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Butchering Beef Around the World
The French cut beef along muscle separations, while Americans cut beef across the grain. That means that if you break a carcass down American-style, you’ll get big, juicy T-bone steaks, and miss out on the lean French filet mignon. But the French and American styles aren’t the only way to break down a cow—they’re just the cuts you’re more likely to see at a butcher shop in the U.S. Beef cuts differ in Brazil, the U.K., Korea, and pretty much every other beef-eating nation.
Tender Vs. Tough Cuts of Meat
The most tender part of the cow is a muscle called the tenderloin, located in the middle of the back, within the loin primal. This area gets the least exercise and so the muscle fibers are very thin, yielding fine-grained, lean meat with very little connective tissue or fat. Meat tends to get tougher as you radiate out from the tenderloin, with the rib and loin containing the most tender cuts, and the shank, round, flank, plate, chuck, and brisket—areas that work hard to walk, graze, and support the cow’s weight—generally housing the toughest cuts.
The size of the muscle fibers isn’t the only thing that determines how tasty a piece of beef will be: the presence of fat and collagen and the way the beef is cut and cooked all play a huge role in flavor. Fat is the main source of flavor in beef, and it melts when cooked for longer periods of time. Collagen turns into gelatin when cooked long enough, which is why tough cuts like brisket become meltingly tender when slow roasted. Cutting meat against the grain into thin slices shortens the muscle fibers, reducing the amount of work you have to do to to chew them, which is why skirt-steak fajitas, from the tough flank, taste tender.
8 Different Cuts of Beef and Where They Come From
In the U.S., beef is divided into eight primal cuts. Although these primal cuts are just the way butchers break beef down into pieces small enough to fabricate the even smaller pieces you find at retail, knowing the different parts of the cow can help you make better cooking decisions. From shoulders to hoof they are:
- Chuck (shoulder)
- Brisket (chest)
- Plate (belly)
- Flank (abdomen)
- Round (back end)
- Shank (thigh)
In-Depth Dive Into the Main Beef Cuts
Chuck, aka clod, comes from the cow’s shoulder muscles. It's the largest primal cut. Since the shoulder muscles do all the work of grazing, the muscle fibers are thick and surrounded by plenty of collagen. These thick fibers can be difficult to chew, but most chuck meat is also very fatty, which can make chuck flavorful and tender, if it’s cooked long enough—usually an hour or more. This makes inexpensive chuck cuts ideal for braising (such as in pot roast), slow-cooking, and sous vide.
When sold whole, the chuck cut is called square cut chuck, which often gets fabricated into cuts used for ground beef, roasts, and steaks. Square cut chuck can also be broken down into chuck short ribs, which are meaty and good for slow-cooking.
A cow has 13 ribs, with the first ribs beginning in the chuck section. The rib primal, behind the chuck, comprises ribs six through 12. This area is less hardworking than the chuck but still full of flavorful (and potentially chewy!) fat. It’s the source of the most sought-after and expensive short ribs, as well as back short ribs (aka dinosaur ribs); ribeye roast and steaks; prime rib roast; and cowboy steak, a bone-in ribeye steak large enough to serve two people. Learn more about prime rib here.
The loin primal begins with the 13th and last rib and is home to some of the tenderest cuts, including the front end of the pricey tenderloin. In American butchery, this area is typically known as the short loin, and cut into large steaks:
- T-bone Steak: Contains the strip steak and at least ½ inch of the tenderloin joined by the T-shape backbone.
- Porterhouse Steak: A larger version of the T-bone that contains top sirloin and at least 1¼ inches tenderloin.
- Delmonico: Refers to any thick-cut steak, but often refers to the first cut of the short loin at the rib end. It’s a dated name popularized by Delmonico’s, a Manhattan institution from the mid-19th century.
- Kansas City or New York Strip Steaks: With the tenderloin and bones removed, you’re left with the strip loin, usually cut into strip steaks, known as .
The sirloin primal corresponds to the lower back, beginning at the sixth and last lumbar vertebra and including the hip bone. It’s less tender than the loin, but more fatty and flavorful. The primary muscle of the top sirloin (located below the tenderloin) is the gluteus medius; this muscle is separated from the knuckle (aka sirloin tip) to divide the sirloin into two subprimal cuts:
- Top Sirloin Butt: Typically cut into sirloin steaks, including the sirloin cap (aka coulotte), the muscle fibers of which run in a different direction than the rest of the butt, so this section is usually removed and sliced into steaks against the grain, to increase apparent tenderness.
- Bottom Sirloin Butt: Tougher than top sirloin butt, it's often ground or sold as tri-tip (aka Newport steak or Santa Maria steak), which is popular for grilling in California and smoking in Texas, and sirloin flap, (aka bavette d’aloyau), which is adjacent to the tri-tip and similar to a flank steak.
Learn more about sirloin here.
The flank primal is located directly under the loin and corresponds to the abdominal muscles. Cuts from the flank tend to be lean and very tough, but flavorful when properly cooked, and their coarse texture is good for soaking up marinades. Flank steak is best grilled quickly over high heat and sliced thinly against the grain or stir-fried. London broil is both a method for preparing flank steak by quickly broiling, and a name butchers use to refer to different cuts of flank steak, and sometimes—confusingly—top round steak.
The plate, aka short plate, is located at the cow’s belly, below the rib primal, and can be separated from the rib primal at various points along the rib, depending on the butcher’s preference.
- The Navel: A tough cut at the front of the plate, removed before the rib and plate are separated and smoked for pastrami or beef bacon or braised for ropa vieja.
- The Short Plate: Considered “short” because it does not include the brisket part of the cow’s underside.
