Whether you are cooking up steaks on the grill or slow roasting a brisket in the oven, or making a quick ground beef one-dish meal, beef is a wonderfully versatile ingredient. The word itself refers to the meat coming from cattle.
This might be crazy to believe, but we have been eating beef since prehistoric times and it’s no wonder. It is a fantastic source of protein and nutrients but is best eaten in moderation as it is high in saturated fat.
Cuts of Beef
So how are things broken down? Cuts of beef can sometimes be hard to wrap your brain and that can be further compounded by the fact that these cuts and names of cuts can change by region or country. For example, a “brisket” in the US is no the same as a “brisket” in Britain.
To butcher a whole cow, they are broken down into something called “primal cuts.” These are large cuts are basic sections that are the initial part of butchering.
These primal cuts are the shank, brisket, rib, short plate, flank, round, chuck, and loin.
Each of these cuts is processed further into 100+ different sub-primal cuts, which are what you see on the label when you buy beef. The names often depend on where you are located.
Sub Primal Cuts Broken Down
Shank- The shank is located on the lower abdomen and leg of the cow and is a muscle that is constantly in use and thus the meat is lean and tough only containing an average of 7% fat.
These cuts tend to require manual tenderizing (with a meat mallet or grinder), marinades to help break down fibers and impart flavor and also low and slow cooking methods to keep lean meat moist while allowing fibers to break down.
Slow cookers, electric pressure cookers and braising are good choices. Ground beef from this section is manually tenderized during the grinding process and will be used for lean ground beef mixes. It should be noted that the leaner the ground beef, the more important it is to cook with liquid to avoid a rubbery texture.
Common for osso bucco, beef shanks, ground beef, stews & soups, beef tips and gravy, curries and pot pie.
Brisket –Brisket comes from the lower chest of the cow and is another highly utilized muscle group so it is lean and tough, but can become something wonderful if cooked properly.
This brisket is thin with two sub-primal cuts: brisket point and brisket flat cut. You might hear the slang terms of just “points and flats”.
The point comes to a tapered end and is rounder with marbling throughout while the flat has a thick fat cap, but lean meat underneath. Flat brisket is the most common.
Both cuts require long, moist heat to add flavor and create succulent bites, therefore moist smoking, slow cooking and braising are the best cooking methods.
Rib – This section is large and covers the center back of the cow. This area is well marbled, with hearty flavor and is naturally juicy. It includes prime rib, ribeye, back ribs and rib cap.
They are all best prepared at quick, high and dry heats whether in the oven, smoker or on the grill.
Commonly used for individual steaks, rib roast, BBQ ribs.
Short Plate- Short ribs, hanger steak and skirt steak all live in the short plate section which is on the belly directly under the ribs and neighbored by brisket and flank. These cuts tend to have higher fat content and each require different cooking methods.
Hanger and skirt steaks are very thin and can be marinated or rubbed and are best cooked with a high heat sear.
Commonly used for recipes requiring thin slices pieces of beef like stir fry, fajitas, sandwiches, pastas.
Flank- The flank is located on the belly behind the short plate. It is best known for the flank steak and London broil, although a London broil is technically a method of preparation not an actual cut. They are lean, thick and tend to be chewy.
Tenderizing well with a meat mallet or long stints in a marinade help to break down fibers and make them more tender. It is also strongly recommended that they then be cut against the grain to shorten fibers while chewing.
Commonly used for salad, sliced roasts, pasta.
Round- The round area is near the hind quarters of the cow are are usually cheaper cuts, but you if you know how to treat them right you get the most bang for your buck. They include the sirloin tip, top round, bottom round (rump roast) and eye of round.
These do best being cooked with moisture, liquids and low and slow heat methods. Slice them thinly against the grain to reduce fibers lengths.
Commonly used for pot roasts, deli meats and larger roasts.
Chuck – This is where the tender chuck roast comes from- the most common cut for pot roasts and anything with shredded beef. This area also contains the flat iron, top blade, country style ribs and shoulder cuts.
Chuck roasts are often labeled different things depending on geographic location. You might see them labeled chuck eye roasts, chuck pot roasts, chuck roll roasts or merely pot roast.
They are all best cooked long and slow, allowing the collagen to break down and tenderize the meat.
Flat iron is also known as the blade steak or “butcher’s cut” because it is the one of the tastiest pieces often kept by the butcher to enjoy himself. All it requires is a quick season and sear on high heat.
Commonly used for chicken fried steak, cube steak, BBQ ribs, pot roast and steaks on the grills.
Loin- This section is located on the lower back of the cow, another low activity, but high fat area. Here you get the top loin, bottom loin, sirloin and tenderloin resulting in over 20 sub-primal cuts. The most popular are porterhouse, T-bone, filet mignon, New York strip, sirloin steak, chateaubriand (beef tenderloin) and tri-tip.
These cuts have high marbling making them super tender without much prep.
They cook best with quick, dry heat like a grill or hot skillet or just a really hot oven.
Commonly used for filet mignon, beef wellington, grilled or seared steaks, skillet meals requiring tender meat that cooks quickly, steak kabobs and stir fry.
Ground beef is interesting in that it is usually a blend of multiple cuts. Chuck, round, and sirloin are popular, but it can be made with any cut of beef and is often leftover pieces while butcher is working.
When purchasing, look for the fat content. This can range anywhere from 10% fat to 30% fat.
What you choose will depend on the recipe you are cooking and how much flavor you want. Fat equals flavor, but it isn’t always best for every recipe. You can always ask your butcher if you are unsure or if it isn’t labeled.
Beef is best used a few days after it is purchased, or it can be frozen for up to six months in an airtight or well-sealed package.
What’s the deal with temp?
When it comes to beef, it is unique in that it can be served at a range of internal temperatures. Beef tartare is a dish served raw as is carpaccio. A rare steak can be at 120-125°F internal temp whereas well done is served with an internal temp of 160°F or more.
Here is a beef temperature chart.
And carryover cooking is…
Carryover cooking is a scientific process where the temperature actually continues to rise slightly after the protein is removed from the heat source. So if you want your steak medium, remove it 5° before it hits the mark.
Is beef red meat?
Yes, it is! Red meats are meats of mammals that are generally red when raw. In addition to beef, this includes venison, mutton, boar, and others.
Ever heard someone say “I want mine bloody”? The red that comes from beef when more towards the rare side isn’t actually blood. It is the proteins that mix with oxygen.
Is beef good for health?
This is a tricky question to answer. It is very nutritious and has a great source of Vitamins B3, B12, B6, iron, zinc, and selenium in addition to protein.
That said, it is best consumed in moderation as it is high in saturated fat. This can raise cholesterol and high levels of certain cholesterol can increase the risk of heart disease.
Is it safe to eat beef if it turns brown?
It is 100% normal for raw beef to turn from a shade of rosy pink to a duller shade of brown in the fridge. This is due to the oxidization of the meat. If it smells funky, is sticky or tacky to the touch, or slimy in the way it looks, then that is a different story and it should be discarded.