Everything You Wanted To Know (or not) About: Different Cuts of Beef

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

[photo from Buysteaksonline.com]

Not sure if I  mentioned this before, but a little while ago we bought a 1/4 of a cow. From a real life cowboy guy, who raises cattle. Here in Washington. He had a rope and everything. And we met him in the parking lot of Lowe's. But that's another blog. At any rate, the end result is me having one complete refrigerator's freezer's worth of beef in various cuts, sizes, and proportions. Normally, I like me some beef. But in all honestly I've only worked with ground, rib eye steaks, stew meat, brisket, flanks and skirts, and maybe the occasional random t-bone. But now, after having purchased said amount of beef, I have a whole shitload of cuts I have no idea what to do with: chuck, round, top round, etc.

I figured, if I had no idea what half of this stuff is, neither did a lot of other people. So I've prepared now a dictionary of beef cuts for you to reference.

You're welcome.

You can divide the cow up according to area on the body. Each general area has a name, and then within that area various cuts are done which yield the specific meat you cook and eat.

1. The Round

The round is the rear, basically the hips and ass of the cow. A frequently used muscle, the meat from this area is lean but tough. Because of the toughness, the best cooking technique to apply to these cuts are the braise. For a braise, you season the beef with flavorful root vegetables (the classic combination is carrots, celery, onion, garlic), liquid (beef broth, vegetable juice, wine, beer, etc.), and aromatics (spices, orange peel, etc.). The cut of meat is submerged in the braising ingredients, quite literally covered by liquid, then slowly roasted in a low oven (300 degrees) for a few hours. The idea is the lower indirect heat breaks down the toughness, while the liquid replenishes lost moisture and infuses the meat with amazing flavor. The only exception here is the London Broil cut, which can be grilled or braised. A popular dish using round and the braising technique is Pot Roast.

Here are the different cuts of meat found in the Round area:

Bottom Round: One area is tougher than the other, and it's usually divided into two smaller cuts -- bottom round roast and rump roast (the end that comes to a point).

Bottom Round Roast: Roasts from the bottom round. A bit tough and best suited as corned beef or pot roast. This is called beef silverside in the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.

Eye Round Roast/Steak or Eye of the Round: A boneless roast that looks like tenderloin, but it is much tougher. Used as a roast or cut into steaks. Steaks cut from the roast are used in stews or processed into cube steak. Also called breakfast steak, wafer steak, sandwich steak, minute steak.

London Broil: The name of the finished dish, not the cut of meat. Butchers will use the name London Broil for flank steak, top round steak or top blade steak.

Top Round Steak or Butterball Steak: Thick steaks from the top of the round. Usually broiled, braised or cooked in liquid.

Round Steak: Very lean, but not as tender and juicy as other cuts. Served broiled, braised or cooked in a liquid.

Round Tip Roast or Tip Roast or Sirloin Tip Roast or Tip Sirloin Roast: A cut away from the sirloin section, this roast is tender enough to be oven roasted or used as kabobs. When trimmed it's called a trimmed tip roast or ball tip roast.

Round Tip Steak: A steak cut from the untrimmed round tip roast.

Rump Roast: Cut from the bottom round. When the bone is left in, it is called a standing rump roast.

Top Round Roast: A lean and fairly tender cut as compared to the other cuts from the round.

2.  The Shank

Located just below the Round is the Shank, or the legs of the cow. There are 4 shanks (aka legs) and the meat is lean and not very tender, and because of its location, you're going to get a lot of bone with the meat. This means extreme flavor if you know how to coax it out just right.

Shanks are wonderfully flavorful cuts of meat, but must be braised. A common dish using veal shank is ossobucco.

3.  The Short Plate

This area is located in the belly of the cow, just under the ribs. The meat is fatty but tough, an unusual exception to the rule (usually fat = tender meat; no fat/lean meat = tough meat). However, the fat is interspersed here within the grains of the meat quite well (marbling) so if you apply the correct preparation and cooking methods, you can achieve delicious tender results. Common dishes are carne asada and fajitas.

