The United State Department of Agriculture (USDA) classifies meat into eight different categories based on the age and color of the beef, as well as the amount of marbling found. In simplest terms, marbling refers to the fat dispersed between the muscle fibers in the meat. The amount of marbling directly relates to how juicy, tender and flavorful the meat will be after grilling.
USDA Prime, the highest grade, derives from beef cattle. This meat yields the most amount of marbling, which is why it’s usually sold in high-end restaurants, hotels and butcher shops. In recent years, prime has become available in stores such as Whole Foods, Albertson’s and Costco. All cuts of USDA Prime meat are perfect for cooking with a BBQ grill.
The second tier is USDA Choice grade. This meat excels in quality but does not have as much marbling compared to prime. Choice meat from the loin and rib are recommended for grilling. They are the most flavorful, tender and juicy cuts. However, less tender cuts do better when roasted, simmered or braised. If more flavor is desired, coat the meat in a dry rub beforehand.
USDA Select graded meat is generally leaner and has a significantly less amount of marbling than prime or choice. Tender select cuts such as rib, loin, and sirloin are best to use when cooking on a BBQ grill. It is highly recommended to marinate all other cuts before grilling to bring out as much flavor as possible.
Standard and Commercial
Both standard and commercial grades of meat are commonly found in all grocery stores and supermarkets. The two are usually labeled as ungraded or store brand because of how little marbling there is.
Utility, Cutter, and Canner
Utility, cutter and canner meat grades are used to produce ground beef, hot dogs, and other processed foods.
When buying meat, make sure the packaging has the proper USDA Grade Shield.
To ensure safety, be sure to check the temperature of the beef with a meat thermometer after cooking.