Finding a Prime Steak (Decoding Beef Quality Grades)

I know that for most everyone who eats and enjoys meat, we can probably all agree. There is nothing better than a prime steak. Lather it up in some butter and it just gets even better! But with so many labels and the limited supply, how are you actually supposed confidently work towards finding a prime steak?

I remember when I was starting out as a sophomore in college and knew absolutely NOTHING about different cuts of meat. Other than what animal they were from. While I enjoyed steaks the one time I splurged that year and bought some, I had no idea what I was buying. I remember calling my mom when I got home and begging her to bring me the meat tenderizer. I was so nervous that the one time I decided to buy steak and make my boyfriend a nice dinner that it would turn out bad.

When she came over to the house and I’d showed her the steaks she assured me that I would be just fine. That I wouldn’t need the tenderizer. I had bought some of the most expensive ones in the meat case at Walmart (I assumed they were the best I could afford and find). That was my system. But it doesn’t have to be yours! So today we’re going to talk about finding a prime steak.

Finding a Prime Steak

While there’s a pretty general consensus for the public about what a prime steak would taste like, what are the building blocks that make this so different from any other steak? To understand what makes prime beef unique, we’re going to have to start with the basics of how we use USDA beef grades to do so.

Why Grade Beef?

Beef is graded upon a few contingent areas once it has been processed – skeletal bone maturity, marbling, texture and appearance. The reason why beef is graded in these areas is because these are indicators of potential juiciness, tenderness and flavor potential. While all meat in the United States in inspected and this is ensured by federal law USDA beef grading is voluntary.

The large majority of beef is graded in the United States (about 95% of it) and it is a cost that the packer will initially cover but ultimately it is for you and I’s benefit.  I don’t know about you but I frankly don’t have the time or information to make all of these decisions in my limited grocery runs. That’s why they took care of it for us. Still, there’s nothing wrong with understanding the basics.

USDA Beef Grades

There are eight different USDA quality grades for beef, but today we’re only going to discuss the three you would most likely recognize:

  • Prime: Meat is sourced from a young animal with the highest degree of marbling (moderately abundant and slightly abundant). The meat is finely textured and has the highest potential for juiciness, tenderness, and flavor. It can easily be grilled, roasted or broiled.
  • Choice: This beef is still high quality but it will have less marbling than prime (primarily moderate and modest). They are still very juicy, tender and full of flavor but more suited to braising.
  • Select: This beef will have slight or small marbling and will be more coarse than the first two options. It is recommended to be cooked with ample marinating and braising.

All of these grades will come from the two youngest groups of cattle which can range from 9 to 42 months.

A Closer Look At What Impacts USDA Beef Grades


First maturity is established. This sounds exactly like what it is. There are certain biological indicators that are reviewed to establish maturity that places each animal in a category for age. We choose to review this because as cattle do mature the meat that we harvest from them will become tougher which is not desirable. This is determined by visually appraising

  • The ossification (replacement of cartilage with bone) of the thoracic buttons located in the backbone area. This starts from the tail end of the backbone and progresses towards the front with age.
  • The shape of the ribs (a young animal will have narrow ribs that are oval shaped while an older animal will have ribs that are wider and flatter).
  • The appearance of lean tissue (younger animals will have very finely textured and light colored lean meat, an older animal will have coarser darker meat)


Marbling is measured by visually evaluating the IMF otherwise known as the intramuscular fat in the rib eye (located at the 12th rib cross-section). Even if you don’t feel like you know what marbling is, you’ve seen it! It is the tiny flecks of white located on the interior of a cut of beef. The 12th rib cross-section is always evaluated so there is a standard to grade from.

This is a graphic I put together showcasing the six different marbling classifications. I found the images I used in this graphic here.

Finding a Prime Steak

Why do we care about marbling? Because just like any other fat, it is going to increase the flavor potential and tenderness.

So, Where Do I Actually Find Such a Thing as a Prime Steak?

Now that we’ve paid homage to how prime steaks are selected, we need to address the question. How do I go about finding a prime steak? Only about 5% of USDA graded beef falls into this category. Because of the high demand and limited supply this is typically not found in your average supermarkets. Instead most of the time it is able to be found at high end restaurants and hotels. But you also may be able to find it at a local butcher! Prime steak is not exactly the unicorn its made out to be, it can be found and enjoyed.

I simply searched for Prime Steak in Las Cruces on Google and two different local butcher shops populated in addition to several higher end restaurants. I visited Guevara’s Meat Market earlier this evening and bought two BEAUTIFUL top sirloin steaks! I’ll keep you posted how delicious they are.

But what if you live in a place that doesn’t have a high end restaurant/hotel or a local butcher shop? If you’re still having trouble finding a prime steak its still possible. You can have them shipped to your door. I have no personal experience with this. However, because they have to be shipped and arrive cold there is a larger investment. You can read more about this option here.

Prime steaks are a lot easier to find than they’re made out to be. Of course that’s if you live in a reasonably sized city. Have you ever had trouble finding a prime steak? Where did you eventually find yours?

Thanks for reading!




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