- Hanger Steak: Aka butcher’s steak, is a thicker cut that hangs from the cow’s diaphragm.
- Skirt steak is a thin, flavorful cut located between the abdomen and chest. There are two types of skirt steak—inside skirt and the darker, more mineral-flavored outside skirt. Both skirt steaks are popular for high-heat cooking, such as carne asada, fajitas, and Brazilian barbecue, and should always be sliced against the grain.
- Plate Short Ribs: Cut from ribs six through eight, these are cheaper and more fatty than other beef short ribs and typically sold connected, as a plate.
The brisket, located below the chuck primal and next to the short plate, corresponds to the cow’s chest. Since the muscles in the brisket support the cow’s body weight, it’s tough and full of connective tissue and fat, requiring prolonged cooking to become tender. It’s braised for Passover, smoked for barbecue in Texas, and can be made into corned beef or pastrami. Brisket is sold whole or divided into two muscles:
- Brisket Flat: Makes up the bulk of the brisket and looks like a flank steak.
- Brisket Point: Consists of the smaller outside muscle. It looks like a small knob of meat sitting on top of the flat.
- Whole Brisket: Includes both muscles and the layer of fat separating the flat from the point.
The round primal covers the backend of the cow: its rump and back legs. The round is lean, inexpensive, and usually fabricated into big roasts. It includes the femur, the longest marrow bone, and often divided into subprimal cuts:
- Bottom Round: Aka the gooseneck has more connective tissue than the top round and includes the outside round (flat) and the heel—the toughest cut in the round, which is cut into chip steak, used in Philly cheesesteak.
- Eye of Round: Looks like the tenderloin, so it’s sometimes sold as faux filet mignon, but has a much less tender texture.
- Sirloin Tip: Aka knuckle can be sold as a round roast or cut into textured, chewier steaks.
- Top Inside Round: Can be used for beef jerky or cut into so-called London broil steaks.
The shank is one of the toughest cuts, since it comes from the cow’s hard-working and not very fatty front and back legs. It’s fabricated into the shank cross-cut—bone-in slices that expose the rich marrow and are popular in dishes like osso buco, in which the shank is braised for over an hour, so that the collagen in the tough connective tissue can transform into gelatin.
There are other parts of the cow that don’t fit neatly into the primal cuts system but are still important:
- Tongue: Mild and fatty and can be tenderized by slow braising, such as in a pot roast or lengua tacos, or pickled.
- Cheeks: A facial muscle that gets a lot of exercise chewing cud and are therefore tough. They’re usually trimmed of connective tissue and slow-cooked, such as in barbacoa.
- Oxtail: Comes from the tail of the cow and is sold as slices of bone surrounded by meat. The gelatin in the bones and connective tissue melts down when cooked in soups and stews, or shredded for ragu.
- Neck: Similar to oxtail but less expensive. It can be braised for pasta or a stew.
- Heart: A large, lean organ with a chewy texture. It can be sliced thinly, marinated, and broiled, pan-seared, or grilled to medium-rare.
- Liver: Often sauteed in butter with onions.
- Tripe: There are four different forms, including blanket (rumen), honeycomb (reticulum), book (omasum), and reed (abomasum). You’ll find tripe in soups and stews, or deep-fried until crispy. It’s also popular for dim sum.
- Sweetbreads: From the thymus or pancreas of a calf, sweetbreads are usually simmered to remove the membrane, then seared to a crispy exterior and creamy interior
Selecting the Best Cuts of Beef
What you’re looking for will depend on cooking method, budget, and personal preferences, but beef should always be firm, even-colored, and mild-smelling.
The price of beef reflects consumer preferences, which currently lean toward quick-cooking, tender steaks. The muscles that do the least work are therefore the most expensive. If you’re willing to put a little extra time into a tougher cut, you’ll be rewarded with flavorful meat at a fraction of the price.
The USDA grades beef for quality, giving the highest grade (Prime) to beef that is young, tender, and well marbled. Choice and Select are the second and third best rankings, respectively. This voluntary grading system allows producers to sell certain cuts for more money, but isn’t necessarily an indicator of how flavorful the meat will be.
Beef muscle fibers on their own don’t have a ton of flavor; it’s the fat surrounding the muscle fibers that contains the aroma molecules. Fat makes beef more flavorful (because the fat is where all the flavor is), but it can be chewy.
When shopping for fattier cuts, look for even marbling. Fat should be bright white for grain-fed cattle and more yellow for grass-fed beef. Intensely marbled meats, such as Wagyu steak, should be sliced very thinly, as in shabu shabu and carpaccio. When cooking fatty cuts, make sure to actually cook the fat—that means rendering any large fat caps.
Flavorful fat often comes hand in hand with lots of connective tissue in the form of elastin and collagen. Elastin, aka silverskin or gristle, is found in ligaments and blood vessel walls. It does not get more tender with cooking and so should always be trimmed. The good news is that elastin isn’t nearly as abundant as collagen, which surrounds muscle fibers and melts into gelatin when heated, turning tougher cuts super tender when cooked properly. For quick, dry-heat cooking methods, choose cuts with as little connective tissue as possible. For slower cooking methods, abundant collagen is a good thing.
The thickness of muscle fibers is what makes meat tender or tough. For dry-heat applications like grilling and pan-frying, choose tender, fine-grain, uniform-textured meat: You shouldn’t really see the individual bundles of muscle fibers, and the meat should feel soft to the touch. For slow-cooked dishes, look for coarse-grain meat, with muscle fibers thick enough that you can see the individual bundles. Coarse-grain meat will absorb marinades better, which is why tough cuts such as flap, flank, and skirt steaks are often marinated.
Learn cooking techniques for meat from Chef Thomas Keller here.