Prime vs Choice Brisket: What These Labels Really Mean

You’re strolling through the supermarket and see that they have a few beef briskets for sale. Leaning in for a closer inspection, you see that some of them are labeled “Prime,” while others say “Choice.” What does this mean, and which one should you choose? We’re here to teach you everything you need to know about prime vs choice brisket.

Prime vs Choice Brisket

Prime is the highest beef grade awarded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The meat comes from young cattle and is exceptionally tender and well-marbled. Choice cuts are also high-quality, but the beef will contain less marbling throughout. For the grill or smoker, we would recommend Choice brisket over Prime.

About Brisket

Beef brisket is a highly flavorful cut that comes from the lower portion of the steer’s rib cage. The meat contains a great deal of connective tissue, so it should always be cooked slowly at low temperatures. This allows the fat and connective tissue to break down into gelatin, which tenderizes the meat.

If you’d like, you can purchase an entire brisket, also known as a “whole packer.” Bear in mind that this cut usually weighs over 10 pounds, so it’s best saved for larger gatherings.

Since brisket can also be divided into subprimal cuts, it’s possible to buy a smaller portion size. These two cuts are known as the flat and the point. The flat is leaner and typically weighs between 6 to 10 pounds, while the point end is well-marbled and slightly smaller—around 5 to 7 pounds.

Prime vs. Choice Brisket: What’s the Difference?

When it comes to beef, the words “Prime” and “Choice” are grading terms used by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The meat is graded based on flavor, juiciness, and tenderness, which relates directly to the product that ends up on the shelf.

However, the USDA also awards points for the amount of usable meat that’s available on the steer. This is less relevant from a consumer standpoint, but if the beef comes with a higher grade, it’s safe to assume that it came from quality cattle.

Let’s take a closer look at each category to find out what these grades mean for the brisket you’re buying.

Prime

If the brisket receives the Prime label, it was cut from a younger steer that was fattened up properly. This is evident in the amount of marbling that should be visible in the meat, particularly on the point end.

If you’ve ever eaten real prime rib, you’ll understand what sets Prime beef apart from the lower classes. In fact, if the beef isn’t rated as Prime, the cut will usually be called a “rib roast” instead.

Less than 2 percent of all beef cuts receive the Prime designation. As such, it can be difficult to find, especially if you shop locally.

Prime cuts can often be found on restaurant menus. In fact, some retailers will only sell them to professional chefs at hotels and other fine eateries. When it comes to brisket, however, you might be able to score a Prime cut at your local meat market. You can also try an online retailer, such as Wild Fork Foods or Snake River Farms.

Choice

The most notable difference between Choice and Prime is the amount of marbling. If you were to compare the two side by side, you would notice far less intramuscular fat in the Choice cut.

That said, brisket that’s labeled “Choice” will still turn out flavorful and juicy when it’s cooked correctly. The key is to set the temperature to 225-275 degrees and be careful not to overcook it. We would recommend doing this no matter what grade of beef you buy, so you should be perfectly happy with a Choice brisket.

We would recommend buying Choice brisket over Prime, especially for the smoker. The meat has to cook for such a long time, you probably won’t notice the difference in quality. What’s more, you can expect to spend a lot more on a Prime brisket, which will make it even more disappointing if the results aren’t what you expect.

Select

Since this grade sits lower on the list than the other two, you might assume that Select cuts are inferior. While this isn’t necessarily the case, it’s better to stick with Choice brisket if you can find it. Here’s why.

Select cuts are very lean, with very little marbling—sometimes none at all. That means that the meat will dry out easily, especially if it’s cooked hot and fast. In general, dry heat cooking applications are not recommended for Select beef.

Although brisket is meant to be cooked low and slow, a high percentage of fat is essential to the cooking process. This is especially true if you smoke the whole brisket or the point cut. The flat doesn’t have as much marbling as the point, but it should still have a nice fat cap on top to help the meat stay moist.

If you do decide to buy a Select brisket, we would recommend marinating it overnight before adding it to the smoker. Use acidic ingredients such as vinegar or citrus juice to tenderize the meat, and keep the temperature at a steady 225 degrees while cooking.

What About Angus Beef?

Now that you understand the difference between the Prime and Choice cuts, you might be wondering where the “Angus” and “Black Angus” labels fit in. Actually, these terms have nothing to do with the quality of the beef—at least, not directly.

While Angus beef is generally considered high-quality, the name refers to a breed of cattle. “Aberdeen Angus” cows were originally raised in the Scotland highlands, where they developed a hardy constitution in order to deal with the region’s extreme weather patterns. Today, the breed is also raised in the US, where it has a great reputation.

A male Angus can weigh as much as 850 pounds, and the females usually weigh around 550. Their meat is highly regarded as deliciously tender, with excellent marbling throughout. That’s why it often receives a Prime or Choice label when it’s brought before the USDA for grading.

If you’re wondering about the difference between Angus and Black Angus beef, that’s an easy one: There is none. Originally, all Angus cattle had black fur, but today you’ll find a few stray red Angus cows in the herds as well. This anomaly has no effect on the meat itself, so the designation is essentially meaningless.

As a footnote, buyers should be aware that the breed alone won’t guarantee quality. In order to produce tasty beef with good marbling, the cattle needs to be humanely raised and well-fed. Fortunately, most of the farmers who raise Angus cattle do their best to maintain the breed’s lofty reputation.

Final Thoughts

If you have to decide between Prime vs Choice brisket, you’re in a good position. Both cuts should yield delicious, juicy beef that melts in your mouth.

Because Choice is easier to find—not to mention easier on the wallet—we would suggest looking for a brisket with this label, especially if you’re a first-timer. Otherwise, the choice (pun intended) is yours to make.

Best of luck, and happy grilling!

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