Lots of people love steak. You’ve noticed the different grades of meat at the grocery store. But Prime beef can be pricey leading many to wonder is Prime steak worth it?
We did a grill off with Prime and 3 other steaks and decided that (spoiler alert):
While USDA Prime does taste great, USDA Choice Grass-Fed steaks tasted better. We also found that despite minor differences between Certified Angus USDA Choice and regular USDA Choice, and USDA Prime, there was not a big enough difference to warrant the large price increase. So no, USDA Prime probably isn’t worth it.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story!
For the purposes of this article, I bought 4 steaks that are otherwise identical, but one was USDA Choice, one was USDA Prime, one was grass-fed USDA Choice, and one was USDA Choice Angus. I cooked them exactly the same for the same length of time and the same preparation (just salt and pepper).
So down below in our video taste test challenge, you’ll see how each tastes compared to the other!
The best grade of beef is Prime. Organic grass-fed beef is premium in terms of meat quality, taste, and health. Unfortunately, Prime beef is only available in small quantities to grocers due to its premium price and low demand.
So is it worth the price? What about Angus beef? Is Angus comparable to Prime beef?
Are you ready to know all you need to know about Prime steak and whether it’s worth the price?
Just keep reading!
Is Choice or Prime beef better?
Prime beef is better than Choice beef. The grading system determines the quality rating based on the amount of marbling in the muscle and the age of the beef. Marbling is basically fat, and a fattier cut of meat means more fat rendering (melting) out of the steak as it cooks.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) grades meat at the request of the meatpacker.
Traditionally a fattier cut of meat is richer and more flavorful. There are generally three USDA grades of beef that you would buy from the supermarket. From highest to lowest, they are:
The highest quality of meat is USDA Prime.
It is the most tender and flavorful cut of meat. It is also hard to find and usually reserved for high-end restaurants. You may be able to find it at the supermarket occasionally but at a premium price.
In short, the higher the ratio of marbling, and the younger the cow, the higher the grade.
The marbling determines the tenderness, juiciness, and flavor. Younger beef produces a finer texture, making it more tender.
The second-highest grade is USDA Choice.
It has less marbling and is generally less tender. Less marbling also means less flavor and juice.
USDA Select is the lowest grade of steak you’ll find at the supermarket.
It is very lean and tougher than other cuts.
USDA Cutter and Canner grades are meats that are typically found in convenience foods, like microwave burritos, pot pies, and other processed food products.
When shopping for steak, be sure to look for the USDA shield.
Many grocers will mark packages as “prime” or “choice,” but unless it has the USDA shield, it’s most likely a marketing ploy.
If you’re looking for the best steak, you may be surprised that size and fat content matter. To read about how to pick the best steak, read this recent article. There I also talk about which grocery store has the best steak.
Just click the link to read it on my site.
What do USDA beef grades mean? Check out this handy guide from the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service to understand the different beef grades: USDA Prime, Choice & Select. #NationalMeatMonth pic.twitter.com/7umUHZ4Pul
— USDA Food Safety & Inspection Service (@USDAFoodSafety) January 21, 2020
Is Angus better than Prime?
Not necessarily. Angus is a breed, not a grade. Angus, just like any other beef, can be terrible or excellent. It all depends on how the cow was grown, what the cow was fed, and whether it was given hormones or antibiotics.
Animals that are fed right and treated humanely are not just for marketing. They make for better tasting, healthier meat. As a bonus, you can feel good that the cow lived it’s best life before it ended up on your plate.
The American Angus Association and the Certified Angus Beef® brand are organizations that provide programs and services to “enhance the genetics of the Angus breed.” Members pay dues to register their cattle and keep up-to-date on the Angus breed and the beef industry. (source)
They do not grade the beef as the USDA does.
The only requirement for meat to be labeled “Black Angus” is that the hide of the animal was at least 51% black. That’s it. It’s just the color of the hide. Not a better grade of beef. (source and source)
There are other requirements to be certified by USDA graders, but again, “Angus” is not a grade. “Angus” is a great marketing tool, but it doesn’t necessarily mean better beef.
But it’s worth noting that Angus beef ranchers can (and do) get USDA certified as the Angus steak I bought for the taste test was indeed USDA Choice.
While labels like “organic” can also be a marketing tool, when talking about beef, organically grown means that it is free from added hormones, antibiotics, and pesticides in its food. Organic and grass-fed cattle means that it hasn’t been fed any grain or soy.
So the best beef comes from cows that are raised organically and grass-fed.
But also bear in mind that organically-grown simply means that the food the cows eat isn’t treated with pesticides and that no artificial hormones or antibiotics are given to the cows.
Then grass-fed simply means the cow was fed grass rather than grains. And while organically-grown and grass-fed” are often lumped together, one doesn’t automatically mean the other.
After all, the steak I got for the taste test was grass-fed, but my local HEB did not have organically-grown ribeyes of any kind on the day I was there.
So with organically-grown, grass-fed, and organically-grown grass-fed, you can still have Select, Choice, or Prime grades. After all, those grades are basically for the marbling.
