As a butcher, my favorite type of meat to work with is beef. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that among all of the different animals, working with whole sides of beef represents a certain point of pride for a butcher.
Its pure size and versatility creates an exciting challenge and offers a unique range of options. For example, there are certain individual muscles that are absolutely delicious but with other animals such as lamb or pork, these muscles aren’t big enough to justify a stand-alone portion. A perfect example would be the flat iron steak. Isolate that steak in a pork shoulder and you’re looking at maybe one or two single bites. With beef, I can get six steak portions of flat iron from this one muscle.
For the home cook, it shouldn’t be intimidating to try new and different beef cuts. The best place to start is knowing which cooking technique to apply to each cut of meat.
The three main techniques are searing, roasting and braising. In some cases, using a combination of two techniques is a great idea, such as searing (browning) a piece of meat before it gets braised or slow roasting a piece of meat and finishing it off with a hot sear. There are endless options, but as long as you understand what technique to apply and for how long (to reach a desired internal temperature), you can cook any piece of meat with great success.
BEEF CUTS EXPLAINED
The five main parts of a cow, which each contain multiple cuts of beef, are:
The chuck primal
The rib primal
The loin primal
The round primal
Organs and other cuts
The Qualities of a Particular Cut
So how does one decide which technique is best to use for any individual piece of meat? Well, that depends on three things. First, the amount of connective tissue that the cut contains. For portions like brisket and shank, there’s a significant amount of connective tissue within the muscle. This connective tissue is actually what helps make these cuts so delicious. With a slow cooking approach, either roasting or braising, the connective tissue will eventually convert into a moist, delicious accent to the meat, but it is going to take some time.
The second consideration is the amount of fat the cut contains, specifically intramuscular fat. This is what creates marbling, the beautiful white fat that can be seen within the interior of a muscle. If a cut has a decent amount of marbling, there’s more flexibility in the cooking method and desired internal temperature. The intramuscular fat will basically self-baste the muscle as it cooks, helping to keep the meat moist during a dry roast. However, if the cut is on the leaner side, a wet cooking method will help keep things moist with less chance of your meat drying out. Alternatively, a slow dry roast would also be appropriate for a leaner piece of meat if you monitor the internal temperature and make sure it does not overcook (for example, medium rare for sliced roast beef).
The third consideration is the amount of work the muscle does. While a tenderloin or top round steak may not have much connective tissue, these cuts are going to possess different qualities of tenderness due to the amount of workload. The tenderloin is situated in the middle of the animal, which does very little work, while the top round is from the hind leg. The tenderloin only needs a good sear for delicious, tender results. Even if it’s overcooked, it’s still going to be tender. The top round steak, on the other hand, will benefit from a marinade before being seared, or alternatively, a quick sear followed by a braise until fork tender (as in smothered steak, for example).
What Makes Up a Side of Beef?
Now that we understand some of the variables involved, let’s break down a side of beef (one half of the entire animal) into five different sections and explain which cuts can be extracted from each portion. The first four sections, which we can refer to as primals, are broken down into sub-primals and finally into individual cuts and portions during the butchery process. The fifth section is organs and other parts of the animals that don’t quite fit into the first four categories.
For the sake of keeping things simple, we are going to focus on some of the main cuts you can find regularly through our online butcher shop. However, with the help of a butcher, you can extract hundreds of different muscles and cuts from a single side of beef. There are a few great books out there on that exact subject.
There are five categories we will focus on. I’ll explain each one in detail below.
1) Chuck Primal
This is the shoulder and front leg (arm) area of the animal. Naturally, due to the fact that a cow walks around on both the shoulder and leg, this section has more slow cooking cuts than quick cooking steaks. However, due to the relatively limited range of motion of the animal, there are actually some tender gems hidden within this primal.
There are seven cuts we will discuss for the chuck primal.
