Steakhouses and high-end butcher shops love to tout their prime beef, a grade of meat from the USDA that’s become synonymous with superior flavor and juiciness, not to mention exclusivity. But what does prime beef really mean, and how is it different from the cheaper grades you can buy at the supermarket?
The USDA has eight grades of beef, and the top three—prime, choice, and select—are primarily graded based only on the amount of marbling (fat) in the meat, namely the amount of fat present within a muscle. The more marbling, says the USDA, the greater the flavor, tenderness, and juiciness. Which is often true! But it’s far from the whole truth. For instance, grass-fed beef from pasture-raised cattle will be less marbled than its corn-fed counterpart, and likely more flavorful. A cut of dry-aged choice beef will develop more flavor and tenderness than an unaged prime cut. And ultimately a steak is only as good as the person cooking it.
So while USDA prime may be a nice feather in a steakhouse’s cap, it’s far from a singular statement of how good your steak will be—and how much you should pay for it.