Deep Cuts: The Ultimate Beef Breakdown

Brooke Newberry
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Our favorite steakhouse orders, butcher shop beef, and store bought slabs are found throughout the entire cow.  Each steak purchased is specific to a certain region of the animal. When the animal is butchered and broken down, the butcher proportions out larger sections called Primal Cuts.  These cuts, which are typically referred to as simply “Primals,” (different than “prime cuts”…this comes later) are then portioned into individual steaks to be sold.  First, the butcher cuts through the backbone to split the carcass into sides.  A “side” of beef is literally just one side of the beef carcass.  Each side is then broken down right between the 12th and 13th ribs into sections called the forequarter and hindquarter. 

The most tender cuts of beef are found furthest from the horn and the hoof.  Conversely, the neck and leg muscles are tougher, because they were worked the most during the livestock’s lifespan.  The more an area or muscle mass is worked, the tougher steak it will be and vise versa.  When shopping steaks at a market or restaurant, know your taste and texture preference and also remember to think about the occasion for the purchase.

THE PRIMALS:

 

FOREQUARTER

 

Chuck:

Beef chuck is one of the most economical cuts available. The chuck’s amount of connective tissue makes it a tough cut—most ground beef is actually ground chuck. Its deep, rich flavor and toughness make it a prime candidate for marinating or use in braised dishes like beef stew or pot roast.

Common Cuts: Arm Roast, Flatiron Steak, 7-Bone Steak, Boneless Short Ribs

 

Brisket:

Beef brisket is another tough cut commonly seen in pot roasts and on the barbecue. Slow-cooking methods are the way to go with brisket because slow and low allows the meat to potentially become extra tender.  Brisket is also often cured and turned into pastrami or corned beef. 

Common Cuts: Corned beef, Front Cut, Whole Brisket

 

Fore Shank:

Otherwise known as beef leg or beef shank.  It’s extremely tough and full of connective tissue. Shank is mostly used for making stock, soups, and stews.

Common Cuts: Beef Shank

 

Short Plate:

These are the underbelly cuts. In addition to being cheap – plate cuts are coarse, fatty, and extremely flavorful.  These are often seen heavily marinated before cooking.

Common Cuts: Skirt Steak 

 

Rib:

The rib area of the cow yields ribs (appropriately), as well as steak cuts.  Back Ribs are notoriously marbled, so they have an extremely tender and full-bodied flavor.  Rib-eye steaks are smaller cuts and best for grilling and pan frying.  Larger cuts from this section, like Prime Rib, are good for roasting, while short ribs taste their finest braised.

Common Cuts: Rib Roast (aka Prime Rib), Rib Steak, Rib-Eye Steak, Back Ribs

 

HINDQUARTER

 

Flank:

A tough and flavorful cut well suited for heavy marinating and braising. Flanks are great for quick fire dishes like fajitas and are also popular in London Broils.

Common Cuts: Flank Steak

 

Round or “Beef Round”:

This is the lean (minimal marbling) and tough back leg of the animal, and is the choice for pot roast.  Beef round is traditionally where we find cube steak.  Chefs commonly use rounds to make burgers and jerky. 

Common Cuts: Tip Roast, Rump Roast, Cube Steak, Tip Steak.

 

Sirloin:

“Sirloin” is seen divided into top sirloin (the best quality) and bottom sirloin. Chewy and flavorful, this cut is another option for slow and low prep: roasting or barbecuing.  

Common Cuts: Sirloin Steak, Top Sirloin Steak, Tri-Tip Roast

 

Short Loin:

This is the VIP section of the cow.  The most popular and desirable cuts come from the shirt loin – these are famously tender and best for grilling and pan searing.

Common Cuts: Top Loin Steak, T-Bone Steak, Porterhouse Steak, Filet Mignon, NY Strip

*Arguably the finest cut of beef, the Beef Tenderloin is found inside the short loin. This is where the infamous celebratory Filet Mignon is located, which is made from the very tip of the pointy end of the tenderloin.

 

 

Pocket Beef Grade Breakdown (USDA):

Prime cuts:

The highest quality, more pricy cuts.  Only about 3% of all beef is USDA Prime.  Find these at high-end grocery stores, restaurants, or reputable butchers. They’re guaranteed to be “a cut above the rest”: tasty, tender, juicy, and will have the most marbling.  Also, keep in mind that just because a meat is labeled “prime,” doesn’t mean it’s a prime grade: it must read “USDA Prime.”  Think date-nights or special occasions for these top cuts.

Choice cuts:

A grade below Prime.  Buying choice is still high quality and completely fine when you buy a naturally tender cut, like Filet Mignon, or a marbled cut, such as Rib Eye.  These are great cuts for crowds, larger dinner parties, and barbecues.  Choice meats will be slightly coarser in texture but will still pack in plenty of flavor.

Select cuts:

The leanest and least juicy cuts – you’ll save a few bucks with Select.  However, if properly marinated, these cuts can show up just as tasty.  Use for stir-frys, fajitas, and throwing in marinade to set and forget for a lazy late-night grill.

Note: Grades do not have anything to do with quality in the respect of health or nourishment.  

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