Have you ever been confused by cuts of beef?
If so, you’re not alone. One of the things we hear the most often from our customers is that you want to know as much as possible at your food. So do we!
That’s why we share about life on our farm and how our cattle are raised. It’s also why we share beef cooking tips (like this post) that talk about the actual beef in your freezer. We want you to understand the difference between cuts so that you always choose the correct cut for a recipe, can substitute-in another cut if needed, and don’t have your eyes glaze over with confusion when looking at a variety of beef cuts.
The good news is that although beef cuts have so many different names, there are some easy tricks to understanding the different cuts. Here are the secrets to understanding beef cuts:
Why are beef cuts bewildering?
Why? There are lots of reasons, but one of them is because grocery stores and butchers can cut beef in a variety of ways and name it however is best for their store or region. In fact, one study showed that many grocery stores carry more than 60 different beef products.
Here’s the secret to understanding beef cuts:
What are the different cuts of beef?
The USDA divides a cow into eight regions. They are called the primal cuts, or the main cuts.
These eight are important. You need to learn them. If you do, you can easily understand everything you see at the grocery store. I promise.
Here are the eight primal cuts:
- Loin (short loin and sirloin)
- Short Plate
After the primal cuts, beef gets divided into subprimal cuts — a cut of meat larger than a steak, roast or other single cut, but smaller than a side of beef. A butcher often times starts with a sub-primal cut, and they cut it into the individual sizes we’re used to seeing in the butcher case.
You buy and eat portion cuts. When you purchase from Clover Meadows Beef, you get individually wrapped, portion cut steaks, roasts, ribs, and more.
Which cuts of beef are the most tender? expensive?
Now that you have the regions, all you need to remember is that the more expensive steaks are cut from the center of the steer, which is the loin or rib section.
Why the center? Because beef gets more tender as the distance from horn and hoof increases.
A steer’s legs and neck muscles do most of the work, so the muscles there are firmer. That makes these areas the toughest. The loin and ribs are at the center of the animal, and compared to a neck muscle, they don’t work much so they’re tender cuts
Take a second and look at the beef cut chart above. Really look at it. Did you find the loin and rib section? They’re at the very top of the steer in the center. The are the areas that are farthest away from the animal’s head and feet, which are the muscles that do most of the work.
An example of the tender cuts in the loin and rib section are T-bone steak, strip steak, porterhouse, rib eye, rib steak and Filet Mignon. Is your mouth watering yet? It should be! You may also be looking for your wallet because you know these cuts are usually pricier.
How to choose beef cuts:
Since you probably don’t want to carry around a beef cuts chart in your pocket, here’s what you need to know about each of the cuts:
Chuck meat comes from the cow’s shoulder. Cows use their shoulder a lot, so it’s a tougher cut of beef. However, it’s also a very flavorful cut, and butchers cut it in a variety of ways so you have lots of options at the grocery store.
Types of cuts you’ll see for chuck are ground chuck (hamburger), flat-iron steak, chuck short ribs, shoulder tender medallions, chuck pot roast, blade roast, boneless chuck short ribs, stew meat, country style ribs, and top blade steak, just to name a few.
You should choose chuck beef when you want lots of flavor, but need to be cost conscious too.
The brisket is the steer’s breast. Brisket is usually tough and contains a substantial amount of fat. But don’t let that fool you! Chefs know that if you tenderize it with a marinade or rub, and cook it low and slow, it’ll melt in your mouth. Brisket is primarily used for barbecue, corned beef or pastrami.
Cook a brisket when you want to cook low and slow.
The shank is located at the animal’s forearm in front of the brisket. It is one of the toughest cuts. One of the most famous dishes that comes from the shank is Osso Buco, which requires braising to make the meat more tender. Make stews and soups with the shank.
The cow’s ribs and backbone make up the ribs. There are 13 pairs of ribs, but only the last section (6-12) are in the primal section of the ribs. The others are in the chuck cut.
Ribs have lots of flavor and marbling. Types of cuts you’ll see for ribs are Delmonico steak, boneless ribeye roast, cowboy steak, ribeye steaks and beef short ribs.
Choose ribs when you want a tender cut of beef with extra marbling.
The plate, or short plate, is the other source of short ribs and it’s found near the abdomen. It is fattier. Make fajitas, pastrami, skirt steak, Philadelphia steak and short ribs with this cut and you’ll be happy with the results.
The loin is where the most expensive cuts of beef come from. It is located at the top of the steer directly behind the rib, and since it’s not a heavily used muscle, it’s very tender.
The loin has two parts: shortloin and sirloin.
Popular cuts from the shortloin are filet mignon, tenderloin steak, T-bone, Porterhouse steaks, strip steak, New York Strip, and KC Strip.
Earlier we talked about how one cut of beef often has several different names. The shortloin is a great example of this.
