Have you ever stood at the meat counter and wondered what the “USDA Prime” and “Angus” labels were supposed to mean? Will either of these designations ensure a higher-quality product? As the US produces over 26 billion pounds of beef per year, it can be easy to get confused. In this guide, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about USDA Prime vs Angus beef, so you can make an informed decision the next time you pay a visit to the butcher.
About USDA Prime
Contrary to a popular misconception, Prime beef isn’t actually a type of beef. The term refers to a grading system used by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to define the characteristics of the meat.
First, the beef is graded based on its juiciness, tenderness, and flavor. Next, the system evaluates how much usable lean meat will be left on the steer after it’s been partially butchered. These criteria are instrumental in determining whether the meat will be labeled Prime, Choice, or Select.
In order to understand the grading system, you’ll need to be familiar with the term that’s fundamental to the process: marbling.
Marbling refers to those white ribbons of fat that can be seen running through the beef. The flecks and swirls resemble the pattern on the surface of a marble, hence the name.
The amount of marbling in the meat is dependent on the cow’s diet. Steaks from an animal raised on grain will have more marbling than beef from a grass-fed cow (see The USDA Scale, below). The breed of cattle can play a role as well, but diet and handling are the two major factors.
The fat along the exterior doesn’t count as marbling, as this can be trimmed away. Nor does the term refer to the broad swath of fat that separates two muscles, which can be found in chuck roasts or other large cuts.
Finally, understand that some cuts are more well-marbled based on their location. Sirloin, while prized for its tenderness, doesn’t have much marbling. The rib, by contrast, is one of the most marbled sections on the steer.
The USDA Scale
When the meat is exceptionally tender and juicy with impressive marbling, it receives the “Prime” designation. According to the USDA, beef that falls into this top category is usually produced from the youngest cattle. Prime beef is the go-to choice for high-end restaurants, but you should also be able to find it at your local butcher’s shop. Be forewarned that the higher quality translates into a higher price tag.
Some people believe that cattle must be grass-fed in order to receive the Prime label. In fact, grass-fed cattle is almost never graded Prime. That’s because a grain-based diet will make the cows fatter, which leads to more marbling.
The main difference between Choice and Prime beef is the amount of marbling in the meat. While Choice cuts are still deliciously tender, they have a slightly lower fat content than their Prime counterparts. This means that the cooked meat will lack that indescribable juicy quality that gets your mouth watering. Despite this minor difference, Choice beef is a fine option for home chefs.
The next rung on the USDA’s ladder is the Select designation. Beef that’s labeled Select will be leaner than Choice or Prime, and therefore not as flavorful. It’s still good quality meat, but it will require a bit of extra attention to get the flavor and texture where you want them. This is why many cooks will marinate Select cuts before cooking. They’re also a great choice for stewing and braising.
Take a look at this informational video to see the difference between USDA Prime, Choice, and Select cuts.
About Angus Beef
The Angus label doesn’t refer specifically to the quality of the beef. It’s merely the name of the breed of cattle that the meat came from. It’s true that Angus beef usually receives high marks in the USDA’s grading system, but that’s because of the superior manner in which the cows are raised.
Also known as “Aberdeen Angus,” the cattle originally came from Scotland, but they’re currently raised in the US as well. They can withstand harsh winters and brutal summers, giving them a sturdy resilience that’s reflected in the quality of the beef they produce. Female Angus cattle grow to be about 550 pounds, while the males can top out at 850 pounds.
The meat produced by Angus cattle is usually well-marbled and delicious, which is why it’s often graded so highly. Restaurants, too, will seek out Angus beef and use the word on their menus to justify charging a higher price.
As with any type of cattle, the diet and raising practices have more bearing on the quality of the beef than the name itself. While genetics are certainly a factor, there’s no guarantee that Angus beef will outshine the competition.
Angus vs Black Angus
The “Black Angus” distinction raises even more confusion regarding the quality of the beef. In truth, there’s no difference between Angus and black Angus beef. Here’s why.
Until the turn of the 20th century, all Angus cows had black fur. Somewhere around that time, however, some red Angus began cropping up in the herds. Genetically, however, the red and black Angus cows are exactly alike. In terms of quality, there’s no reason why you should seek out black Angus specifically.
USDA Prime vs Angus Beef
So, should you choose USDA Prime over Angus beef? Here’s the good news: It’s possible to get both at the same time. The beef from Angus cows is so high-quality, it’s often labeled Prime anyway. If you have any questions regarding either the USDA grade or the breed of cattle you’re getting, ask your butcher.
How To Cook Your Steak
When you buy a Prime cut, you want to treat it with the respect it deserves. One way to do this is to start cooking the meat at a low temperature–150 to 175 degrees Fahrenheit. This will allow the marbling to render slowly, making the finished result more juicy and tender. A smoker works best for this step, but you can cheat by using a toaster oven.
Once the internal temperature of the meat has reached 120 degrees or so, it’s time to finish it up with a good strong sear. We would recommend using wood chips to give the steak an extra dose of wood flavor. Apple and oak are two of our preferred choices, but you can experiment with different woods if you’d like.
The USDA Prime vs Angus beef debate is essentially a nonissue. While USDA Prime refers to the quality of the cut, Angus beef is simply a breed of cattle.
Because the meat from Angus cows is typically exceptional, it often falls into the Prime category, but that’s the only correlation between the two. Once you’ve understood how beef is graded by the USDA, you should be able to make an informed decision on which one to choose.