There are two cuts in the Short Plate:

Skirt Steak: This long, flat steak comes from the diaphragm of the cow. The outside portion is longer, the inner portion is slightly shorter. The meat is tough but extremely flavorful. To help tenderize the meat, an acid-based marinade is used. Lime juice is particularly good to help break down the meat and add wonderful flavor at the same time. Or, the braising technique again to yield a tender meat. If marinated, because the steak is so thin it can then be grilled (as opposed to its much thicker cousins, the round steaks). It is also called Roumanian Steak.

Hanger Steak: Named as such because it's the piece of muscle that "hangs" from the diaphragm, its flavor and texture is extremely similar to the skirt steak. Also called Butchers Steak because butchers would often keep this cut for themselves. Again marinated to achieve tenderness and then quickly grilled and served medium-rare is the preferred method for this cut.

4. Flank Steak

Located directly adjacent to the Short Plate is the Flank Steak, in the abdomen of the cow. It's a long, thicker piece of meat similar in appearance to the skirt steak but considerably thicker than it. The meat is again quite tough, so acid-based marinades help the flank out immensely followed by a quick sear or grill. Cutting against the grain when serving is a must for this cut to achieve tenderness to the bite. The flank is often slices very thinly as used for stir frys as well.

5.  The Brisket

This meat is the lower breast of the cow, above the front shanks. Cows don't have collar bones (I did not know this prior to this post) and therefore all the weight of the cow literally rests under its shoulders, right here. The result is a ridiculous amount of connective tissue. In terms of cooking, this translates to: "tough as hell meat." The connective tissue must be cooked out to produce an edible piece of meat that won't have you chewing for days and days. The good news is, if you're committed to the process, this can be some of the tastiest beef you've ever had.

The trick to brisket is going "low and slow," be it by braise again or by smoking. The braising will be done the same exact way you'd do the round cuts, but cooking the brisket at least an hour or two more than those cuts to get the nice tender texture you want. For smoking, you can flavor the brisket by way of your rub, injections (flavored, not hormonal), and the type of wood chips you use. My personal favorite method for brisket is the smoking -- it's unparallelled in the cooking sphere and a must-try for any cook at some point in their lives.

Brisket can also be brined and made into corned beef, which in turn can be made into pastrami as well.

6.  The Chuck

This meat is found at the shoulders of the cow, right above the brisket. There is a natural fat:flavor ratio found here, making this area wonderful to grind up. In fact, this kids, is where we get our hamburger meat. Forget the stupid filet mignon burgers for $50 at fancy pants restaurants; a good burger is simply good ground chuck right from here. The meat here can be cut out from the shoulder bone and grilled or broiled, and is called 7 Bone Steak because the shape of the steak resembles the number 7.

Other cuts from the chuck include:

Chuck Eye: a boneless cut from the center

Cross-Rib Roast: aka "English roast" or "bread and butter roast", commonly used for pot roast recipes.

Shoulder Steak and Roast: good for long braises.

Short Ribs: a small portion of the chuck area together with the front of the rib section produces this gem of a cut. See below for more details.

Top Blade Steak: a really, really tough piece of meat with a lot of connective tissue. This cut has grown out of style. Braising is the only way to really get the meat to be edible, and it's too much effort for not a lot of meat.

7. The Rib

This is the most coveted part of the cow. Located on the top middle of the cow, the rib section contains all the delicious, expensive cuts we know and love. This, is where the money is. It's no wonder, since bones = flavor and the rich rib bones of the cow here add not only flavor but the fat and muscle tissue here are perfectly proportioned as well. This area is where you want to grill the meats and serve it medium-rare.

The cuts we all know and love from The Rib:

The Delmonico:  This steak cut is named after the Delmonico restaurant in NYC and refers to the style of cut in this area of the beef. There is debate about which exact cut is the true, first Delmonico style cut, but today it basically references 3 main types:

  • The Bone-In Top Loin Steak: aka, "club steak," "country club steak," or "strip loin steak," it's a short loin cut (middle of the rib area).
  • Boneless Rib-Eye Steak: the heart of the rib-eye steak is cut out, two of them put together with butcher's twine, then seasoned and grilled.
  • Boneless Top-Loin: aka New York Strip Steak
Delmonico style steaks are often served with Delmonico potatoes as well (mashed potatoes with grated cheese on top, then baked until oozing and delicious).

Fillet: see Tenderloin below.

