Learn the Label
Prime, Choice, or Select
We know there is a witch's brew of labels when it comes to your beef choices. You need to know how to sort fact from fiction when it comes to providing a nutritious meal solution for your family.
The USDA employs federal inspectors to grade beef on expected palatability (tenderness, juiciness, and flavor). Quality Grades are evaluated on factors such as degree of marbling, and maturity of the animal. While you may not know the maturity of the animal, there are some visual cues to help determine quality grades.
Color: The color of the meat should be bright, cherry red. Beef does brown as it is exposed to air.
If you store beef in a Ziploc or other plastic bag with a small hole, you will notice it browns quickly in your fridge. While it does not mean the meat has spoiled, you should still throw it out when in doubt. Alternatively, if you buy vacuum-packaged meat, it may appear darker than normal. This is not a flaw with the meat, but rather a lack of oxygen passing through the packaging. The packaging is what allows it to stay fresh in your fridge longer than the standard styrofoam and cellophane packaging.
Marbling: The white fat that is interspersed within the lean muscle.
Sometimes, especially in grass-finished beef, the fat can appear more yellow in color due to the animal's diet prior to harvesting. While super-lean cuts provide a great option for those individuals requiring a low-fat diet regimen, it's also important to recognize that marbling greatly affects flavor. That is why the degree of marbling is one of the primary determinants in quality grade. Let's take a look at USDA's guide:
So where does this leave you? In the grocery store, you'll see quality grades printed on the label. Prime is the top-tier for expected palatability, Choice is most common, and Select is the leanest option available in (some) groceries stores.
What if I am buying from a local source that doesn't have quality grade?
All beef in Colorado needs to be harvested in an inspected plant or facility. However, it may be state-inspected instead of federally-inspected and sold at a packing facility. In this case, beef is inspected for quality and safety, but not for quality grade. You can use the guide above to help you make a purchasing decision. Please also note, grass-finished beef tends to be leaner and it may be difficult to find grass-fed-and-finished beef that has moderate or abundant marbling. This will also affect the way you cook it for maximum flavor, so be sure to ask your source for recommendations.
Grain-Finished vs. Grass-Finished
So many choices! There's A LOT of different options out there. All are healthy, but what are the differences, really? Here's a handy guide to help you navigate that decision! Decoding the Label