Beef. It’s what for dinner for the majority of American’s on a nightly basis. From summertime burgers and beef franks to the five-star restaurants serving Kobe beef cuts of the finest quality, the types of beef we consume range vastly across the spectrum of featured main courses. We procure these meats in various ways as well. Some prefer the grocery store, where primal cuts have already been broken down into portion cuts. Other’s, butchers and restaurant owners especially, purchase a portion of the animal – a primal cut – which is then broken down in-house. Obviously, this method is cheaper since they’re essentially buying in bulk. But if you’re without the proper means to store the meat, then it’s best to purchase in smaller supply.
In terms of sheer meat consumption, Americans top the charts consuming upwards of around 264 lbs of meat a year per person according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Compare that to the world average of 92 lbs of meat consumption per person and you’d be correct in assuming that we Americans tend to sympathize more with our carnivorous ancestors. It’s also this meat-heavy diet that got us thinking about where our beef comes from, particularly what makes a NY strip steak different than say a top round or skirt steak or even brisket. Well, it all has to do with the cow and where that specific cut of meat is located. Never thought anatomy would pay off? Well, you’d be surprised once you dive deeper into the origin of that T-bone that’s on the menu.
Where it all begins
To start things off, and to keep cuts consistent throughout the industry, certain parts of the cow are given name designations in order to prevent any confusion between butchers. Basically, this runs through several categories of cuts. First, the cuts are categorized as either forequarter or hindquarter cuts. And while this is fairly self-explanatory, forequarter cuts include the chuck, rib, brisket, shank, and plate.
More often than not, the uses of this meat – save the ribs – range from deli cuts to barbecue, pot roasts, fajitas, soups, and stews. Rarely will you find cuts from the forequarter at your refined steakhouse. However, the hindquarter is where the real magic happens. It’s here where you’ll find the loin – which is further cut into two or three cuts (short loin, sirloin, and tenderloin) depending on its size. From the loin, you get Porterhouse, T-bones, Kansas City strip steaks, top and bottom sirloin cuts, tournedos, and filet mignons. The hindquarter is also where you’ll find the round and the flank cuts of the animal.
It’s then from these two regions that we get our primal cuts. The USDA breaks the animal down into eight primal cuts. We’ll outline them below – though we’ve gone ahead and combined some of them to keep things as simple as possible.
What To Look For When Purchasing Beef
- Make sure the cut of beef is cold to the touch.
- Look for meat that’s bright red, purplish red or marbled (with fat). Brown discolorations should be avoided.
- Marbling in more tender cuts like ribeye steaks and less connective tissue in leaner cuts like sirloins is ideal.
- Be aware of the USDA grading scale, which is categorized as either Prime, Choice, or Select in order of quality. Leaner cuts are the often graded Select and more marbled meat is graded as Prime, but also more expensive.
Burgers and Roasts
A quite common cut (a fair amount beef from this part of animal is ground for hamburgers) Chuck comes from the cow’s shoulder. And considering how the shoulder is used a lot during the animal’s lifespan, cuts from this region lend tend to be tougher than most. However, all toughness aside, it’s also a very flavorful cut. There are also many ways to slice this region as well so butchers typically offer a variety of options for you, the consumer to choose from.
Typical cuts you’ll find are – again – ground chuck which is used for good old-fashioned American hamburgers, flat iron steaks chuck short ribs (off the bone of course) pot roast, stew meat, and top blade steak. Chuck cuts are great for braising and slow cooking as well.
- Ground Beef
- Flat Iron Steak
- Pot Roast
- Stew Meat
- Top Blade Steak
Brisket & Shank
Good old brisket and shank. We decided to combine the two regions of the animal because of their proximity to one another. For those who aren’t aware, the brisket is otherwise known as the steers’ breast, while the shank is located in front of the brisket on the animal’s forearm. Naturally, brisket is going to contain a fair amount of fat and can be tough, which is why slow bbq cooking is a favorite choice with this cut. With brisket, chef’s play to the long game as to tenderize the meat, and allow the fat to become gelatinous with full flavor over many hours in the slow cooker. Brisket is also commonly used at the local deli as corned beef and pastrami.
