In the world of meat (especially when it comes to steaks), the “grade of beef” refers to the marbling found within a specific cut or cow. In other words, the grade of beef refers to the amount of intramuscular fat for any particular cut of steak. “Grades of beef” and “marbling” are synonymous and can be used interchangeably. However, marbling does not account for strips of fat found on the surface of a steak (e.g. the strip of fat found on a New York Strip or Picanha).
Generally speaking, the marbling is directly correlated to the decadence and the value of a steak. This is because fat is full of sweet, buttery flavor and helps tenderize the otherwise tougher muscle tissue. However, it is important that you still purchase the right cut of steak. While beef short ribs are tremendously marbled (like wagyu), most of the marbling is actually tough, connective collagen tissue. Similarly, chuck is generally well-marbled but is unfit to be cooked as a steak. In this article, I will discuss the most common beef grading systems and common characteristics of different grades of beef.
Exploring Grades of Beef
Before we begin, it is important to know that when you’re comparing grades of beef, you must compare similar cuts of steak. Different steaks have different compositions, and it would be unfair to compare two inherently different cuts of steak. For example, a well-marbled New York Strip will always offer a better flavor profile and superior tenderness than a poorly-marbled New York Strip. However, a poorly-marbled tenderloin will still be more tender than a well-marbled New York Strip. It’s only fair to compare the grades of beef of two of the same cuts of steak.
In the USA, the ribeye is the primary determinant of the grade of the cow. The meat is evaluated for the amount and the distribution of marbling between the 12th and 13th ribs. We then use this to determine the quality and label of every other cut that comes from the cow. However, this system may differ in other countries.
Universal Beef Grading System (BMS)
Many different countries/continents use their own beef grading systems. The universal grading standard is known as the “Beef Marble Score”, or BMS. This system has 13 grades of beef, ranking from 0 (no marbling) to 12 (extreme marbling). The BMS system will be referenced in each of the three major beef grading systems.
I should mention now that cows should be grain-fed for optimal marbling scores. Grass-fed cows are lean and commonly rank no more than BMS 1-2. However, this is the discussion of another blog post.
USA Beef Grading System (USDA)
Here in the United States of America, we commonly recognize three different grades of beef under the USDA grading system. These are USDA Select (BMS 1), Choice (BMS 2), and Prime (BMS 3-5+). While there are other grades (Canner, Cutter, Utility, Commercial, and Standard), they rarely ever make it onto the shelves of any butcher or supermarket as steaks as they rank a BMS of 0.
USDA Select (BMS 1)
Cuts that are labeled as USDA Select are generally uniformly lean with sparse marbling. Steaks that come from this grade are still good to eat, as they are fairly tender, juicy, and flavorful. However, they are lower-end steaks that generally require special treatment (e.g. marinating). I personally find that these steaks are more difficult to find than USDA Choice steaks.
Characteristics of USDA Select: Lean, chewy, and beefy
USDA Choice (BMS 2)
Cuts that are labeled as USDA Choice are characterized by a somewhat moderate amount of uniform marbling. The average steak found in a butcher or a grocery store will rank as USDA Choice. Many steak houses use USDA Choice beef, as the steaks are tender, juicy, and flavorful. This grade sits in the middle of the USDA Beef Grading System and is the one of the most common grades of beef.
Characteristics of USDA Choice: Lean, tender, beefy, and slightly sweet
USDA Prime (BMS 3-5+)
Cuts that are labeled as USDA Prime are characterized by abundant and uniform marbling. Only about 2% of all beef graded in the USA qualifies for USDA Prime, as it is produced from young and well-fed cattle. As such, these steaks are difficult to find at a butcher or in a grocery store. These grades of beef is generally only offered by upscale steakhouses/restaurants, and is readily available through online order.
Additionally, the USA may offer cuts of steak labeled as “angus” or “black angus”. It is important to mention that Angus is a particular breed of cow rather than a grade of beef. Angus beef is generally more marbled and higher-quality than generic beef. Cuts of Angus steak generally average a BMS of 2 (USDA Choice) and are more likely to score a BMS of 5+ (USDA Prime) than their generic counterparts. There is no discernable difference between non-angus and Angus steaks of the same marbling grade.