Some producers of grass-fed beef complain that grass-fed naturally makes the cows leaner, and thus not as marbled for the steaks. But we’ll let my taste buds decide down below in the taste test as to which is best.
Organic food is generally 10% to 20% more expensive than non-organic food.
That seems really high, but there is a good reason for that price difference. I explain the reasoning and the differences between organic and non-organic food in this recent article.
But I also tell you which foods actually tend to be less expensive when you buy them organically. And which of them are the most sprayed, and should always be bought organically.
Just click the link to read it on my site.
What percentage of steaks are Prime?
Approximately 2% of steaks will be USDA Prime. That’s due to the fact that only about five percent of all beef graded by the USDA qualifies for Prime distinction. Prime is often reserved for high-end restaurants and specialty grocers.
On the other hand, about 70% of all beef graded by the USDA gets the Choice distinction. (source)
This explains why Prime is so hard to come by in grocery stores. It also explains why Prime is so much more expensive.
So if you don’t want to go out to a restaurant, where can you purchase Prime grade steak?
First, you should check your local meat market. You can also check online. Places like Snake River Farms and Kansas City Steaks sell Prime grade beef, but they can be even more expensive than eating out.
If you want to purchase your meat from the grocery store, check Costco or Whole Foods.
Remember, you should look for the USDA shield with the Prime label. Be on the lookout for grocery stores that just have the word “prime” in their labeling of meat. Without that shield, it’s not really Prime grade.
— Elevation Burger-KW (@ElevationKW) January 8, 2019
Is Costco Prime beef really Prime?
Yes. Costco is one of the few major chain stores that does carry a selection of USDA Prime beef. Unfortunately, they are not very transparent about where their meat comes from, and not everything they have labeled Prime is USDA Prime.
Costco does say that they are committed to “welfare, and proper handling, of all animals that are used in the production of products sold at Costco.” (source)
They also say that they feel like they have a moral and ethical obligation to the animals, but they don’t really go any further than that. Whole Foods Market, by comparison, has a very comprehensive animal welfare program they call their 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating system.
So, if you are looking for Prime grade meat that you can be certain is treated humanely, you may want to check out Whole Foods.
Whole Foods sells USDA Prime grade beef and they are committed to the humane treatment of all of the meat that is sold in their store.
Are you a chicken lover too?
I have a recent article that breaks down which grocery stores have the best quality chicken. It takes the mystery out of common terms like hormone-free and antibiotic-free.
Then, I even explain how some claims you see on chicken packages are just marketing gimmicks and are really meaningless.
Just click the link to read it on my site.
USDA Prime vs Wagyu beef; which is better?
Wagyu cattle have Japanese bloodlines and are raised in the US and other countries. Wagyu is extremely marbled. Even more than USDA Prime. It is also about twice the price of USDA Prime.
Japanese Wagyu is heavily regulated, and progeny testing is mandatory. This ensures people have only the highest quality meat.
Wagyu has a distinctive flavor and texture, but Japan stopped exporting Wagyu cattle in 1997.
Now, many American Wagyu is cross-bred with Angus to make them better adapted to the local climates and diseases. It also means that they are not as heavily regulated as Japanese Wagyu.
Even though American Wagyu does not have enforceable standards, the steaks are remarkable, with up to 30% fat. Wagyu fat melts at a lower temperature, resulting in a rich, buttery flavor. This makes it delicious and even better than Prime.
Now for the taste test challenge! Choice vs Prime vs Angus vs Grass-fed
For the taste test, I bought 4 boneless ribeye steaks of approximately the same weight, size, and thickness.
Specifically, they are each just under 1 lb and about an inch and a half thick.
One was USDA Choice beef, one was USDA Prime beef, one was certified Angus USDA Choice beef, and the other was grass-fed USDA Choice beef.
It’s also worth noting that the grass-fed and the Angus were also all-natural beef, meaning no artificial hormones or antibiotics.
Here’s a shot of each one and the price I paid for them:
USDA Prime – $17.27
USDA Choice – $9.45
Grass-fed USDA Choice – $16.32
Angus USDA Choice – $13.43
I cooked all of them for 4 1/2 minutes total, to an internal temp of about 145° for a nice medium.
For seasoning, I only added salt and pepper, grilling them on my Traeger Ironwood 650 grill at 400°, flipping once and rotating once on each side.
For you Traeger fans, I used the Texas flavor wood pellets, which is specifically formulated for beef. If you haven’t tried the Texas Blend, I highly recommend it – CLICK HERE to see it on Amazon.
Here is a shot of the steaks resting after coming off the grill:
Then, I allowed each steak to rest off the grill for 5 minutes before cutting into it. I did not add steak sauce or anything that would cover the flavor of the meat or masque inferior flavor.
Did I answer everything you wanted to know about prime steak?
In this article, we expanded on what it means to be a Prime steak.
We talked about the USDA grading process as well as where you can purchase Prime steak.
Very few steaks are USDA Prime and they can be hard to come by at the grocery store. As a result, they are a bit pricier.
But in the end, we felt that USDA Choice Grass-Fed, which is a little cheaper than USDA Prime, was the tastier choice. Now, it’s up to you to decide!