A T-Bone and Porterhouse are from the shortloin. They’re the same steak. The only small difference is a Porterhouse is a larger version of the T-Bone.
Then, when you cut the beef out around the “T” bone, you get two unique cuts – a filet and a strip steak. A strip steak has lots of difference names too like New York Strip, Kansas City Strip, and hotel steak, just to name a few.
The sirloin area is a little less tender than the shortloin, but it’s also more flavorful. Common cuts from the sirloin area are sirloin steak, center cut sirloin steak, top sirloin, bottom sirloin, ball tip steak, Tri-Tip Roast and Tri-Tip Steak.
Cook a cut from the loin when you’re hungry for a flavorful and tender cut of beef.
The round is a lean and inexpensive cut. It’s found at the cow’s rump and hind legs, so it’s sometimes tough.
When you’re at the grocery store, you’ll often see round sold as ground beef. Other common cuts are round steak, eye of round, tip steak, tip roast, top round and bottom round roasts.
The flank is located below the loin. It has no bones, and is very flavorful but also very tough.
It used to be less expensive at the grocery store, but this has started to change. Why? Flank steaks are known for being lean. Since consumers want lean meat more than ever before, it’s increased flank steak’s popularity and price.
Popular flank cuts are flank steak and London broil.
What the best beef cuts?
The loin section is where the most expensive and tender cuts are found, which makes it the best beef cut. Popular steaks from this area are the filet mignon, tenderloin steak, T-bone, Porterhouse steaks, strip steak, New York Strip, and KC Strip.
The four most popular cuts with steak aficionados and steakhouses are the tenderloin, ribeye, strip and T-bone. These are all amazing cuts of beef, but choosing the “best” also comes down to personal preference and your taste buds, and we’ve written a lot about how to choose the best cut of steak.
What to look for when buying beef at a grocery store:
If you’re buying beef at a grocery store, here are a few pointers so that you’re not staring at the beef case.
- Is it cold? Beef should be cold from the time it leaves the butcher until you purchase it. If it’s not cold to the touch, don’t buy it.
- What color is it? You want beef to be bright red or purplish-red. Brown spots and other discolorations are bad. This also means that it’s important to choose beef that’s in see-through packaging.
- What’s the sell by date? This seems like an obvious one, but make sure you purchase beef before it’s sell by date. Sometimes, beef will go on sale when it’s by it’s sell-by date and if you purchase it, cook it sooner rather than later.
- Do you see moisture? When beef is fresher, there is less moisture in the package.
- Do you see marbling? Marbling and fat are the white-ish colored lines you see in beef. You want it to be consistent and even throughout the beef. For lean cuts like sirloin steak, you want less fat. For tender cuts like ribeye steak and chuck roast, marbling makes it more flavorful and is why the beef will melt in your mouth.
- How is it graded? The USDA grades beef so that you know the tenderness and amount of marbling in the beef. Prime is the highest grade. Next is Choice and Select. Prime has more marbling and is more tender than Select, which is a lean cut of beef.
- What else is on the label? You’ve probably seen beef labeled with lean or extra lean on the label. To be lean, 100 grams of beef has to have less than 10 g of total fat, less than 4.5 g of saturated fat and less than 95 mg of cholesterol. Extra lean beef has less than 5 g of total fat, less than 2 g of saturated fat and less than 95 mg of cholesterol.
What beef cuts to get when purchasing farm fresh beef directly from a farm
The beef cuts you get when purchasing a side of beef from a farmer is a BIG question, and we cover it fully in our post on how to buy a cow from a farmer.
One of the biggest things to keep in mind is that a steer is not all steak. In fact, most of the animal is ground beef.
Let’s say you decide to purchase a one-fourth of a cow from our farm. With a quarter beef, you would get about 110 pounds of beef. Of this, 50 pounds would be ground beef, and the remaining 60 pounds would be steaks, roasts, brisket, etc.
It always suprises people that they can’t have the entire animal cut as their favorite cut. But remember, there are limits of each type of beef cut per animal. Back to our T-bone example above. If you’re working with a butcher and choosing your beef cuts you can have EITHER t-bone steaks OR filets and strips. You can’t have both since all of those cuts come from the same section of beef.
One more thing!
Do you want to learn more about beef? Below are a few popular beef posts and recipes you may like. In addition, we have an entire ebook about beef that goes through purchasing and preparing beef from a farmers perspective.
- Buying a Cow. How Much Beef Is It?
- Is It Done Yet? The Best Meat Thermometer
- Defrosting Meat: 4 Safe & Easy Ways
- Slow Cooker Pepper Steak
- Prime Rib Roast with Garlic Herb Butter
We have a weekly e-newsletter where we share about farm happenings, when our next beef availability is, and all things beef. When you do, you’ll get a cheat sheet with 9-must-ask questions before buying beef directly from a farmer.
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