Choice vs Prime – Which Quality is Best for Grilling and Smoking

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Which cut of beef is best? It’s more than Choice vs Prime. Cuts of Beef range from grass fed, to corn and grain feeds. But just because there is a grade does not mean that all beef is created equal. Choice vs Prime is a good start to define quality ratings, but let’s also talk about Grass Fed, Wagyu, and more.

In the end though it comes down to flavor. And flavor comes from marbling and the beef itself.

Choice Smoked Beef Tenderloin sliced showing choice vs. prime
Smoked Beef Tenderloin

When hosting a cooking class or catering event, a common question we receive is whether there is a real flavor difference between various styles and ratings of beef. This inevitably becomes a complex answer because of the diversity that exists throughout the US and World in how cattle is raised and how that reflects in the taste. So let’s dive a little deeper!

Food Safety and Inspection Service

All beef in the US is inspected for food safety. That job is primarily run by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), a part of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

USDA Beef Grades Choice Vs Prime

The Agricultural Marketing Service (part of the USDA), created the official grade standards that you see today with the various “shields” stamped onto the meat packaging. Quality is primarily determined by the age of the cow and the marbling visible to the inspector when cut into the ribeye on a carcass.

The higher the grade, the more marbling, tenderness, and flavor will generally be present.

  • Select – The leanest of the primary grades. Small pockets of marbling, tender, and still flavorful, it will present the least marbling among the three main quality grades.
  • Choice – A good quality grade with moderate marbling, also tender and with rich flavor. Within choice there is also sub categories like top third choice.
  • Prime – The highest quality and most marbling based on the USDA Rating system, with younger, well-managed cattle, rich and visible marbling throughout.

The less common beef grades include:

  • Standard & Commercial – Very little fat content. If you see this in a store, it will not have a shield and you will see little to no marbling throughout the cut.
  • Cutter & Canner – Unlikely you will see these at a store. It’s often older cattle and reserved for processed meat or canned goods.
Gradient photo of grass fed (left), then Choice, then Prime, then Wagyu NY Strips.
What to expect from different grades. Gradient of NY Strip steaks.

All beef is inspected for food safety, but not all beef is graded. The decision to get a grade is a voluntary choice by the producer of the beef or the actual processing facility staffing a grading inspector. This is important to understand as you purchase meat, because some smaller local ranchers may choose not to have the grading done, but still have amazing quality of beef that rivals one of the formal gradings.

Notice there is no mention in the grading about grass fed, organic, or other specific names. USDA rating is agnostic of how the livestock is actually raised. And especially with Choice vs Prime, the real driver of quality ratings is the marbling. Over the years, US cattle producers have continued to focus on ranching and feed practices that have increased the marbling quality yielding more choice beef than in prior decades.

Prime marbled ribeye on the left and American Wagyu on the right and unseasoned.
Prime vs American Wagyu Ribeye

The Difference Between Grass-Fed and Grain-Fed

All cattle start and are raised in a pasture. So all cattle are grass fed.

Some ranchers will elect to feed their cattle only from what is available on the pasture (grass). That means no additional feed, like grains or corn to supplement the grass (pasture). This will also be regional because in some northern climates, there is not grass throughout the year.

As cows mature, a rancher may elect to supplement the pasture with other feed options. The most common are grain mixes including corn, food grade byproducts like spent brewers grains, corn flakes, and other products. But as ranchers seek out new and innovative ways to create more flavor, other feed options are emerging like finishing with carrots.

For grilling and barbecue, marbling adds more flavor and moisture to what we’re cooking.

For low and slow cooking (“smoking” or “barbecuing”), look for marbling or at least choice graded beef. The marbling provides superior flavor and tenderness.

When grilling (hot and fast) this is a good opportunity to seek out grass fed or unique local ranchers too. Grass fed cow are delicious and have their own unique flavor profile. Since they are leaner, the hot and fast method prevents overcooking a leaner cut of meat.

American Wagyu

American Wagyu is a combination of Japanese cattle breeds and American cattle, most often Angus. The marbling produced can rival and exceed that of Prime and have their own rating system mirroring the Japanese version. Don’t assume all Wagyu will be incredibly marbled. Some may be marketed as Wagyu from other countries or grass fed. Snake River Farms is an example of a producer that focuses on highly marbled and highly prized beef from the Northwest with a buttery flavor and texture.

Bone in Tomahawk Ribeye, unseasoned.
Snake River Farms American Wagyu Tomahawk Ribeye

Cattle Breeds

The reality is that most consumers won’t know what breed of cattle is in the packaging. And that is ok, because over time most ranchers wake up every day trying to find the right balance of breed that works in their respective microclimates and that provide a quality yield of beef with the most flavor.

Another item to consider when judging the quality of beef is the type of cattle that make up the steak. Cattle are bred together to create specific profiles in the flavor and marbling. Angus (Black and Red) are some of the most common form of beef cattle because of the fast maturity and natural marbling. Other breeds include Charolais, Hereford, and Japanese Wagyu breeds.

You may see the acronym CAB or “Certified Angus Beef”. That is an organization or brand versus the breed. They have their own certification process when allowing a certain beef cut to be CAB certified.

Whether Choice vs Prime or Wagyu, quality cattle management provides superior flavor and marbling. Want to hear the passion of breeds? Go pick up some steaks at your local rancher and ask. There is a lot of investment and thoughtful decisions in a quality herd.

Buying Steak

Now that you have some additional information in your hands, is there such thing as a perfect steak to buy? It depends on what you are cooking. The most important advice we can offer is to buy the best quality you can afford, or find and to look for good marbling. Remember that local ranchers may have Choice or Prime worthy beef, but elect not to pay for it or have access to facilities that staff an quality rater (versus inspector). So put eyes on those steaks and make the call based on what you see.

  • Grilling – Whether Prime grade or a grass fed local cut, grilling is a great option for any steak. Grass fed will cook a little faster and benefit from a hot fire to quickly sear the outside. More marbling can handle more heat, so reverse searing may be the best option to smoke low and slow and finish over high heat.
  • Smoking – Marbling helps with flavor and texture. A brisket without marbling is difficult to cook without overcooking or coming out dry. Smoking Brisket benefits from the higher marbling content. Only have Select or a grass fed version? Then supplement with an injection to offset the lack of the marbling for added moisture and flavor.
A Grilled T-Bone Steak sliced up and served with a glass of wine
Grilled T-Bone

Not only are there many local options for purchasing quality steak (seek them out), there are also online producers as well. Here are some of our favorites. Shipped frozen to your doorstep.

Best Grilled Steak Recipes

Some of our favorite and most popular grilled steak recipes:

Smoked Beef Recipes

Featuring some of our best smoked beef recipes. Typically these are larger cuts that can use time to break down the fat and get tender and packed with flavor.

Our Cookbook

Check out our critically acclaimed cookbook, Fire + Wine for more great inspirations for the grill or smoker.

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About Mary

I'm Mary, a wine/food/travel writer, Certified Sommelier, mom of twins, former vegetarian turned BBQ fanatic, runner, founder of Vindulge, and author of Fire + Wine cookbook. Thanks for stopping by!

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