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Buying Beef

USDA's Meat Grading Program

USDA meat grades are based on nationally uniform Federal standards of quality. They are applied by experienced USDA graders, who are routinely checked by supervisors who travel throughout the country to make sure that all graders are interpreting and applying the standards in a uniform manner. A USDA Choice rib roast, for example, must have met the same grade criteria no matter where or when you buy it.

Each USDA beef quality grade is a measure of a distinct level of quality—and it takes eight grades to span the range. They are USDA Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter, and Canner.

Prime grade beef is the ultimate in tenderness, juiciness, and flavor. It has abundant marbling-flecks of fat within the lean-which enhances both flavor and juiciness. Prime roasts and steaks are unexcelled for dry-heat cooking (roasting and broiling).

Choice grade beef has less marbling than Prime, but is of very high quality. Choice roasts and steaks from the loin and rib will be very tender, juicy, and flavorful and are, like Prime, suited to dry-heat cooking. Many of the less tender cuts, such as those from the rump, round, and blade chuck, can also be cooked with dry heat.

Select grade beef is very uniform in quality and somewhat leaner than the higher grades. It is fairly tender, but, because it has less marbling, it may lack some of the juiciness and flavor of the higher grades. Only the tender cuts should be cooked with dry heat. Other cuts should be marinated before cooking or cooked with moisture to obtain maximum tenderness and flavor.

Standard and Commercial grade beef frequently is sold as ungraded or as "brand name" meat.

The three lower grades — Utility, Cutter, and Canner — are seldom, if ever, sold at retail but are used instead to make ground beef and manufactured meat items such as frankfurters.

Storing Meat

Properly wrapped meat cuts, frozen at 0 °F, or lower, will maintain their quality for several months. This varies, however, with the kind of meat. The following table shows a range within which you can store meat with reasonable expectation that it will maintain its quality. Meats can be kept safely frozen for longer periods than indicated, but they are apt to lose quality.

Suggested Storage Times for Raw Meat
Product Freezer (0°F) Refrigerator (40°F)
Beef, roasts and steaks 6-12 months 3-5 days
Lamb, roasts and chops 6-9 months 3-5 days
Pork, roasts and chops 4-6 months 3-5 days
Beef and lamb, ground 3-4 months 1-2 days
Pork, sausage 1-2 months 1-2 days

On the average, 1 cubic foot of freezer space will accommodate 35 to 40 pounds of cut and wrapped meat, slightly less if the meat is packaged in odd shapes. Meat should be initially frozen at -10 °F, or lower, and as quickly as possible. If you are freezing it yourself, allow some space for air to circulate between the packages.

Source: USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, www.ams.usda.gov/howtobuy/meat.htm
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