Beef grading deals with several factors determined by the United States Department of Agriculture. These factors include marbling, firmness, texture, tenderness and overall quality of the beef. USDA categorizes beef into eight different categories to be sold to the public with USDA prime, choice and select being the most commonly sold in stores.
Cuts of meat that are labeled as prime by the USDA are considered to be the best meat available. It has significant marbling, which is the amount of fat mixed in with the muscle of the meat, is very tender and often comes from younger cattle. This grade of beef is typically reserved for finer restaurants and only applies to about 3 percent of all beef.
The next category of beef grade is known as choice and, while there is still a decent amount of marbling within this meat, it is significantly less than prime. About half of all meat is labeled as choice grade and it is commonly sold in grocery stores.
The third best grade of meat is USDA select. While there is some marbling, it is not nearly as tender as choice grades of beef. Most restaurants will use this grade of beef in brisket. It is usually the lowest grade of beef that you will find at grocery stores and is typically less juicy and less flavorful due to being leaner.
Also referred to as commercial grade beef, standard grade beef is sometimes sold in stores. If there is no label indicating the USDA grade, it is most likely standard. There is very little marbling in this grade of beef and commonly used in recipes that call for stewed or ground beef.
USDA utility, cutter or canner beef are the final three grades of beef recognized. These grades of beef are used in processed foods such as canned chili, sloppy joe mixes and soups and are unlikely to be found in grocery stores. These grades of beef are seldom, if ever, sold in stores and are instead used to make items such as hot dogs.