Is a “Prime” Burger Really Better?

After a long week in Denver and before another long week in San Diego, the Ninja and I ate at Ruby Tuesday this past Sunday before he ran off to another pork industry event. During my decision, which took awhile because the RT menu is long and complex, I saw the header by the burger section “We serve U.S.D.A. Prime burgers.” Interesting.

Initially, that sounds great, right?! Who wouldn’t want a Prime burger? The United States Department of Agriculture defines Prime beef as:

“…beef that has abundant marbling (the amount of fat interspersed with lean meat), and is generally sold in restaurants and hotels. Prime roasts and steaks are excellent for dry-heat cooking such as broiling, roasting or grilling.”

For reference, this is a photo of a Prime steak compared to Choice and Select. USDA quality grades are assigned to a beef carcass based on the amount of marbling, or intramuscular fat, that is within the meat. Marbling contributes to both flavor and tenderness which is extremely evident to anyone who has ever eaten a high Choice or Prime ribeye.

Image courtesy USDA

Generally, you can’t go wrong in terms of flavor with a Prime cut of beef. However, these grading scales don’t really affect ground beef that much, if at all. Why am I saying that a Prime burger may not actually be better?

It all comes down to how ground beef is made – which is from trimming roasts and steaks. This video from the North American Meat Institute explains in detail how ground beef is made but to summarize, ground beef is made from pieces of meat that are trimmed off of larger whole muscle cuts like the chuck, loin or ribs. These 100% beef trimmings are then ground together with other trimmings from whole muscle cuts to make ground beef. Do you see where this is going?

Meat processors will mix the trimmed pieces together and add beef fat in as needed to reach the right lean to fat ratio. For example, at your grocery store you may see 80/20 ground beef. That ground beef is made up of 80% lean beef and 20% beef fat and that mixture was created by using varying amounts of beef trimmings and beef fat. The well-marbled ribeye is not going into the grind of the ground beef – the outer trimmings from the rib roast are going into the grind, however they are not chock full of marbling. The resulting product of a ground beef grind is 100% pure beef and is safe, delicious and nutritious for your family. However, a Prime burger is highly unlikely to be as flavorful as the Prime ribeye you treat yourself to on Valentine’s Day.

Beef and turkey patties on the grill
The burgers at the back of the grill are not Prime, but they were still delicious!
(The two at the front are turkey burgers)
Recipe for stuffed burgers

A carcass graded as Prime has been given a premium price because of its high level of marbling. This premium is given based on the whole weight of the carcass not just the middle meats, such as steaks. So, since the processor bought that beef carcass at a premium they then have to sell that whole carcass as a premium, ground beef included. This is where restaurants will try to increase their margin by increasing the price of a burger by $2 for a Prime carcass. They aren’t lying, the meat really is from a Prime animal, however the Prime characteristic isn’t really benefiting that cheeseburger.

So next time  you see a Prime burger listed for $2 more than a regular burger on the restaurant menu, don’t splurge thinking your burger will melt in your mouth like a filet or ribeye. It will still be SAFE and DELICIOUS however, it’s a restaurant-inspired marketing spin. Aren’t we all getting tired of food being deemed something it’s not (cough: CHIPOTLE)?

Have you had Prime beef before – do you think you could tell the difference between a Prime burger and a regular burger?

Until next time,
~ Buzzard ~

Disclaimer: This post is not to imply that Ruby Tuesday and Chipotle are similar because they aren’t. I wouldn’t throw that sort of insult around willy-nilly.