Know Your USDA Grades

A guide to quality control for steaks.

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Indiana Beef Council executive vice president Joe Moore explains that USDA graders visually inspect a carcass and give government grades based on their wealth of experience, factoring in firmness, texture, the color of the lean meat, and the distribution of marbling within the lean muscle. But overall, the more marbling the animal has, the higher its grade of meat. “Beef fat is where the flavor comes from,” says Moore. Surprisingly, the grading of meat is a voluntary, fee-based service that happens 24 hours after the slaughter. Some beef is sold ungraded.

USDA Prime: These cuts feature the most marbling, and therefore the beefiest flavor, due to the high amount of fat that melts as it cooks, basting the meat in its own juices. High-end steakhouses such as Ruth’s Chris and Fleming’s work with this grade of meat. Occasionally, grocery stores such as Costco carry meats labeled Prime.

USDA Choice: The second tier of meat is generally more affordable and common. The meat has less marbling—though Choice is a perfectly suitable grade for naturally tender cuts like tenderloin. Hint: If your steak needs some sort of adornment—an add-on sauce or rub—to bring out its flavor, there is a good chance it is a Choice cut.

USDA Select: These less-marbled pieces of beef, commonly found in the grocer’s packaged-meat section, usually call for a salty marinade to tenderize the tissue and restore the flavor. USDA Select beef also makes a fine stew.

USDA Standard or Commercial: This lesser grade of meat tends to be tough and inexpensive—often either packaged without a designated grade or labeled as a grocery store’s house brand. Sauce these cuts liberally and sharpen your steak knives.

 

We love steak, any way you slice it. In Indianapolis, there’s a steakhouse to cater to every occasion and level of sophistication, and after months of dining like wealthy cavemen, we present them to you here, in juicy detail. A la cartes include a primer on the king cuts (for those who don’t know a porterhouse from a portobello), tips on the best cheap chops in town, a cattle call of beefy terms, and a stab at defining that common condition among steak-lovers—the meat sweats. You want a piece of this? Dig in.

 

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