What is grading?
Grading is a program within the U.S. Department of Agriculture that is paid for by meat processors. Just as a teacher grades a test for correctness or quality of work, a licenced Federal grader uses electronic instrumentation to assign grades to beef postharvest.
Every piece of meat is graded with the same Federal standards of quality no matter when or where it was purchased. Beef is graded in two ways: Yield and Quality.
Yield grades focus on the amount of usable meat on the carcass (cutability). The amount of usable meat on the carcass is determined by following equation.
Yield Grade = 2.5+(2.50*Adj. Fat Thickness, inches)+(0.20*%Kidney, Pelvic and Heart)+(0.0038*Hot Carcass Wt., pounds)-(0.32*Ribeye Area, square inches)
Yield grades range from 1 to 5. A yield grade of 1 denotes the greatest ratio of lean to fat, or the greatest amount of saleable beef. A yield grade of 5 denotes the lowest-yielding carcass.
Quality grades focus on the carcass characteristics associated with the palatability of the beef. There are 5 classifications for beef: A, B, C, D and E. The amount of marbling and maturity are top factors that play a role in this score.
The maturity of the beef is not necessarily the chronological age of the animal, but more so the physiological age; however, younger cattle tend to have a higher maturity score.
Expected age and maturity grades are listed below:
A – 9-30 months
B – 30-42 months
C – 42-72 months
D – 72-96 months
E – greater than 96 months
Since the chronological age (age in months) of a beef animal is not always known at harvest, physiological estimators are evaluated as well including:
- Size, shape, and ossification of bone and cartilage
- Color, texture, and firmness of the lean tissue exposed at cut between the 12th and 13th rib
The Marbling of the beef refers to the flecks of fat within the muscle. Marbling is what gives meat its flavor and juiciness. There are nine degrees of marbling: abundant, moderately abundant, slightly abundant, moderate, modest, small, slight, traces, and devoid.
1 Assumes that firmness of lean is completely developed with the degree of marbling and that the carcass is not a “dark cutter.” 2 Maturity increases from left to right (A through E). 3 The A maturity portion is the only portion applicable to bullock carcasses. Credit: www.thebeefsite.com
The USDA grading chart shows the relationship of maturity and marbling to the USDA Quality Grade.
Looking at both Quality and Yield Grades beef is categorized into the following by the USDA:
Prime grade is generally sold in restaurants and rarely found in supermarkets. This beef comes from young, well-fed cattle and has abundant marbling and flavor. Prime roasts and steaks are great for dry-heat cooking such as broiling, roasting or grilling and need little seasoning.
Choice grade is still high quality, but has less marbling and flavor than prime grade beef. Choice roasts and steaks from the rib and loin are flavorful, juicy and tender and do well with dry-heat cooking methods. Cuts from the rump, round, and blade chuck are less tender, so are best braised (roasted or simmered with a small about of liquid in a covered pan).
Select grade is uniform in quality and tends to be the leanest. This beef is fairly tender with less marbling and flavor. Only tender cuts from the loin, rib, and sirloin do well with dry-heat cooking. Most other cuts need to be marinated before being cooked or braised to optimize flavor and tenderness.
Standard and Commercial grade
Standard and Commercial grades of beef often won’t be labeled with anything because they aren’t that special. They are either ungraded or go by the store’s house brand. This beef will need to be marinated and paired with a flavorful sauce. Standard and Commercial grade beef do best with slow, moist-heat cooking methods.
So there it is… Next time you are purchasing beef at a grocery store or ordering a steak at a restaurant you’ll know exactly what you’re getting!