Got Beef? Choice vs. Prime

Are you shopping for a cut of beef and not sure which one is the best? Making the decision between choice and prime beef can be tough, especially if you don’t know the difference between the two. 

Generally, prime beef is known for its intense flavor and even fat distribution, which makes it a tasty cut of meat. Choice beef, on the other hand, only has a moderate amount of fat distribution and is a little less meaty in flavor. Prime is “graded” higher (see more below) than choice. But other factors such as recipe, price, cooking method, and availability can determine which cut is best for you!

Read on to learn all about choice vs. prime beef. In the meantime, drool a little over this ribeye steak I recently cooked on a pellet smoker:

What Does “Choice” or “Prime” Mean?

Choice and Prime Beef are two different grades of beef as chosen by the US Department of Agriculture. In the United States, before beef can be sold, it must be inspected and given a grade. 

The three grades that apply to beef are select (lowest), choice (middle), and prime (best).

Beef is graded based on how it looks and feels. The better the firmness, color, and texture, the higher the grade the beef will receive. The maturity of the cow is also considered in this process but is less important than the actual look and feel of the beef. 

What is the Difference Between Choice and Prime Beef?

The main difference between beef that is labeled choice and beef that is labeled prime is the quality of the beef. Prime beef has to have the best marbling (and, therefore, the best flavor). For beef to be labeled prime, it must have at least 8% fat marbling, and it must come from a cow of A or B maturity.

As you can imagine, this doesn’t apply to many cows, and reportedly, only about 2% of US beef is given the prime labeling, which is what makes it more expensive. 

For beef to be labeled choice, it only has to have at least 4% marbling and comes from a cow of A or B maturity. The most popular type of choice beef is Angus. While choice beef isn’t as tasty as prime beef, it is still a good option. 

For meat that doesn’t meet the 4% fat marbling or comes from a cow of another maturity level, it is labeled select beef. Select beef must have at least 2% fat marbling. If it doesn’t have at least this, the beef is usually ground or cut, being sold as ground beef or chuck meat since it isn’t suitable for steaks or roasts.  

Does it Matter Whether Beef is Choice or Prime?

As you are shopping, you’ll probably zero in on the price difference between choice and prime beef. Prime beef will cost significantly more than choice beef, and you’re probably wondering if it matters. 

In my opinion, prime beef is the best, but you likely won’t notice the taste difference in recipes where the beef is heavily spiced or mixed with other ingredients. So, if you are making a pulled BBQ beef, burnt ends, or some sort of stew, it’s better to save money and grab the choice of beef–since the meaty flavor and meat quality won’t matter as much. 

But if you are making steaks, I highly recommend splurging and grabbing the prime beef. Steaks are often served plain or with minimal seasoning. If you are trying to impress someone, the difference between prime and choice will be noticeable. 

Additionally, because it has less flavor, choice beef needs seasoning to be tasty, so if you don’t want to do a lot of work on your steaks, prime is the obvious cut you should purchase. 

It should also be noted that because of the fat distribution in prime meat, it is easier to keep moist while cooking, and the more tender the final result will be. If you are worried about serving dry or chewy steak, then it’s not very… *ahem* tough. Prime is definitely a better option for you. 

a steak on a plate

Can You Tell the Difference Between Choice and Prime?

If you are eating steak, you will definitely notice the difference between choice and prime meat, especially if you are eating a nice cut like a ribeye. However, if you are making another recipe, one that involves lots of spices and BBQ sauce, you likely won’t be able to tell the difference.

If you have a guest, though, who is used to eating one type of meat over the other, they will likely notice the difference between the two meat grades even when the meat is seasoned or sauce is added. 

How to Choose Between Choice and Prime Beef

Ready to make your decision between choice and prime beef? Here is the decision process you should use when deciding between the two. 

1. Consider the Recipe You Plan to Make

The first thing you need to consider is what you plan to make. If you are cutting your beef and tossing it with spices and/or sauces, then choice is likely an okay choice. 

For those making a steak or a brisket, you’ll definitely want to stick with prime.

2. Price Point

Of course, price will play a factor in your decision. If you are on a budget, then your choice will likely be what you have to choose. If you have a little extra cash, though, I recommend picking prime beef. 

3. The Cooking Method You Plan to Use

If you are cooking your beef low and slow, even a cut of choice beef can end up tender and delicious. But if you are planning to sear your beef, you’ll want to pick prime to ensure the final result is tender and delicious. 

If you are planning to make meat that is undercooked, like blue steak, then you should definitely choose a high-quality cut of beef like prime. 

4. Availability

The last thing to consider is whether or not the cut you want is available in prime. As I mentioned above, prime meat is more rare than choice beef. So sometimes, you may want a prime cut, only to find it isn’t available. Choice it is for this time!

RecipeSteak or unalteredSeasoning or marinade
Cooking MethodSearing, grilling, smoking, or other dry cooking methodsWet methods, or low and slow. Roasting, broiling, some grilling, and smoking recipes with marinades
a fork and a knife cutting into a steak

Where Can You Find Prime Beef?

Prime beef can be available at grocery stores, but it isn’t as common as choice beef. If you know for sure that you want a prime cut of meat, I recommend visiting your local butcher. 

If you don’t have a local butcher, prime beef can be ordered from several online companies. Take a look at our Best Mail Order Steaks list to find out which butchers ship directly to you. 

What Are the Different Grades of Meat?

The most common grades of meat are choice, select, and prime, with prime being the premium offering. You also have standard, commercial, utility, and cutter and canner (which I don’t recommend for grilling or smoking). 

What is the Best Grade of Beef?

Prime is the best cut of meat available, and it can be difficult to find because it is so delicious. Only 2-3% of the beef in the United States is graded as prime each year. 

I hope this guide has helped you to learn more about the differences between choice and prime beef! If you still have questions about steak or the differences between cuts of steak, read on to the section below!

Want to Learn More About Steak?

Check out our other guides to make your steak dinner a success!

Photo of author

Hope Davis

Born in Denver, Colorado as the oldest of 5 children, I learned at a young age that the grill was one of the best ways to prepare food for a crowd. And during the winter storm months, when the snow was likely to knock out the power to our house, the propane grill was a lifesaver! You wouldn’t believe the number of things you can cook on a grill when necessary. With parents who couldn’t tell salt from pepper unless you told them, I spent my late teen years making my own seasoning mixes and marinades to dress the meat before barbecues. It wasn’t long before I developed a secret marinade that people still beg me to make for them today! When I was 21 years old I bought my first smoker. Picked up some cedar chips for making a cedar plank salmon...and well, the rest they say is history! I’ve been grilling and smoking all kinds of creations ever since and I’m always excited to share my passion with others through my favorite medium--writing!

Leave a Comment