The chuck roast is a cross-cut section from the shoulder which contains multiple muscles and is great for braising or roasting. This portion is great for slow cooking, such as pot roast. Moist, wet heat is ideal, although slow roasting this cut until fork tender is also an option, especially if it is dry-rubbed with salt and spices ahead of time.
It is worth noting that meat begins to get that fall-apart texture during a dry roast when the internal temperature reaches between 180 to 200 degrees, assuming it’s a tougher muscle with connective tissue rather than a leaner roast like a sirloin.
Stew meat is typically cut from the shoulder and neck area into 1-inch chunks, although it’s possible to use other parts of the animal as well. These chunks of meat only take 1-2 hours to become fork tender. The chuck is ideal for braising because it has a good combination of lean muscle, fat and connective tissue. Check out our simple beef stew recipe for a delicious way to prepare this cut of meat.
This well-known cut is technically the pectoral of the animal and contains two different muscles, the point (fatter) and the flat (leaner). Known for its popularity in Texas-style barbecue, it can take up to 16 hours of cooking time with a slow and low dry heat approach. Best braised or roasted, some also like the dense texture it provides in ground beef or chili. Brisket is also very popular for pastrami and corned beef.
Cut from the lower leg into 1.25-inch cross sections, this cut is a prime candidate for slow, wet cooking. It’s lean, but the amount of connective tissue it contains creates a delicious thick accent to the braising liquid and keeps it moist when cooked long enough. In addition to being ideal braised, Osso Bucco is one of the best budget friendly portions available and since the shank does a lot of work on the animal, it has great flavor.
Flat Iron Steak
This muscle rests on the outside of the shoulder blade and due to a limited range of motion in the cow’s arm movement, it is amazingly tender. Although it does take some skill to butcher because it is lined with dense connective tissue, the effort yields one of the best, most tender steaks on the entire animal when seared. Typically on the thinner side, these steaks cook quickly and only need salt and pepper for delicious results.
Cut from the outside, back area of the arm (think triceps), this steak technically contains two different muscles. One of these muscles is surprisingly tender, while the other is only moderately tender. However, this steak is affordable and easy to cook, great for a weeknight pan seared. Shoulder steak is also sometimes referred to as “ranch steak”.
From the front leg, we get the humerus bone, which is shorter than the femur but great roasted in the oven at 400 degrees for about 15 – 20 minutes until bubbly golden brown. Bone marrow can also be added to sauces and stocks, but is great as a stand alone item. Marrow bone makes the ultimate beef butter.
2) Rib Primal
The front middle section of the animal is comprised of some of the most well-known and delicious cuts on the entire carcass. This primal also creates an incredible display of meaty decadence when roasted whole on a spit over slow-burning wood coals.
There are three cuts we will focus on for the rib primal, which can all produce a delicious end result.
The mighty ribeye steak can be cut thick or thin, bone-in or boneless and is best seared or roasted. Technically speaking, the actual ribeye is the singular muscle (the loin) which stretches all the way down into the lower back and turns into the strip steak. However, there’s typically at least one additional muscle included on the steak, called the ribeye cap. Here at Augustus Ranch, we like our ribeyes cut at least 1.25 inches thick, allowing you to get a good crust on the outside before the interior overcooks. Alternatively, we cut a 2 – 2.5-inch bone in ribeye which can be treated more like a roast. It will need some indirect heat to get to the proper internal temperature and can be seared either before or after most of the cooking is done.
This cut has become very popular for fajitas. Before that, skirt steak wasn’t on most people’s cooking radar. There are two skirt steaks from this primal, the inside and outside skirt. While the inside is slightly thicker, wider, and shorter in length than the outside, they both cook about the same. This steak has a great beefy flavor and the distinctive muscle grain gives it a great texture. We love leaving a good amount of fat on the outside of this steak to help create a moist, golden brown crust when being grilled or pan seared. Keep in mind that it’s important to cut steaks with a very distinctive grain 90 degrees across the direction of the grain once cooked.
