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Beef - The Cuts Explained

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Beef is divided into large sections called primal cuts, which you can see in the beef cuts chart above. These beef primal cuts, or "primals," are then broken down further into subprimals, or "foodservice cuts," and then into individual steaks and other retail cuts.

A side of beef is literally one side of the beef carcass that is split through the backbone. Each side is then halved between the 12th and 13th ribs into sections called the forequarter and hindquarter.

The most tender cuts of beef, like the rib and tenderloin, are the ones furthest from the horn and the hoof. By contrast, the shoulder and leg muscles are worked the most, which makes them tougher.

To begin with, let's look at the beef primal cuts that come from the forequarter.

Beef Chuck

Consisting of parts of the neck, shoulder blade and upper arm, beef chuck yields tough but very flavorful cuts of meat with a good deal of connective tissue. This makes it a good choice for making braised dishes like beef stew or pot roast. Because of its fat content, beef chuck is also excellent for making ground beef.

The classic 7-bone roast comes from the beef chuck, as do the increasingly popular flat iron steak and Denver steak.

By convention, the beef chuck is separated from the rib primal between the 5th and 6th ribs. What this means is that it also contains a few inches of the longissimus dorsi muscle, which is the same tender muscle from which ribeye steaks are made. If you're interested, you can read a lot more detail about beef chuck.

Beef Rib

Made from the top part of the center section of rib, specifically the 6th through the 12th ribs, the beef rib primal cut is used for the traditional standing rib roast (sometimes referred to as prime rib). It's also the source of the delectable ribeye steak as well as the classic French entrecôte.

Because it's so tender, steaks and roasts from the beef rib primal are well suited for various forms of dry-heat cooking.

It's nearly impossible to describe a given beef primal cut without discussing the ones adjacent to it. In this case, the beef rib primal is situated directly above the beef plate, and precisely where it's divided is somewhat arbitrary. Nevertheless, the lower parts of those ribs (whether we attribute them to the rib primal or the plate primal) are where beef short ribs come from.

Here's a more in-depth article about the beef rib primal cut.

Beef Plate

Also called the short plate (or "long plate" depending on where it's separated from the rib primal above it), the beef plate primal includes the short ribs and skirt steak, which is used for making carne asada.

Skirt steak is the diaphragm muscle, and it's attached to the inside abdominal wall by a system of thick connective tissue which needs to be carefully trimmed away. Skirt steak is extremely flavorful, and it's a thin piece of meat, which allows you to cook it very quickly over high heat.

Just don't overcook it. And because it has coarse muscle fibers, be sure to slice it against the grain or it'll be chewy. Here's a more in-depth article about skirt steak.

Beef plate contains a lot of cartilage, especially around the ribs, which is why beef short ribs are ideal for braising, as the process of cooking with moist heat at a low temperature will dissolve cartilage and turn it into gelatin.

Beef plate is also fairly fatty, so it can be used for making ground beef if leanness isn't a concern.

Beef Brisket

Beef brisket is one of the most flavorful cuts of meat, although it is tough, so it needs to be cooked in just the right way. It's also a moderately fatty cut of beef, but this can work to your advantage given the long cooking times necessary to tenderize the meat.

Taken from the area around the breast bone, the brisket is basically the chest or pectoral muscle of the animal. The thick, coarse-grained meat that's characteristic of brisket needs a lot of time and low-temperature cooking to break down and tenderize.

But once this happens, brisket is succulent, meaty perfection.

Brisket is frequently used for making pot roast, and it's also the traditional choice for making corned beef.

Another very popular technique for preparing brisket is to slow cook it in a barbecue or smoker. Here's a more in-depth article if you'd like to read more about beef brisket.

Beef Shank

The beef shank is the leg of the animal, and is extremely tough and full of connective tissue. (Note also that each side of beef has two shanks, one in the forequarter and one in the hindquarter.) Beef shank is used in making the luxurious Italian dish osso buco.

That's it for the forequarter. Next let's look at the beef primal cuts that come from the hindquarter.

Beef Short Loin

Beef short loin is where we get many of the most desirable cuts of meat, including T-bone and porterhouse steaks, as well as the strip loin or strip steak.

The tenderloin, which is the tenderest cut of beef, extends from the short loin back into the sirloin, which is the adjacent primal cut, toward the rear of the animal.

The short loin is only about 16 to 18 inches long, so it will yield anywhere from 11 to 14 steaks, depending on thickness.

The first cut steaks from the short loin, starting at the rib end and working toward the rear, are club steaks, or bone-in strip steaks. The center-cut steaks are T-bones, of which there may be six or seven. Finally, there are usually only two or three porterhouse steaks at the sirloin end.

Note that if the tenderloin is removed, there can be no T-bones or porterhouse, since both of these steaks have a section of the tenderloin muscle in them. You can read a lot more about the beef short loin.

Dry-heat cooking is best for the tender cuts from the short loin. Also see: What is the Best Steak?

Beef Sirloin & Tenderloin

Beef sirloin is another relatively tender cut, but as we move toward the rear leg of the animal, the muscles do get a bit tougher. Still, a first cut sirloin steak, sometimes called a pin-bone steak because it includes a section of the hip bone, is very similar to a porterhouse steak.

The sirloin is separated into top sirloin and bottom sirloin. Top sirloin gives us steaks that are good for grilling, while the bottom sirloin gives us roasts like sirloin tip and tri-tip, which are good choices for roasting or barbecuing.

Here's a much more in-depth article about the beef sirloin.

Beef Tenderloin

The most tender cut of beef, the beef tenderloin is found within the loin, and is where we get filet mignon, which is made from the very tip of the pointy end of the tenderloin (as seen above). Chateaubriand is made from the center cut of the tenderloin.

Now, the tenderloin extends from the short loin into the sirloin. The pointy end is actually situated in the short loin, and the section in the sirloin is sometimes called the butt tenderloin. Even so, butchers will often remove the whole tenderloin and sell it whole, or as individual steaks and roasts.

Beef tenderloin should only be cooked using dry heat methods such as grilling and broiling.

Beef Flank

Beef flank can be cooked on the grill, but since it has tough muscle fibers, it can be tough if it's overcooked. The best grilling technique for flank steak is to grill it quickly at a very high temperature. Marinating the meat first can help prevent it from drying out from the high heat, but the best way to prevent it from drying out is not overcooking it. Remember to slice it thinly against the grain, so that it isn't chewy.

Beef flank is also good for braising, and it's often used for making ground beef.

Beef Round

The beef round primal cut basically consists of the back leg of the steer. Muscles from the round are fairly lean, but also tough, since the leg and rump get a lot of exercise.

There are three main subprimals of the beef round: the top round (inside round), bottom round (outside round) and the knuckle. The bottom round is where we get rump roast and also eye of round.

Although I might braise a piece of meat from the beef round out of necessity, top round and bottom round are lean and don't contain much collagen, which is the type of protein that turns into gelatin when it's slowly braised.

This means braised rump roast won't be as succulent as braised chuck roast.

Instead, round roasts are usually roasted slowly, so that they turn out medium rare. They can then be sliced thinly and used for sandwiches or even served as roasts. But slicing thinly and against the grain is crucial.

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