Regardless of their quality grade, some cuts of meat are naturally more tender than others. Cuts from the less-used muscles along the back of the animal -- the rib and loin sections -- will always be more tender than those from the more active muscles such as the shoulder, flank, and leg.
Since the most tender cuts make up only a small proportion of a beef carcass, they are in greatest demand and usually cost more than other cuts.
Each USDA beef quality grade is a measure of a distinct level of quality -- and it takes eight grades to span the range. They are USDA Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter, and Canner.
USDA Prime, Choice, Select, and Standard grades come from younger beef. The highest grade, USDA Prime, is used mostly by hotels and restaurants, but a small amount is sold at retail markets. The grade most widely sold is USDA Choice.
Standard and Commercial grade beef frequently is sold as ungraded or as "brand name" meat.
The three lower grades -- USDA Utility, Cutter, and Canner -- are seldom, if ever, sold in stores but are used instead to make ground beef and other meat items such as hot dogs, potted meat..
Following are photographs of rib steaks in the top three beef grades, together with a description of the level of quality that can be expected in each of these grades.
USDA Prime: Prime grade beef is the ultimate in tenderness, juiciness, and flavor. It has lots of marbling -- flecks of fat within the lean -- which enhances both flavor and juiciness. Prime grade beef makes up about 2% of all the beef produced in the United States and typically ends up exported or sold to fine restaurants
USDA Choice: Choice grade beef has less marbling than Prime, but is of very high quality. Choice roasts and steaks from the loin and rib will be very tender, juicy, and flavorful.
USDA Select: Select grade beef is very uniform in quality and somewhat leaner than the higher grades. It is fairly tender, but, because it has less marbling, it may lack some of the juiciness and flavor of the higher grades.