The beef ribs are rich, fatty and wonderful. Depending on how they are cut, they can be roasted, braised, or even seared. The amount of fat they contain gives them a lot of versatility and flavor. For slow cooking, the classic short ribs can be braised in a delicious red wine and broth concoction or for barbecue, left in larger 4-bone racks and slow roasted until fork tender. For searing, the ribs can be cut across the bone into quarter or half-inch strips, sometimes referred to as Korean-style short ribs. Any way you prepare this versatile cut, they are delicious.
3) Loin Primal
The rear middle section of the animal also contains some of the most popular and tender cuts on the entire carcass. Just like the rib, the loin primal doesn’t do a ton of work as it is carried around by the front and back legs.
There are eight cuts we will talk about from this part of the animal.
Even more so than the ribeye, the strip loin can be cut a few different ways and is best seared or roasted. Thick or thin, bone-in or boneless and also as a T-bone or Porterhouse steak if the tenderloin muscle is left attached to the spinal column. Some people prefer ribeyes while other prefer the strip, but they are technically the same muscle cut from a different part of the animal. NY Strip steaks are typically boneless and bone-in strip steaks are often referred to as Kansas City strips.
The tenderloin is the most tender muscle on the animal and is also best seared or roasted. Although it tends to be a bit on the leaner side, the tissue itself should remain tender no matter what. Unless maybe you are actually trying to turn it into beef jerky, but even then, it might still be alright! This is also the most expensive cut on the animal but delivers a very consistent result. Typically cut into medallions and seared (filet mignon) or left as a whole roast. This is a great beginner cut because it’s so easy to cook.
The flank steak is a unique, flat steak that has a distinctive grain and good flavor, best when seared. Also popular for fajitas, this cut is easy to cook and eat. Due to its even thickness and flat, long form, some people like to stuff, roll and tie it for different recipes like pinwheel or braciole.
Also known as the Bavette steak, this cut has strong directional grain and great beefy flavor, best seared. It’s not quite as tender as the skirt or flank, but who minds having a little more chew on their steak if the flavor is there? The whole muscle itself is fairly large, which is why it’s typically cut into 3 or 4 portions per muscle.
The hanger steak is unusual because of its grain and strong beef flavor, but absolutely delicious seared. You won’t see many of these steaks, as there is only one per animal, but it’s one of the butcher’s favorites. This steak hangs from the inside of the hindquarter once the animal is turned into a carcass and quartered, hence the name hanger steak.
The sirloin tends to be on the leaner side but has good flavor and a relatively tender texture when seared or roasted. It is also a mid-priced steak which is why many folks enjoy it regularly. Otherwise, it can be left in a larger format and makes great roast beef as long as attention is paid to the internal temperature. Medium rare will be best with this cut.
Top Sirloin Cap
The cap muscle on the top sirloin is one of my personal favorites. It has a thick, wonderful fat cap that will get very crispy if scored, salted and roasted hot. The top sirloin cap can also be cut into one-inch steaks, otherwise known as Coulotte steaks. In Brazil, this muscle is very popular because of its fat cap and is referred to as Picanah, typically roasted on skewers over hot coals. Top sirloin caps are best seared or roasted.
From the bottom sirloin, the tri-tip is a three point (hence the name), elongated, triangular-shaped roast that was made popular as barbecue in California. Similar to the top sirloin, it tends to be slightly leaner, but has a great amount of fat on the outside which will help give it a good crust and keep it moist during the cooking process. Typically, this cut is seared then roasted over indirect heat to finish (or vice versa).
4) Round Primal
The round primal is the hind leg of the animal. Very lean but versatile, this part of the animal is great for a variety of steaks, cutlets, roasts, ground and stew meat on a budget. The leg can also be left whole and cooked as a Steamship, an enormous beef roast with a protruding, cleaned (frenched) shank bone!
We will discuss six main sections from the round primal.
