America has a love affair with beef. It is the most consumed of all the meats—and for good reason; it is absolutely delicious. But what cuts of meat make the best steaks? What cuts of beef make the best stew, roast beef or hamburger? These are the questions we are going to answer in the article below.
The Prime Cuts of Beef and How to Use Them
According to butchers, a beef carcass is divided into eight primal sections or cuts. These include chuck, rib, loin, round, shank, brisket, plate and flank. Each of these is then further divided into sub-primal cuts. These are the names to which you are most likely more familiar, names like Tri-tip, top sirloin, etc. The various primal cuts of beef have a wealth of different characteristics when it comes to things like moistness, flavor and tenderness, among others. These characteristics are usually based on the size and makeup of the muscle tissue.
Simply put, meat is always muscle. It is composed of cells that are joined together by connective tissue called a membrane, which is actually collagen. Another connective tissue known as elastin makes up the tendons and ligaments that connect the muscle to the bone. The membrane or collagen will break down into gelatin and water when cooked, while elastin will not and should thus always be removed prior to cooking. Some cuts also have a lot of fat within the muscle. This is what gives certain cuts of steak their marbled look, and it also tends to make those cuts more tender, juicy and flavorful. The leaner cuts of beef will have no marbling whatsoever. Because of this, they tend to be very dry and tough if not correctly cooked.
Now that you understand the various primal cuts of beef, let’s take a look at all eight of them individually.
Chuck is the shoulder of the cow or steer. The shoulder is a regularly used muscle of the animal. As such, it tends to be a very lean cut of beef that is bursting with connective tissue. Because of its leanness, it can also be very tough if not cooked correctly. So how is chuck usually used?
- Hamburger meat. Most hamburger meat you buy at the grocery store is made from the chuck cut of beef. By grinding the chuck up, butchers can break down some of the collagen and take away some of the toughness of the meat.
- Stew Meat. Some, but not all stew meat is also made from chuck. Chuck makes good stew meat because the meat is cooked for a long period of time. This long cooking time allows the collagen to break down slowly.
- Roasts. Arm and shoulder roasts are made from the chuck cut of beef. As with stew meat, roasts should be cooked on lower heat for a longer period of time, as this type of braising will help break down the collagen.
Although chuck is usually used for hamburger, roasts and stews, there are some hidden gems within the cut. For instance, the top blade of the cut—referring to the top of the shoulder blade—is used for flat iron steaks, and the chuck eye steak, sometimes referred to as the poor man’s rib-eye, is a very tender and delicious piece of steak.
One of the most treasured of all the cuts, the rib is a primal cut of beef that includes part of the ribs, plus some of the spine and the large muscle located between the spine and the ribs. Because of where it is located it is a muscle group that is not central to the cow’s movement. As a result, it tends to contain a lot of intramuscular fat or marbling. Some of the ways the rib cut of beef is used include:
- Rib-Eye. Rib-eye steaks are some of the most delicious and most revered cuts of beef. They tend to contain a lot of marbling, giving them an excellent flavor. Usually this cut of beef is cooked by searing in a skillet or on a grill. Rib eye steaks are those cut from the piece of meat known as the prime rib.
- Bone-in Prime Rib. Bone-in prime rib is one of the delicacies that meat connoisseurs crave. With lots of marbling, this cut simply melts in your mouth when cooked correctly—usually roasting in an oven turned to medium heat for a long time.
- Boneless Prime Rib Roasts. Like the bone-in prime rib, boneless prime rib roasts are very tender, juicy and flavorful. They are typically cooked the same way as a bone-in prime rib, although they usually require less cooking time due to the absence of the bone.
The loin is a primal cut that is technically two sub-primal cuts: the strip loin or backstrap and the tenderloin. This primal cut contains tender and delicious cuts of meat and steak. The larger of the two sub-primal cuts, the strip loin, is a conical shaped muscle that runs adjacent to the spine of the animal. The tenderloin, on the other hand, is an S-shaped muscle running parallel to and beneath the strip loin. Cuts of beef from this part of the animal include:
- New York Strip Steaks. Steaks that are cut from the boneless strip loin are known as New Your Strip Steaks. They are very tender and flavorful, although they do not have as much fat as the rib-eye.
