Buying Beef: The Zen of Beef Grades & Labels

January 23, 2012

Confused by all of the different beef grades and aging methods out there in the marketplace?  Well, our very own VIP blogger Meathead from is here to help cut through the meaty clutter.



Vitamin beef. Flesh of bovine. Is there anything more luxurious and decadent than a prime grade dry aged ribeye grilled over high heat? Cattle are butchered and can be broken down into many different cuts. The most popular use of beef is for steaks, roasts, and ground meat, but everything from the tongue to stomach to testicles are served. Even the bones are used for stews and soups.

Beef comes from both steers (boys) and heifers (girls), and the best comes from mature, but not old animals. Young animals, calves, are used for veal. Older, tougher animals are best used for ground beef.

There are some very helpful terms used to describe beef and many appear on labels. It pays to know them when you shop.

Marbling. Starting in 1926 the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) began grading beef. Today inspectors grade primarily on the age of the animal and the amount of fat mixed in with the muscle as measured between the 12th and 13th rib. This fat is called marbling because it resembles the striations in marble: Thin, web like filigrees. The more marbling, the more flavor and juiciness, but marbling has little tenderness impact. Marbling can contribute up to 50% of the quality of a steak because fat is where the flavor’s at.

beef marbling chart

Beef grades

USDA Utility, Cutter, Canner Beef. These are the lowest grades of beef and used primarily by processors for soups, canned chili, sloppy Joe’s, etc. You will not likely see them in a grocery store.

USDA Standard or Commercial Beef. Practically devoid of intramuscular fat. If it does not have a grade on the label it is probably standard or commercial. These grades are fine for stewed or ground meat, but they are a bad choice for barbecue.

USDA Select Beef. Slight marbling. Most restaurant brisket is this grade. If you know what you are doing you can make this stuff tender. Otherwise, get a higher grade.

USDA Choice Beef. Noticeable marbling, but not a lot. This is a good choice for backyard cooks. About half the beef is marked USDA Choice.

USDA Prime Beef. Significant marbling. Often from younger cattle. Prime is definitely better tasting and more tender than Choice. Only about 3% of the beef is prime and it is usually reserved for the restaurant trade.

Special breeds

Black Angus. Black Angus cattle are considered by many to be an especially flavorful breed. Alas, it is almost impossible to know if what you are buying really is Angus.

Kobe Beef. Kobe Beef comes from Wagyu cattle, a special breed that is genetically disposed to have high marbling. It was first popularized in the Kobe Prefecture of Japan where it became known generically as Kobe beef. Kobe cattle are fed sake and beer mash during the final fattening stages and some even get daily massages! No kidding. Some of it is graded A1-A5 with A5 having the most marbling. Some of it is graded with a marbling score called BMS. USDA prime is 4 to 5 BMS, which is where Wagyu beef usually starts. American Wagyu is usually 4 to 10 BMS. Japenese Wagyu can go up to 12 BMS because of the feed and handling regimen.

Wagyu Beef. Wagyu cattle are now also raised in the US and other countries. American Wagyu does not have to adhere to the same feeding and massaging standards as Kobe. At twice the price of prime is it worth it?


After cattle are slaughtered chemical changes called rigor mortis makes the meat tough within the first 12 hours. The carcass must be chilled rapidly but not frozen, and it takes several days for the muscles to relax enough to be sold. This usually happens in shipment. After that it can be further aged, or ripened, to increase tenderness. Enzymes and oxygen begin to work on the meat during the aging process, but too much age can spoil the meat, especially if bacteria, yeasts, or molds attack the meat. There is a big difference between aged meat and old meat. In addition, aging does not enhance all cuts, and it is not necessary for ground beef. Pork and most poultry do not age well at all because their fats get rancid more rapidly than those of beef.

Fresh. This seemingly desirable term means the meat has not been aged at all, so it is actually not a sign of highest quality.

