The mouthwatering smell of a burger or steak cooking on the grill is one of the quintessential signs of summer, and any good foodie knows that when the weather starts getting warm, the beef offerings start getting interesting. From low and slow barbecue to high-heat grilling to patient smoking, there’s almost as many ways to cook beef as there are different cuts of beef. If you’re a novice cook or just a meat lover who doesn’t happen to know every single part of a cow inside and out, you might find it confusing trying to navigate the meat case at your grocery store or local butcher’s shop. After all, there’s so many different names for different cuts, and every one seems to have a specific thing that it’s good for. How do you know what you need to buy for what you plan to make? Here’s a basic guide to the different cuts of beef to help you feel a little more confident as you grill this summer.
Even though there are many different specific cuts of beef, they all fall into one of eight categories called primal cuts or main cuts. These are the main sections of a cow as they are first broken down, and then all the different, smaller cuts of beef are broken down further from there. Each primal cut has a few smaller cuts within it that are especially popular, and each primal cut has a general way of preparing it that will yield the best results, so if you know your primal cuts, you’ve got enough knowledge to go on! Here are the eight primal cuts.
The round cut comes from a cow’s hind legs, and it can be a little tough since this is a muscle that gets used a fair amount. Round is often sold as ground beef, but other cuts from the round include round steak, rump roast, tip steak, tip roast, top round and bottom round roasts. Round is lean and inexpensive, and some of the cuts can handle high heat cooking, like the top and bottom round roasts, but some will turn out better if you cook them low and slow, like rump.
The loin is located right behind the ribs, and unlike round, the muscle isn’t used very much, which makes the beef there very tender. This means that the most expensive cuts of meat on a cow come from the loin. This primal cut breaks down into two subcategories: the short loin and the sirloin.
The short loin holds some cuts of beef you’re probably familiar with, like a filet mignon, or a T-bone steak or Porterhouse steak. T-bone and Porterhouse are actually basically the same, made up of a strip steak and a tenderloin steak divided by a bone. The only major difference between the two is that a Porterhouse usually has more tenderloin.
The sirloin cuts include sirloin steak, top sirloin, bottom sirloin, tri-tip roast and tri-tip steak. Both short loin and sirloin steaks can dry out quickly, so they’re often grilled or pan seared to keep them tender and flavorful.
Just like the name implies, rib cuts come from the ribs of the cow, although you might be surprised to know that out of a cow’s thirteen ribs, only the last six are officially included in the rib cut. The rest are a part of the chuck cut. Rib cuts have a lot of marbling, or fat content, and if there’s one thing you need to know about beef, it’s that fat means flavor! Common cuts from the rib include short ribs, ribeye steak, cowboy steak, and ribeye roast. Rib cuts are often best cooked low and slow to preserve their flavor.
Chuck cuts come from the shoulder of the cow. Like the round, it’s a heavily used muscle, so it’s not especially tender, but it is very flavorful, and is often used in ground beef. It’s very versatile and can be pretty inexpensive compared to other cuts, so it has a lot of different uses. Common cuts include chuck pot roast, flatiron steak, shoulder tender medallions, and stew meat.
The flank is located just below the loin on the back half of the cow’s underside, and because it has no bones, it’s tough but very flavorful. Flank is known for being lean, and even though it used to be an inexpensive cut in stores, that’s starting to change as demand rises for lean beef. The two most common cuts from the flank are flank steak and skirt steak, both of which should be cooked at high heat, so throw this on the grill and go to town!
The plate is found near the flank, on the front half of the cow’s underside. It’s pretty fatty and a little tough, but you’ll get popular cuts like hanger steak and short ribs from this area of the animal. This is a section often used for flavorful applications like pastrami, fajitas, or Philadelphia steak.
Brisket comes from the front of the cow, and it is exceptionally fatty and very tough. This means that in order to be tender and juicy, brisket absolutely has to be cooked low and slow. It’s a favorite for barbecue or braising.
Shank is actually a part of the cow’s upper leg and is one of the least popular primal cuts, mostly because it’s very tough and dry. Because of this, it’s pretty inexpensive as well. However, if you know how to cook it right, it can become tender and tasty. It’s commonly found in soups and stews, and osso buco is one of its best known uses.
There’s so much knowledge out there about beef that people make entire careers out of it, but with this basic understanding of the different cuts and what to do with them, you’re in for a delicious, flavor-filled summer. Enjoy!