesty marinade mixed in with the ground beef.
Check out some of our favorite Burgers:
The Prime Burger
The One Percenter
Certified Angus Beef Brand The All American
Beef 2 Live – Beef Quality Grades (Eight)
Fine Dining Lovers – USDA Beef Grades: The 8 USDA Beef Grades Explained
Meat Science – Grades of Meat
USDA – What’s Your Beef – Prime, Choice or Select?
Agricultural Marketing Service – Beef Grading Shields | Agricultural Marketing Service
Texas A&M University – USDA Beef Quality and Yield Grades – Meat Science
The Spruce Eats – USDA Beef Grades and How They Are Determined
Prime Steak Houses – Grades of Beef | What are the 8 USDA Beef Quality Ratings?
Texas A&M University – History of Meat Grading in the United States – Meat Science.