Understanding Meat Cuts and Grading
The United States Department of Agriculture is responsible for inspecting meat and poultry to make sure it is safe, wholesome and correctly graded, labeled and packaged. Inspection for wholesomeness is mandatory and is paid for out of tax dollars. Grading for quality is voluntary, and the service is requested and paid for by meat and poultry producers. Typically, the label should tell you the part of the animal the meat comes from and the quality grade of the meat (if it's graded).
Below you will find information on where meat cuts are from on the animal, and how the USDA determines the quality of that cut of meat.
Prime grade is produced from young, well-fed beef cattle. It has abundant marbling (intramuscular fat streaks that create a marble-like pattern on the meat cut). Prime roasts and steaks are excellent for dry-heat cooking (broiling, roasting, or grilling).
Choice grade is high quality, but has less marbling than Prime. Choice roasts and steaks from the loin and rib are very tender, juicy, and flavorful - also 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, but will be most tender if "braised" - roasted, or simmered with a small amount of liquid in a tightly covered pan.
Select grade is very uniform in quality and normally 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 (loin, rib, sirloin) should be cooked with dry heat. Other cuts should be marinated before cooking or braised to obtain maximum tenderness and flavor.
There are five grades for lamb, typically only two grades are found at the retail level - prime and choice. Lamb is produced from animals less than a year old. Since the quality of lamb varies according to the age of the animal, it is advisable to buy lamb that has been USDA graded.
* Prime grade is very high in tenderness, juiciness, and flavor. Its marbling enhances both flavor and juiciness.
* Choice grade has slightly less marbling than prime, but still is of very high quality. Most cuts of prime and choice grade lamb (chops, roasts, shoulder cuts, and leg) are tender and can be cooked by the dry-heat methods (broiling, roasting, or grilling). The less tender cuts - breast, riblets, neck, and shank - can be braised to make them more tender.
Pork is not graded with USDA quality grades as it is generally produced from young animals that have been bred and fed to produce more uniformly tender meat. Appearance is an important guide in buying fresh pork. Look for cuts with a relatively small amount of fat over the outside and with meat that is firm and grayish-pink in color. For best flavor and tenderness, meat should have a small amount of marbling.
Pork's consistency makes it suitable for a variety of cooking styles. Chops can be prepared by pan broiling, grilling, baking, braising, or sautéing. Ribs can be braised, roasted, or grilled. Slow cooking yields the most tender and flavorful results. Tenderloins are considered to be the most tender and tasty cut of pork.
The USDA grades for poultry are A, B, and C.
* Grade A is the highest quality and the only grade that is likely to be seen at the retail level. This grade indicates that the poultry products are virtually free from defects such as bruises, discolorations, and feathers. Bone-in products have no broken bones. For whole birds and parts with the skin on, there are no tears in the skin or exposed flesh that could dry out during cooking, and a good covering of fat under the skin. Also, whole birds and parts will be fully fleshed and meaty.
The U.S. grade shield for poultry may be found on the following chilled or frozen ready-to-cook poultry products: whole birds and parts, as well as roasts, tenderloins, and other boneless and/or skinless poultry products that are being marketed. There are no grade standards for necks, wing tips, tails, giblets, or ground poultry.
* Grades B and C poultry are usually used in further-processed products where the poultry meat is cut up, chopped, or ground. If sold at retail, they are usually not grade identified.