As far as the shank is concerned, this is one of the toughest cuts of the animal. However, anyone who’s had Osso Buco has certainly enjoyed this tough-turned-savory cut of beef. A bit of braising is also required here tenderize the meat, which is why the shank is commonly used for soups and stews as well.
- Corned Beef
- Ossu Buco
- Soups & Stews
Middle of The Road
Consisting of, you guessed it, the animal’s ribs and backbone, this section of the cow yields some common and delicious cuts you can expect to find at your local butchery and steakhouse. Each cow host 13 pairs of ribs but it’s only the 6th through the 12th rib that are considered the primal section of the ribs. Others are considered a chuck cut for quality purposes. Because the ribs aren’t used as much as say the shoulder, there’s a bit more fat and marbling in this region of the animal. All good signs for a delicious cut of meat off the grill.
In terms of what you can expect from this primal section of the cow, they range from Delmonico steaks to cowboy steaks, beef short ribs, and your boneless ribeyes. Typically a tender cut of beef that benefits from a quick sear and served medium to medium rare. When purchasing, keep in mind that the more marbling and fewer tendons within the cut, the better.
- Delmonico Steaks
- Cowboy Steaks
- Beef Short Ribs
- Boneless Ribeyes
- Soups & Stews
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Loin & Sirloin
Herein lie some of the most choice cuts of beef from one of the cow’s most flavorful regions. This is where you’ll find the most expensive cuts of beef either at your neighborhood butchery or steakhouse. This primal cut is located at the top of the animal behind the rib region. And because it’s not a heavily used muscle, the meat here can be marbled with fat and very tender. Broken down a bit further, the loin is actually made up of two parts: the short loin and the tenderloin.
The tenderloin extends through the short loin and the sirloin and is the prized cut of the animal. from here you’ll find the common NY strip loins, tenderloin cuts, Filet Mignons, Tournedos, Porterhouse, and T-bone cuts. Interestingly enough, it’s from the Porterhouse cut that you get the T-bone, and out of the T-bone comes the filet and strip steak.
The sirloin area is a little less tender than the above regions but almost just as flavorful. From here, butchers will present you with standard sirloin steaks, center cut sirloins, top sirloin, Tri-Tip Roasts, ball tip steaks, and Tri-Tip Steaks.
- NY Strip
- Filet Mignon
- Tri-Tip Steaks
- Ball Tip Steaks
Hip & Round
Lean All Around
Also sometimes sold as ground beef, the round cut is often a tougher region of the animal because of its location on the cow’s hind parts and leg. Cuts from this region are more inexpensive and are often braised in order to tenderize the meat – unless it’s ground of course. The outside round, for instance, is best when braised while the inside round produces some of the best roasts. Again, slow and steady wins the flavor race here.
Common cuts in this region lend themselves to round steak, eye of round, tip roast, top and bottom round roasts, and tip steak. Most if not all of these cuts are served best when slow cooked and marinated throughout the process at to remove any toughness from the final dish.
- Round Steak
- Eye of Round
- Tip Roast
- Top and Bottom Round Roasts
Flank & Plate
Located below the loin and near the abdomen respectively, the flank is leaner and tougher while the plate is more fatty and tender. Both cuts of meat can, therefore, be used in a variety of ways. Flank, for instance, used to be a more inexpensive cut of meat due to its leaner and less flavorful qualities. Ironically, however, it’s the very leanness of the meat that has drawn the attention of the health-centric folk looking for cleaner and more healthy ways to enjoy beef. Popular preparations for flank steak also include London broil because if its tough nature.
For plate cuts, also known as short plate, meat from this region is commonly used as yet another source for short ribs because of its fatty nature. The meat here can also be used of fajitas, pastrami at your local deli, skirt steak or Philadelphia cheesesteak. It’s a relatively cheaper option but when prepared properly can yield some tasty dining options for any fan of beef.
- Flank Steak
- London Broil (preparation)
- Skirt Steak
- Philly Cheesesteak
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