Characteristics of USDA Prime: Fatty, tender, beefy, sweet, and buttery.
Australian Beef Grading System (MSA)
The Australian beef grading system is known as the “Meat Standards Australia”, or MSA. The system is relatively new and is not widely used. It is more comprehensive and precise than the USDA system, but not as much as the BMS system. When calculating a grade for the beef, the MSA system samples a number of attributes such as color, marbling, maturity, pH, and carcass weight.
This system is very similar to the BMS system as it has a precise scale of indicating marbling. The lowest end of the MSA Scale grades beef at 100-200 (BMS of 0), and the highest end of the MSA grades beef at 1100+ (BMS of 9+).
Japanese Beef Grading System
The Japanese beef grading system is the most detailed of the three systems. It accounts for the yield grade (amount of usable meat) by assigning beef a letter grade (A-C, with A being the best). The japanese system also gives the cow a meat quality score average (1-5, with 5 being the best) for marbling, color/brightness, texture, luster, and the quality of fat. A score of A5 represents the highest possible grade of beef under this system. In reality, the japanese system doesn’t actually give meat quality scores below a 3 as it fails to qualify as “wagyu”.
5 = BMS 8-12
4 = BMS 6-7
3 = BME 3-5
2 = BMS 2
1 = BMS 1
So, what exactly does the yield score for “usable meat” mean? It’s a cutability percentage that is calculated by a multiple regression equation after taking carcass measurements. What does that mean in english? Simply put, the yield is the amount of edible steak you would get per cow, and this generally varies by cow breed.
A = Fullblood Wagyu, high yield (72% and above)
B = Crossbreed Wagyu, moderate yield (69-72%)
C = Angus or common cattle, low yield (under 69%)
The yield score is pretty much an estimation of how much steak a cow has to offer and how much you expect to scrap after butchering and trimming the cow. Yield scores are reduced if intermuscular (not intramuscular marbling, but the fat in the seams between muscles) and subcutaneous fat is thick. For all intents and purposes, we consumers do not have to worry about it.
What is “Wagyu” or “Kobe” Beef?
Wagyu literally translates to “Japanese beef”. These steaks are the best of the best – intensely marbled, extremely beefy, and melt-in-your-mouth tender. Japanese wagyu cows are the most prized cows on earth. There are four breeds of Wagyu: Kuroge (black), Mukaku (polled), Agake/Akaushi (brown), and Nihon Tankaku (shorthorn). The most popular wagyu beef is known as “Kobe Beef”, which is a strain of Kuroge/Black wagyu. All kobe beef is wagyu, but not all wagyu is kobe beef. Japanese wagyu steaks average a beef grade of A4 (BMS 6-7) to A5 (BMS of 8-12).
Australian and American wagyu cattle and crossbreeds of Japanese wagyu cattle and angus/holstein cattle. American and Australian wagyu average a BMS of 5+ but generally do not exceed a BMS of 8. Thus, they are more prized than USDA Prime steaks but less prized than Japanese Wagyu.
Wagyu cattle obtain their characteristic intense marbling pattern through selective breeding and genetics. They are fed a diet high in corn and soy to fatten them up, and their movement is limited. Contrary to popular belief, they are not generally massaged and fed beer/wine to improve the quality of the meat.
There are many grades of beef that you should be aware of when it comes to choosing a steak. While you don’t have to know every single grading system, I recommend that you become familiar with the universal Beef Marble Score (BMS) system and whichever system that your country uses the most (e.g. USDA, Australian, Japanese, etc).
Look for a steak that is well-marbled. However, you still need to pick a proper steak because tough connective tissues can appear as marbling. Please refer to my beginner’s guide if you’re new to things or my favorite steak list if you’re not sure what to eat.
If you enjoyed reading this write-up, please consider leaving a question or comment below! If I missed anything, let me know and I will look into it!