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What's Your Beef?

With so much focus on a healthy diet, organic foods and eating the rainbow in fruits and vegetables, Americans still have a love affair with beef – after all, “it’s what’s for dinner.”

ccording to the US Department of Agriculture, we will consume more than 200 pounds of meat and poultry per person this year – that’s about 2 1/2 burgers a day – yet it’s not all that clear what we are buying at the store or eating in a restaurant - and prices can vary greatly. 

The USDA inspects all beef for wholesomeness before it is released for consumption, using “shields” for a quick identifier of the grades or categories of quality. We hear about Prime, Choice and Select beef because they are most commonly found at grocery stores and restaurants but what sets a Prime cut apart from the others? It turns out marbling is the key to these grades because specks of fat produce tender, juicy cuts, therefore the more marbling the better.

When shopping at your local grocery store or butcher shop, look for the USDA shield to identify the grade you are purchasing. You may also find that Prime is packaged differently than Choice or Select for further clarification. 

These USDA terms are helpful when purchasing beef to prepare at home but another level of understanding is required when dining out. Fine restaurants, cafes and gourmet burger joints now market to food aficionados with fancy beef terms like Angus, Wagyu and Kobe. 

Angus beef comes from a breed of cattle called Aberdeen Angus, a sturdy cow that sports significant muscle content producing greater marbling qualities. Angus beef is also subjected to additional standards over and above the USDA grading, which translates to exceptional quality in flavor and tenderness. Wagyu beef has its origins in Japan and comes from four different breeds of cattle that have a genetic predisposition for higher fat content, equating to characteristic marbling that also commands a higher price. Kobe beef is the marrying of the two – Japanese Wagyu cattle are bred with Angus cattle for a flavorful cut at a more reasonable price.

By understanding the differences described and how to best prepare the cuts for optimum flavor, you’re sure to continue to echo the popular catchphrase, “Show me the beef.” 

USDA Terms

• USDA PRIME is harvested from young, well-fed cattle and contains plentiful marbling. 

This grade of beef is more expensive and generally sold in hotels and restaurants, but can also be found at finer grocery stores and Costco or by asking your local butcher. 

• USDA CHOICE is still high quality but contains less marbling than Prime. 

Choice is easily found at the grocery store in all cuts that lend themselves to different cooking styles depending on the tenderness.

• USDA SELECT is leaner than Prime or Choice because it has only slight marbling. 

Select cuts of beef work well in recipes calling for marinating or braising due to the lack of flavor and tenderness in the raw product.