- Filet Mignon. The granddaddy of all steaks, the filet mignon is truly a treat for the taste buds. It is created when the tenderloin is cut into steaks. The filet mignon is typically a thick cut of meat that can be grilled or seared for best results.
- Chateaubriand. When the tenderloin is sold whole—not cut into steaks to form filet mignon—it is known as chateaubriand, a delectable roast served in the finest of restaurants across the globe.
- T-bone steaks. T-Bone steaks are also cut from the loin. It includes both the strip and the filet, separated by the T-shaped bone between them, like the filet, the T-bone steak is very tender and delicious.
- Porterhouse. When a T-bone steak is cut further back on the short loin, where the tenderloin is thicker, it is known as a porterhouse steak.
Loin is very rarely marbled, nor is it the leanest of cuts. It is perfect for those who want tender, juicy and flavorful meat without the fat associated with the rib cuts. It is best cooked using dry heat.
There is actually a third sub-primal cut that comes from the loin. It is known as the sirloin. Sirloin can be cut into steaks are served as a roast. It is not as tender as the rest of the loin cuts, but it is loved for its robust beef flavor and more affordable price tag. Sometimes sirloin can even be ground into hamburger meat, and sirloin ground beef is much more flavorful than that ground from chuck.
The primal cut of beef known as the round represents the hind leg of the beef carcass. Like the shoulder (chuck) it is a regularly used muscle, making it very lean, and it has lots of connective tissue. It is not very flavorful, like some of the middle, inside cuts, and it does not boast hidden gems like we mentioned with the chuck. It is typically used for:
- Round Steaks. Round steaks are NOT prized, but they are affordable. They tend to be very tough if not cooked low and slow.
- Roasts. Roasts made from round should also be cooked very low and slow in order to tenderize the meat some.
- Stew meat. Much of the stew meat you will find at your local grocery store is made from the round cut of beef.
- Ground Beef. Much of the “lean” ground beef you will find at your grocer contains at least some of the round meat.
The shank, or fore-shank cut is the arm of the animal. It tends to be high in collagen and is very tasty when prepared right. The largest use of the shank cut is a “soup bone,” used for making soups and stocks that are very flavorful.
The brisket is the breast area of the cow. It tends to be very tough and contains more than its fair share of fat. So how is this cut of beef used?
- Corn Beef. A treat that just has to be served on St. Patrick’s Day, corned beef is very flavorful and fatty. The brisket is usually brined and roasted to make corned beef.
- Pastrami. A favorite in the delicatessen, pastrami is also made from the brisket. Pastrami has great flavor and it is prepared in much the same way as corned beef.
- BBQ. Brisket makes for some of the best BBQ around. When it is used for this purpose, the meat is usually smoked for up to 12 hours to break down the toughness. This preparation method also adds loads of flavor that BBQ fans go nuts for.
Plate and Flank
We have grouped these last two primal cuts together due to their similarities in makeup and taste. The plate or short plate contains the rib bones and is positioned directly beneath the rib cut we mentioned earlier. The flank, which is adjacent to the plate, is essentially the side of the animal. So what do we get from these two cuts of meat?
- Short Ribs. When cooked correctly, short ribs are some of the most lip-smacking delicacies available. They are usually marinated, grilled and stewed, and like brisket, they are a favorite among BBQ chefs.
- Skirt Steaks. Skirt steaks are also part of the plate. Although they tend to be very tough if not cooked correctly, they have a delicious flavor all their own.
- Hanger Steak. The hanger steak is the cut of beef attached to the last rib and spine near the kidneys. This is usually considered one of the tenderest cuts on the cow and one of the most flavorful.
- Flank steaks. As the name suggests, flank steaks come from the primal flank cut of beef. Long and thin, these steaks are usually grilled and can be very flavorful. However, they do tend to be a little tough if they are not marinated first.
- London Broil. London Broil also comes from the flank cut. This cut is thicker than the flank steak and is usually grilled or roasted to bring out the full flavor of the meat.
Although some of the cuts of beef are definitely more desirous than others just based on their location within the animal and their general makeup, all the primal cuts have their place in our diets, and all can be very tasty when prepared correctly.