What's the difference between choice and prime beef?
It's all about the fat, particularly the tiny veins of fat that run throughout the meat. That's called intramuscular marbling and, to be labeled prime by the USDA, meat must have a lot of it.
"The more marbling, the more flavor and juiciness," said Meathead Goldwyn, self-professed barbecue whisperer who founded the website AmazingRibs.com, which explores "the science of barbecue and grilling." Although "marbling has little tenderness impact," he said, it "contributes a lot to the quality of a steak because fat is where the flavor is."
Goldwyn explained that at the slaughterhouse, USDA inspectors take a look between the 12th and 13th ribs of each carcass to assess the marbling. "It's a pretty good indicator of the amount of marbling in the rest of the body," he said, "but it's not a certainty. We're dealing with animals, not widgets."
In his article, "Buying Beef: The Science of Beef Grades and Labels," on AmazingRibs.com, Goldwyn estimates that marbleized fat accounts for 10 to 13 percent of a prime cut, 4 to 10 percent of choice, 2 to 4 percent of select.
About half the beef produced in the United States is graded choice, Goldwyn said. Less than 3 percent is prime and the rest is select. If a piece of meat at the market is not labeled "prime" or "choice," chances are it is "select" and may be labeled, simply, "USDA graded."
Another label you'll see in the meat case is Certified Angus Beef. "Angus is a breed of cattle that originated in Scotland and is renowned for its tender, juicy, flavorful meat," Goldwyn said. To set themselves apart (and to charge more), angus ranchers formed a trade association to promote their beef. To earn the certification, angus beef must meet 10 "quality specifications" pertaining to marbling, the size of the animal and the appearance of the meat. The Certified Angus designation is bestowed by the American Angus Association, not the USDA or a third party. But, said Goldwyn, "I think it's a reasonably good marker of high-quality beef. I've had good luck with it."
At the very top of the beef chart are Kobe and Wagyu. Kobe is named for the prefecture in Japan that became famous for its Tajima-gyu cattle, a breed that is genetically disposed to have super-high marbling -- up to 40 percent. Wagyu are descended from Japanese cattle but are raised elsewhere. They may be 100 percent genetically Japanese, or they may have been crossed with native breeds to make them better suited to non-Japanese climes. Wagyu beef is usually more marbled than regular prime but less marbled than true Kobe, which has so much intramuscular fat that it appears pink rather than red.
Until 2012, there was no Kobe beef imported into the United States, so if you were served it before then, you were almost certainly deceived. Lee Seelig, third-generation owner of the Farmingdale meat wholesaler-retailer Main Street Meats, said he does not generally stock true Kobe but will special order it for restaurants. "It costs me about $100 a pound," he said. Instead, he stocks an Australian Wagyu brand, Diamantina. "I don't keep it in our retail case," he said, "because I can't just cut one steak from a strip loin and then be stuck with the rest." Prices vary according to cut, but he sells a whole Wagyu brisket for about $80.