Wet Aged Beef. Most meat is shipped from slaughter houses as large wholesale cuts packed in plastic vacuum bags in boxes. If kept this way at 34-38F for about 30 days, enzymes tenderize the meat, but the flavor is not as enhanced as it is in dry aging. If you buy vacuum packed beef that has not been aged, keeping it in the fridge for 2-3 weeks may tenderize it a bit.

Dry Aged Beef. Dry aging beef is an expensive process for tenderizing beef and concentrating its flavor. Dry aged beef is noticeably different tasting than fresh beef because the chemistry of the fat changes drastically. Some describe it as earthy, nutty, gamey, leathery, or even mushroomy. Some people are addicted, some just plain don’t like it.

Large hunks of meat, usually the best cuts such as the rib primal (section), are held in a sanitary room at 34-38F and 70-80% humidity, with brisk airflow for 30-75 days. Dry aging is sometimes called controlled rotting because the exterior of the muscle gets dark purple and mold sometimes grows on the outside of the meat.

bone-in-rib primals in fridge

In the picture above we see bone-in rib primals in the aging locker of David Burke’s Primehouse in Chicago. They range from, left to right, 7 days, 20 days, 30 days, and 60 days.

During aging natural enzymes break down connective tissue and tenderize the meat while moisture evaporates shrinking the meat up to 20% (fresh beef is about 70% water). The outside crust is trimmed off before they are sliced into steaks and cooked, so another 15% is lost, although some of the trimmings are used in Primehouse’s incredible hamburgers. Aged steaks there sell for a bit less than $1 per day.

It is rare to find dry aged beef in grocery stores because most of them buy their meat in vacuum packed plastic bags. Some specialty butchers and high end restaurants offer dry aged beef. Because precise temp and humidity control are crucial, you should not try dry aging at home.

Other terms

Grass Fed Beef. Until the 1950s, most US beef was grass fed by being allowed to graze on open ranges. As the US population grew and demand for cheap beef grew, grain feeding of beef became the norm. Now there is a trend back to grass feeding because many believe it is better for the animals, for people who eat them, and the environment. Some people think grass-fed beef taste better than grain fed, but more think corn fed tastes best.

Grain or Corn Fed Beef. For most of their lives, and especially just before slaughtering, most cattle in the US are fed corn. These cattle have slightly more fat and many people prefer the taste. Cattle do not easily digest corn, but the process is popular because they can be kept in tight pens in feed lots and do not have to graze over open land.

Grass or Corn Finished. Before slaughtering some cattle are brought to feed-lots where they are gorged and fattened. Sometimes grass-fed cattle are corn finished, so consumers who are concerned about corn feeding might also inquire if their grass fed cattle have been corn finished. It’s getting complicated out there…

Organic Beef. USDA rules passed in 2002 state that certified organic beef must be produced according to strict rules that must be verified with an elaborate paper trail on every animal including its breed, feed, and medical history. To be certified organic it must eat only organic grasses and grains, have unrestricted outdoor access, must never be given antibiotics or hormones, and must be treated humanely. Organic beef is more expensive.

Natural Beef. Natural beef must not be given antibiotics or hormones, but they can be grown, fed and handled in the same way as other common cattle. Some physicians and scientists think giving cattle antibiotics could be encouraging the appearance of antibiotic resistant microorganisms in humans.

Kosher Beef and Halal Beef. These cattle are grown and slaughtered according to Jewish law (kosher) or Moslem law (Halal). Their requirements are similar. Both require that the animal be slaughtered by slitting the animal’s neck veins and drained of practically all blood. Some experts believe this method is painful and inhumane.

Related Topics: Amazing | Beef Grades | Beef Labels | Black Angus | Burgers 101 | Canner Beef | Commercial Beef | Corn Finished | Craig Goldwyn | Cutter Beef | Dry Aged Beef | Grass | Grass Fed Beef | Halal Beef | Kobe Beef | Kosher Beef | Marbling | Meathead | Natural Beef | Organic Beef | Prime | Steak101 | Usda Choice Beef | Usda Prime Beef | Usda Select Beef | Usda Standard Beef | Usda Utility Beef | Wagyu | Wet Aged Beef

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