Ribeye, New York strip, and sirloin are familiar terms. But they aren't anatomical or scientific. They came about so that butchers could do their jobs better, and customers would have a better idea of what they were buying.
Butchers have developed a framework for breaking down cuts of beef. They start by separating a carcass into sections called primals.
Every cut of beef belongs to one of nine sections called a primal.
Typically, a butcher will deal with each primal section separately, cutting that portion up the way they see fit.
Within each primal are certain cuts known as sub-primal cuts. These are large cuts comprising several muscles, and are usually broken down further into portion cuts or ingredient cuts.
Portion cuts are what you buy at the supermarket. These cuts are fashioned from the primal or sub-primal.
Each primal or sub-primal can be broken down in different ways to create different portion cuts. For example, a butcher can turn the short loin sub-primal into large bone-in porterhouse steaks, or into smaller boneless tenderloin and strip steaks.
The brisket is the breast of the animal. This meat is rather tough, but loaded with intramuscular fat and connective tissue.
This fat and tissue add flavor and moisture when it melts into the meat, which is why brisket is the ideal cut for low and slow cooking.
While you can cook brisket in your oven, that long cooking time is the ideal chance to introduce the flavor of natural wood through smoking on a grill.
The long cooking time has made brisket one of the standouts of American barbecue.
The chuck is the shoulder and arm area of the animal. Because the animal uses these muscles anytime it moves, the meat tends to be rather tough — though it does have good flavor.
Most of the meat from the chuck is portioned into chuck roasts. These are large cuts that may come from any part of the chuck, and are ideal for low and slow cooking techniques like pot roast.
Hidden within the chuck are some muscles that avoid heavy use and stay quite tender.
The best example is the flat iron steak, which butchers now fashion from the shoulder blade. Despite being part of the chuck, the flat iron is actually the second most tender muscle on the animal. It's one of the few portion cuts from the chuck primal that can be grilled.
Chuck Arm Roast | Chuck Eye Roast | Chuck Eye Steak | Chuck Roast | Cross-Rib Roast | Denver Steak I Flat Iron Steak | Mock Tender | Ranch Steak | Short Ribs | Shoulder Clod | Shoulder Tender Medallions | Sierra Steak | Top Blade Steak
The flank primal is on the belly of the animal and consists of abdominal muscles. Only one cut belongs to the flank primal — flank steak.
These muscles do get a workout, so flank steak isn't very tender. A marinade will help slightly tenderize the steak and make it more flavorful. The loose grain of flank steak gives a marinade lots of nooks and crannies to get into, making every bite more flavorful.
Flank steak is one of the cuts used for fajitas or tacos, it's also excellent for stir-fry. Overall, the best preparation for flank steak is to marinate it, cook over high heat to medium-rare, and then slice it thin.
The loin primal contains meat that runs along and below the spine. These muscles are rarely used for movement, so they are the most tender on the animal.
Classic cuts include filet mignon and New York strip.
There's a bone running through the primal that separates the psoas major muscle (the tenderloin) from the longissimus lumborum muscle (the strip loin).
When the tenderloin is removed from the bone and sliced into steaks, those steaks are filet mignon. When the strip loin is removed and sliced into steaks, those steaks are New York strips.
If the bone is left in, and the entire primal is sliced into steaks, the steaks with the widest tenderloin pieces are porterhouse, and those with the narrower tenderloin pieces are T-bone steaks.
All of these steaks are best when cooked over high heat.
Porterhouse | Center Cut Steak | Filet Mignon | Coulotte Steak | Hanger Steak | Petite Sirloin | Sirloin Filet | Sirloin Flap | Strip Roast | Strip Steak | T-Bone Steak | Tenderloin Roast | Top Sirloin Steak | Tri-Tip Roast | Tri-Tip Steak
The plate section is directly under the rib section. The meat has excellent fat content.
When the plate is cut across the bones, you'll get short ribs, which are incredibly flavorful whether you braise them or grill them.
The ribs can also be left whole to be smoked as humongous dino ribs. Each rib weighs approximately one pound.
The other well-known cut from the plate is the skirt steak, which is the animal's diaphragm muscle. This long, narrow muscle is good for marinating, grilling, and slicing thin for fajitas or stir-fry.
The rib is one of the most prized of the cuts. The muscles of the rib section aren't used heavily while the animal moves, so they are more tender than the muscles in the nearby chuck section.
When you buy a bone-in prime rib, that's practically the entire primal with no butchering. The prime rib can be smoked or roasted.
More often, the rib primal is cut into tender, flavorful ribeye steaks, flecked with intramuscular fat. These are ideal for the high heat of the grill.
Variations on the ribeye include the cowboy steak, which is a ribeye with a rib bone attached for a more dramatic presentation.
The round is the rump of the animal. These muscles are used anytime the animal moves, so the meat is rather tough. Many portions of the round are used for ground beef rather than butchered into portions.
The round is butchered into three main sub-primal cuts — the top round, the eye of round, and the bottom round.
Your butcher will typically cut away a large amount of gristle and fat to prepare the meat for sale.
These cuts can be used for low and slow cooking, such as pot roast or London broil. Because they are large and can be cut thin without encountering bone, they are ideal cuts for making jerky.
The shank is the arm or leg of the animal, there are two foreshanks and two rear shanks.
These muscles obviously get a lot of use, so the meat is tough. Often, the shanks are just cut across the bone for soup bones.
However, they can also be braised. The classic Italian dish osso buco is shanks simmered slowly with vegetables, wine, and broth. Traditionally this dish is made with veal shanks, but beef shanks can be substituted.
The most expensive cuts of beef are the cuts from the rib and loin primals. These cuts are the most tender and the most flavorful. Some are the most rare as well, for example, there are only two prime ribs on every animal, and only two tenderloins.
Look for white specks within the flesh, also called marbling. The specks are small pieces of intramuscular fat that will add flavor and tenderness to the final product. Higher-graded beef will usually have more marbling, but you can assess for yourself.
For cuts that you plan to grill, avoid beef that has an excessive amount of exterior fat. This fat won't fully render off in a quick-cooking process, leaving you with some unpleasantly greasy bites. Also, if you use a gas or charcoal grill, excess fat on grilled meat can cause flare-ups.
For cuts that you plan to cook low and slow, such as braising or smoking, a thicker layer of fat can be good. It will render fully during the cooking, add extra flavor, and help preserve the moisture of the meat.
Avoid beef that is a dull color, or has an excess of juice in the package. These are signs that the beef wasn't stored properly, or has been sitting in the case for too long.
The best cuts of beef for grilling are ribeyes and New York strips. These cuts have tender meat speckled with intramuscular fat that melts during cooking for even more flavor. They are also boneless, so they will cook evenly on most grills.
Brisket is the best cut of beef for smoking. The intramuscular fat within brisket keeps it moist during cooking, and the meat itself is exceptionally flavorful. Read more about how to smoke a brisket.
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