The meat counter can be a confusing place for many people who just want the best cut of beef for their meal. Trying to pick between different cuts, grades, and packages takes knowing what makes one cut better than another, and also how to pick out a good piece of meat.
The Primal Cuts of Beef
Maybe your have seen a beef cuts chart at your meat counter that explains where the cuts come from on the cow. That chart shows the nine primal cuts, but doesn't give a lot of information about which cuts of beef are better. Each primal cut is also further broken down into sub-primal cuts, which is where you get some of the cuts you are familiar with. Once you know where the cut of beef came from on the cow, you can tell if the beef is going to be tough, tender, or somewhere in between.
Our YouTube channel provides an excellent resource where you can see the Bearded Butchers skills at beef cutting and get great tutorials on how to make the beef cuts at home. You will also find tips and tricks for cooking our favorite meals and links to our all-natural seasoning blends both there and on our blog. Here's a great poster with all the cuts of beef for your reference.
Now we've put together this guide to help you make informed decisions about the quality of the beef you buy in the store, so you can make the most out of your meals. Once you know the difference between cuts of beef, then you can decide what cooking methods to use based on how well the cut of beef cooks. Let's get into it!
This primal cut of beef gives you the classic roasts. The beef cuts chart shows that the chuck is the upper foresection, including portions of the neck, chest, and shoulder. This is one of the beef cuts that can be tough and dry. That's because the muscles do a lot of work. Cuts of beef from the chuck are lean and can be tough if not cooked correctly. Most of the sub-primal cuts from the chuck are best as stew meat. Chuck is also a great source of meat for ground beef. One of the increasingly popular beef cuts from the chuck is the flat iron steak, which is a flavorful and tender cut one the membrane is removed.
Common sub-primal cuts from the chuck include chuck pot roast, 7-bone chuck, flat iron steak, shoulder steak, shoulder pot roast, and short ribs. Short ribs can be cut bone-in and across the ribs for Korean-style or along the bone for an English-style beef cut.
The beef cuts chart shows that the brisket is directly below the chuck. Another hard-working muscle group, the brisket is best prepared low and slow. The brisket is essentially the chest and connective muscle to the foreleg. Brisket is where you get corned beef, pastrami, and lots of other delicious types of meat.
The sub-primal cuts of brisket are the flat and the point. The flat is the rearmost portion and is the toughest part of the brisket. The point is also a tough cut, but is one of the more flavorful cuts of beef.
Located just below the brisket on the beef cuts chart is the foreshank. The foreshank is mostly stew meat because the beef cuts contain lots of tendons and connective tissue. The foreshank is one of the cuts of beef perfect for pot roast. Shank is often cut across the bone.
It's pretty easy to understand the rib beef cuts. This is the part from the back to the upper belly, and it's where some of the best cuts of beef come from. The muscles in the rib area work less than the chuck, brisket, and foreshank muscles, so there is a higher fat-to-protein ratio which leads to a more tender beef cut.
The sub-primal cuts in the ribs include ribeye roast, ribeye steak, and the back ribs. Butchers cutting beef from the ribs cut many of the portion cuts you see at your local meat counter. There are numerous different cuts of beef from the ribs, and all are excellent.
Now we are getting to the good stuff. You will notice on the beef cuts chart that the loin is basically in the middle of the cow. The cuts from the loin make for some of the best cooking. The muscles in the loin do the least amount of work, so you will get tender, flavorful, and marbled cuts of beef from the loin. This is where superior cuts of steaks come from.
Some of the different cuts you are likely familiar with include porterhouse, T-bone, filet mignon, and tenderloin. When a butcher is cutting from the short loin, they can either cut the tenderloin, or the filet mignon, but not both because they are the same piece of beef. The highest quality beef is steak from the short loin. New York strip steak is the lower portion of the short loin. Strip steak is among the most tender and can be as good or better than a ribeye steak.
The sirloin is one of the better beef cuts. It is situated just behind the loin and is a tender, moist, and juicy primal beef cut. Some of the different cuts from the sirloin include tri-tip roast, top sirloin, and tri-tip steak. Sirloin should be cooked low and slow in most cases to get the long fibers of muscle to break down. It's also important to cut these portions correctly against the grain.
Sirloin is an excellent beef cut for making ground beef at home. Grinding chuck and sirloin with a little pork fat makes the best hamburgers ever.
The round is the rear of the cow. This is another area that gets plenty of work, so expect any portion from the round to be leaner and tougher than rib or loin cuts. This is also a substantial cut of beef that produces versatile smaller cuts. There are different cuts of the round that produce some of the best steak for roasting.
Common cuts from the round include the top round, bottom round, and the eye of round.
This funny named cut is one of the more flavorful cuts, but can also be tough if not prepared and served correctly. The short plate is essentially the underbelly and side ribs of the cow and it stops just at the flank. The short plate is where skirt steaks are cut from.
Flank is the rearmost portion of the underbelly of the cow between the round and the short plate. This is one of the more flavorful beef cuts, but you must be cautious when cooking to prevent making it tough. Flank is great when marinated to break down some of the toughness.
Portions cut from the flank are flank steak and skirt steak.
Picking the Best Beef Cuts
Now that you understand the primal and sub-primal cuts, it's time to discuss how to pick out a good piece of meat at the store. When you shop the meat counter, you are buying portion cuts from larger cuts of beef. Some of the ways you can identify higher quality are through labelling. The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for grading meat sold in the US. The highest quality beef is graded Prime, while most stores sell Choice (the next grade down) and Select. Grading is voluntary, so just because a nice looking steak doesn't have a grade doesn't mean it isn't good.
Picking the best beef cuts depends on what you are cooking. If you are getting ready to smoke, brisket and ribeye are excellent choices. Porterhouse, New York, and Filet Mignon are excellent beef cut choices for grilling. Sirloin and chuck are excellent for stew and braising, and also for making shredded beef. Store-bought ground beef is a mixture of parts, often of low quality.
When you are looking at beef, use your senses. Fresh beef cuts should be mostly dry and cold. Do not buy warm raw beef. Fat should be evenly marbled throughout and the meat should feel tender. If the beef cut is hard or has a wedge of hard fat, it isn't a good steak. Beef should be red to purple in color, not brown. If you are buying more than one steak, try to find ones cut to similar thickness. That way, when you are cooking the beef, it will be done at the same time.
Picking out a great steak is only part of the process. Even a top-quality piece of beef will be nasty if it's cooked wrong. One way you can make good choices when cooking is to pay attention to the part of the cattle the beef came from. Hard working muscle groups will always need low and slow cooking to prevent tough, dry, and unappealing meals. Portions like the loin are great pan seared over high heat, but quickly. This helps to lock in moisture and keep a tender cut from becoming dry. Even when you have a beautiful piece of meat, perfectly cooked, you still want to make sure you cut the meat across the grain. This way, you unlock the tenderness and flavor the meat contains.
Hopefully, this guide will help you make informed decisions about the quality of the beef you buy in the store. We want everyone to get the most out of the meals they make, and it all starts with picking the best roasts and steaks for the type of cooking you want to do.