We’ve talked to a lot of people about beef. As it turns out, while people love beef, many are too intimidated to cook it at home.
When you get into the nitty gritty, there’s a lot to know. But armed with the right information, we promise that anyone can make a delicious (grass-fed) beef dinner in his or her kitchen.
In Part 1, we cover the basics of the beef cuts you see at the grocery store. In Part 2, we discuss the best way to prepare each. We’ve even included a handy cheat sheet for your reference.
Need more info on the ins and outs of beef cuts or the specific cooking techniques? Don’t worry – we’ll dive into the details (and recipes) on future posts.
PART 1: THE BEEF ON BEEF CUTS
Many of us have stood with eyes glazed, slack jawed in the meat section. No wonder you’re intimidated – some stores carry as many as 60 different beef products on their shelves! Knowing the basics of beef cuts goes a long way at the store and in your kitchen.
Why do cuts of meat matter? For one, the best way to cook a cut of beef largely depends on where in the animal it is from.
To optimize texture and flavor, cooking techniques need to be tailored for the composition of the particular cut of beef. The more a steer or heifer uses a given muscle, the tougher the cut; higher levels of collagen and elastin can make the meat chewy. Collagen melts as it is heated, becoming gelatin, tenderizing and moisturizing the meat. Elastin must be broken down physically, either through pounding or grinding. The amount of fat on a particular cut also plays into how it should be treated to eat best.
For instance, a cut from a highly-exercised area, like the brisket, has lots of connective tissue. Long, slow cooking methods break down the connective tissue to make it tender. In contrast, a cut from the loin is already lean and quite tender, and its flavor benefits from quick cooking over high heat.
Beef cuts explained: a brief primer on primals
When a steer or heifer is butchered, the animal is first divided into primal cuts, which are sold at the wholesale level. From there, the cuts are further subdivided into subprimals, the retail cuts you are used to seeing at the market (e.g. ribeye steak). Subprimal names are less than scientific and can vary greatly depending by region of the country.
In America, beef cattle are typically divided into 8 primal cuts: the top side of the animal, from head to tail: chuck, rib, short loin, sirloin, and round; underneath the animal, from front to back: brisket/shank, plate, and flank.
Location: The shoulder, starting at the front of the animal, running from the neck down to the fifth rib.
Characteristics: Flavorful, fatty, with a high amount of connective tissue
Common cuts: stew meat; boneless chuck roast/steak, chuck eye steaks, shoulder roast/steak, flatiron steak. Chuck is also one of the best sources of ground beef.
Location: On the top half of the animal, extending from the sixth to the twelfth rib.
Characteristics: Tender with an outstanding beefy flavor.
Common cuts: ribeye roast and ribeye steaks, prime rib.
Loin (Short loin/sirloin)
Location: Runs from the last rib to the hip area on the top half of the animal.
Characteristics: includes the most prized cuts of meat. The tenderloin contains the most tender cuts (e.g. filet mignon) but is mild in flavor; the shell is less tender but more flavorful (e.g. strip steak).
Common cuts: tenderloin steak, tenderloin roast, filet mignon, strip steak, porterhouse, T-bone, sirloin steak, sirloin roast
Location: the rear and hind leg of the animal.
Characteristics: lean and typically less tender.
Common cuts: top round roast, top round steak, eye round roast, eye round steak, round cube steaks.
Location: the front underside of the animal: brisket is the breast area, and shank the forearm under the brisket.
Characteristics: brisket is tough, with lots of connective tissue and fat; shank is flavorful, high in collagen, and usually used for soups/stocks or ground for low-fat ground beef.
Common cuts: brisket, center cut shank, and grinds.
Location: the underside from below the rib to below the loin.
Characteristics: plate is fattier and flavorful; flank is leaner, less tender, and very flavorful.
Common cuts: short ribs, flank steak, skirt steak, hangar steak