Also known as the inside round because it is positioned on the inside of the leg, this massive leg muscle is great for roast beef or steaks. Also popular for thin sliced, deli-style cold cut roast beef, top round is best roasted, seared, or braised. Top round also has a cap muscle which can be isolated, cleaned and cooked medium rare. Not aggressively tender, this cut has good flavor. A marinated top round steak can be the perfect steak on a budget.
Also known as the outside round because of its position on the outside exterior of the leg, the bottom round is another large leg muscle with a different type of grain than the top round. This muscle is also great for roast beef or tenderized beef cutlets. Sometimes referred to as London broil (although technically, London broil is a recipe technique rather than a cut), bottom round is best roasted, seared, or braised.
Eye of Round
One of the most tender muscles in the leg, this smaller, cylindrical-shaped muscle comes from the back of the leg and is attached to the bottom round. If left attached to the bottom round, the whole portion is referred to as a Gooseneck. This muscle is great roasted, seared or even made into beef jerky.
Also known as sirloin tip, the knuckle is made up of a few different muscles which can be isolated into singular steaks, although there is a fair amount of connective tissue to deal with. Best seared or braised, knuckle is also a great addition to the chuck for stew meat.
This lower leg area can be cross cut into sections and braised. Laden with connective tissue, this cut does great with slow, wet cooking. The connective tissue will eventually render into moist deliciousness and serves as a natural sauce thickener.
The upper leg bone, known as the femur, is the best marrow bone on the entire animal. This part of the animal is great for cutting down the middle or into cross sections, roasted and enjoyed for a rich decadent beef flavor and texture.
5) Organs and Other Cuts
The organ meats are some of the most nutritionally dense parts of the animal and therefore are revered for their health qualities (if procured from a clean, healthy animal). Some of them are actual muscles, such as the heart. There is also the tongue, cheek and tail, which are not organs but are amazingly delicious in their own right.
There are five main cuts commonly associated with these parts of the animal.
Typically cut into steaks or cutlets, beef liver delivers a great deal of nutrition for a cheap price when seared. Some are turned off by the stronger flavor and softer texture, while others have fond memories of liver and onions their mom made growing up. One way to keep the strong flavor of liver in balance is to avoid overcooking. The longer you cook liver, the stronger in taste it gets. Aim for medium rare to medium and balance liver with other strong flavors like vinegar, pepper and onions.
Cleaned and cut into steaks, the heart is a great lean steak which could almost pass at purely a muscle if served to an unknowing eater seared. Since it is on the leaner side, I like to marinate hearts in olive oil, vinegar and herbs for at least 12 hours. Grilled to medium rare perfection, beef hearts become tender and very flavorful. Hearts also make great steak skewers.
The tongue is a dense, delicious muscle which has an outer covering that needs to be removed. This muscle can be boiled or simmered for about one hour before the cover is tender enough to peel from the outside. At that point, it can be further cooked whole or cubed for a stew, soup or even cut into chunks and simmered in sauce for tacos. Very delicious and economical, beef tongue is best enjoyed braised.
Cheeks are like miniature briskets. One of the best parts of any animal, beef cheeks are best braised or roasted. They are small, but these cuts have great flavor and an ample amount of connective tissue. For that reason, cheeks should be slow-cooked to tender perfection. You can also try slow roasting them until fork tender.
The tail has a unique texture and adds a lot of gelatinous qualities when braised. The meat itself is quite good and is a perfect addition to a stuffing for ravioli or dumplings. The collagen this cut produces makes it a great addition to a nutritious bone broth. It’s one of my favorite parts to cook and quite cheap like most of the other organs and oddball parts.
Enjoy Eating The Entire Animal
Now that you know more about individual cuts of meat, you can start expanding your horizons and enjoying new cuts of beef. Here at Augustus Ranch, we believe that eating the whole animal promotes the ethical and sustainable principles that form the foundation of our meat program. Don’t be afraid to experiment or ask your butcher for suggestions if you are unfamiliar with a particular cut. Happy meating!