The Rib Roast: Also called, Standing Rib Roast and Prime Rib, this is the crown jewel of the cow. Using the ribs and meat of the lower 6-12 ribs, a full standing rib roast is 6 rib-eye steaks together into one massive steak. In other words, to get the prized rib-eye steaks, you basically cut through the prime rib cut 6 times to make steaks. The rib roast is an incredibly flavorful cut of meat. Usually given with a generous fat cap around, it is seasoned heavily with salt and pepper and then roasted on higher heat for about an hour and then sliced thinly or thickly. Prime Rib often is this cut of meat served without the rib. Traditional accompaniments include a horseradish cream sauce, Yorkshire Pudding, and creamed spinach.

Rib Steak: The meat from around and include the rib bone, is extremely tender and flavorful. The marbling (fat going through the muscle) is prized here and yields tasty and moist cooked meat. Grilling is the preferred method for these steaks, including broiling and pan-roasting. Also called The Cowboy Steak. The en vogue Tomahawk Steak is basically the rib steak with the bone left long and intact and "frenched" (meaning all meat and "stuff" is cleaned off directly to the part where the steak begins; it looks like a big-ass lamb chop).

Rib-Eye Steak: Basically the rib steak without the bone.

Short Loin: The area next to the short ribs around the spine, towards the middle-back of the cow. Various popular cuts are found here including:

  • T-bone Steak: So named for the T-shaped bone in this cut, it includes the short loin on one side of the bone and part of the tenderloin on the other side. It's cut from further up in the area.
  • Strip Steaks (see above)
  • Porterhouse Steak: A larger cut similar to the T-bone, it is cut from further back (towards the rear of the cow) so the tenderloin piece of the t-bone is larger than its T-bone steak counterpart.

Short Ribs: Located at the front of the rib section together with the very bottom right of the chuck, these ribs are incredibly flavorful. Often these ribs present in 3's or 4's, with surrounding meat, tendon, and fat. They can be cut in a variety of ways:

  • "Flanken": cut across the bone, about 2 inches thick
  • "English": cut about 2 inches long
  • "Korean": accordion cut
Short ribs are braised -- especially if using the English cut which is considerably thicker -- until the meat is quite tender. The exception is the Korean style, which due to its extremely thin cut, can be quickly grilled and served. A riff on the short rib is when the meat is separated from the bones and extremely thinly sliced, producing Golbi -- a Korean style marinated bbq beef.

Sirloin: These steaks are located at the back end of the rib section, near the round area. This meat is quite delicious and tender. Sirloin is usually classified as either Top or Bottom, with the tenderloin running in between them (the top is above it, the bottom is below the tenderloin). It is not named after knights in medieval England, but rather after the French word surlongue or "above the loin." These are great simply grilled or pan-roasted.

Tenderloin: This most-coveted piece of meat is the tenderloin of the cow -- the long piece of muscle that runs on both sides of the spine. One complete fillet is similar to a long log, and is then sliced into rounds to make the fillet steaks. The ends of this tenderloin is called Fillet Mignon, or "little fillet" and is unarguably the most tender part of the entire cow because it's location at the spine, it has very little connective tissue (remember: connective tissue = tough meat). As a result, this meat is best served roasted on high heat if making the entire loin or if doing steaks, quickly seared or pan-roasted or grilled. Best served medium-rare to even rare. Some butchers will refer to the entire loin as "filet mignon" which is incorrect; the true definition is in reference to the smaller end pieces.

There are three main parts of the tenderloin: the Butt which is located near the front of the loin is used for carpaccio; the Center-Cut where the "filet mignons" and chateaubriand style cuts are done; and the Tail whose pieces are still tender but far too small to be used as steaks, are instead used for dishes like Beef Stroganoff.

8. The Rest

Of course this is not the only thing the cow yields. It's bones are wonderful to make stocks and flavor soups. Beef tongue is considered quite the delicious dish, as well as various other "cow-parts" I feel Anthony Bourdain is more qualified than me to speak about. Perhaps in another blog I can venture out into this arena of cooking...

Now you know your cow. I encourage you to not only better know the cuts of meat you're used to, but to venture out with other cuts you may not be as familiar with. And this time you'll be prepared when you order the steak at the steak house, and actually know what you're doing instead of pretending to. I know I personally feel better about this, and thoroughly look forward to flaunting my extensive knowledge of steaks to all the other men at the table.

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