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Quality Beef. Who Decides?

Juicy red meat

The different grades of beef are valuable for determining the quality of each cut.

USDA prime filet is the crème-de-la-crème of beef, the highest grade of the finest cut of beef available, tender, juicy and delicious.  By comparison, USDA choice sirloin is a mere poser, and USDA select round, truly second-rate.  But what makes one type of beef so unquestionably superior, while others are unable ever to aspire to such glowing accolades.  Who decides, and by what criteria?

What Determines Quality Beef?

Quality beef is distinguished by superior tenderness and flavor.  Tenderness and flavor are a result of how much fat runs through the meat.  When fat is heated, it melts and seeps into the meat, keeping it moist and making it flavorful.

Lean meat, highly muscled, has little fat running through it.  It’s naturally less moist and flavorful.  That’s why meat taken from parts of the animal’s body where muscles are regularly exercised is not as desirable as that taken from more sedentary parts.

From a butcher’s perspective, the animal’s body can be divvied up into more than eight different cuts.  Each of these cuts is categorized under two broad categories: forequarter cuts, meaning the front half of the cow; and hindquarter cuts, meaning the back half.

In both regions there are muscled and sedentary areas.  It is accepted wisdom among butchers that meat becomes more tender the further it is from horn and hoof.  Thus, among the forequarter cuts, the meat closer to the front, just above the forelegs, the cuts known as the chuck and brisket, are less tender and flavorful than the cuts behind them, toward the middle of the animal, such as the rib, which is why prime rib is generally considered more desirable than ground chuck.

A cook flips a slab of beef on the grill.

Meat is evaluated on two criteria: marbling and maturity.

The same is true of the hindquarter cuts.  The back of the animal, the beef round, is much less desirable than the less weight-bearing area in front of it, the loin.  In fact, the loin is the least exercised part of a cow and has the most fat running through it.  From this area we get the short loin and the sirloin.

What’s Better, Choice or Prime?

The most prized cut of all lies within the sirloin, two tube-like strips of beef that run along either side of the spine known as the tenderloin.  When the tenderloin is sliced or “filleted” into portions, the cut known as “beef filet” is the result.  The tenderloin tapers at one end, so cuts taken from this end are known as the small filet or, as they say in French, filet mignon.

But if beef filet is the most desirable cut of beef, what does it mean to call it “prime?”  Is this just a piece of empty hype?

Not at all.  The term “prime” is a legal designation, assigned by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to designate the highest quality of meat.  Meat processers actually pay meat graders from the USDA to evaluate their products before introducing them to the market.  Meat is evaluated on two criteria: marbling (the amount of fat running through the meat) and maturity (the age of the animal when it goes to slaughter).

The designation “prime” is the A+ of meat grading and is so grudgingly given that only about 3% of beef is so honored.  It usually ends up in upscale restaurants or on the tables of the well-to-do.  It indicates beef from a young animal with plenty of intra-muscular fat, and thus highly flavorful.

“Choice” is usually the top grade found at supermarkets.  “Select” is a more everyday grade, leaner and less moist than Choice but by no means objectionable.

Below “Select” there is “Standard”, a still leaner grade of decent quality, but less flavorful; and “Commercial”, lacking in marbling and tenderness and apt to come from older animals.  Even further down the scale are “Utility,” “Cutter” and “Canner”, grades usually reserved for processing into prepared foods and canned goods.

Currently, Certified Angus Beef is all the rage.  Certified Angus is a branding designation registered with the USDA and indicates USDA Prime or Choice beef that came from Black Angus cattle, which some consumers consider to have a superior flavor.

Whether Certified Angus Beef is the equal of good ol’ USDA prime filet, one thing is for certain.  The question represents one of the few cloudy areas in the otherwise crystal clear world of beef evaluation.  Not only the part of the animal where the meat was harvested but the grades assigned by the USDA tell the consumer pretty precisely what’s what.  The terminology is not hype or fluff, but communicates facts.

So can a choice sirloin ever be better than a prime filet?

Not a chance.  Better is better.


Author and Client:  This article was written by Malcolm Logan for Butcher’s Kitchen



USDA beef grading standards (PDF)

Michael Chu. “USDA Beef Quality Grades”. Cooking for Engineers.


Image credits:

Juicy red meat, FotoosVanRobin; Cooking Beef, Public Domain

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  1. August 26, 2011 at 2:48 am

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