Steak enthusiasts often hear about USDA grades of beef and wonder how this grading process is actually performed, why it started, and what it actually means about the cut of meat on your plate. These are all good questions, and if you’re serious about enjoying steak, it pays to have a working knowledge of the USDA beef grading system. It can help you order the right steak, ask the right questions, and even choose the right steakhouse before you grab your keys and head out the door.

1. Why it exists

The USDA beef grading system is vital to the American beef production and distribution industry because it gives us a common set of terms and quality standards to work with. In short, it allows the entire supply chain, from cattle farmers right down to steak house chefs, to know exactly what they’re buying and selling. If there were no grading system in place, or if it were left to each individual cattle farmer to grade their own beef, people could say whatever they wanted about a cut of meat. It would be very difficult to manage quality throughout the supply chain.

2. How the beef is graded

The USDA employs professional meat graders who use a variety of methods to assess the quality of the meat. These methods fall into two main categories: Subjective and objective. The subjective methods involved the meat grader’s own experience and training. Looking at and handling the beef can give these professionals a great deal of valuable information.

The object methods involve special tools that give a more scientific analysis of the meat. Again, knowing how to use these tools and retrieve the right information is a matter of professional training.

This information gives the meat grader a score for how tender, juicy and flavorful the meat is. Another aspect of the grading involves yield; in other words, how much lean meat is harvested from a single animal.

3. What the grades actually are

USDA Prime is the highest grade. The cattle that produce this meat are young and fed a healthy, robust diet. The meat itself has excellent marbling abundant marbling, is exceptionally tender and flavorful, and is usually sold to high-end steakhouses and other establishments.

The next highest grade is Choice. This is still a very high quality meat, but you won’t see quite as much marbling. Some of the cuts will be very tender, specially those from the loin and rib, but others will be less tender.

The third grade is Select. This grade is very lean, but definitely has less of that beautiful marbling that makes such a tender, flavorful steak. Select beef tends to be dryer, and will often benefit from a good marinade before cooking, in order to maximize tenderness.

Many people are unaware of this, but there’s also a “fourth” grade. Ungraded USDA beef is seen everywhere. Sometimes it’s labeled “USDA ungraded,” and sometimes it appears as a “store” brand product. Moving down the line, you have even lower grades (canner, for example) which are used for things like canned soups and ground beef.

What’s your steakhouse selling?

If you get a bargain on a piece of USDA Select or Choice beef, and the preparation is excellent, you could still have a really good steak experience. But serious steakhouses will almost always deal in USDA Prime when it comes to pleasing their customers. Now that you know a little more about the grading process, ask your waiter about the USDA grade of that steak you’re eyeing on the menu!