Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Buying a side of beef: Lesson four: Cuts of beef

It has been a busy few weeks at the ranch but today we return to our "How Stuff Works" series on how to buy a side of beef. Lesson four will cover the different cuts of beef and where they come from on the carcass.

If you are just joining us, be sure to catch up the other lessons in this series on how to buy a side of beef:

Buying a side of beef can be an economical way of filling the freezer and supporting your local farmer but the process can be extremely confusing for the first time customer. Here's a detailed primer on how it works and what to expect.

In lesson three we learned about how to calculate the cost of a side of beef and the fees paid to both the farmer and the butcher. Here we consider the type of cuts your family normally eats and learn where certain cuts come from on a side of beef.

Before interfacing with the butcher to provide your cut instructions, you will want to have an idea of what kind of cuts you like and those that you do not care for so much. Think of the ways you normally eat beef:

- Is your family a "sit down, steak and potatoes type family" with a portion of meat for each person?

- Or, are you the type to use beef as an ingredient in a meal like stirfry and casseroles?

- Are you the type of cook to prepare a large meal with the intention of eating leftovers?

- Does your family use ground beef frequently in meal planning? How many pounds do you tend to prepare each serving?

- How frequently do you cook a roast?

- Do you see yourself preparing many meals using stew meat, short ribs, shanks or soup bones?

- Would you be interested in receiving any of the offal or variety meats (beef liver, heart or tongue)?

This brings me to a famous butcher's joke:

A man walks into the butcher shop to purchase a side of pork. 
When the butcher inquires about how the customer would like his 
side of pork cut up the man replies, "why all bacon of course".

Knowing the types of cuts you enjoy the most is only helpful to a point, as a side of beef or pork is only going to have so many of each type of cut. The names of cuts can vary depending on geographic location, but in the U.S. a beef is divided up into 10 primal/subprimal cuts, that is to say large sections of meat that are further broken down into retail cuts like steaks and roasts.


Primal cut: Chuck
This primal encompasses the neck, shoulder and part of the upper arm. These muscles do a lot of work and there is a good deal of connective tissue which makes it an excellent choice for braising and slow cooking.
What are my options: steaks, roasts (sometimes called arm roasts), stew meat or ground beef
Hidden gem: Flat iron steaks (also known as a boneless top blade among many other names)

Primal cut: Brisket

This primal from the chest of the beef is very tough and must be cooked long and slow. The brisket is used in corned beef and barbeque brisket but can be cooked as a plain ole pot roast. Some butchers I have worked with will automatically grind the brisket unless you specifically request it.
What are my options: Roast or grind

Primal cut: Rib

This primal is one of the more tender sections of beef. Located along the ribs, this is the source of a standing rib roast (also called a "prime rib" though technically that term refers to a grade of beef not a specific cut. The term is so common though that the butcher will understand).
What are my options: Roast (bone-in or boneless) or steaks (bone-in steaks = rib steaks, boneless = ribeye)

Primal cut: Plate

A smaller primal from the belly of the beef. This is the source of short ribs and skirt steaks.
What are my options: Ribs or grind plus skirt steak
Hidden gem: Hanger steak, also known as hanging tender

These first primals all come from the front (forequarter) part of the beef. The following come from the back or hindquarter of the beef. If you are purchasing a quarter of a beef, there is the option to purchase the front quarter, the rear quarter or a half-of-a-half, which is simply all of the cuts from one side of beef divided in two. Now on to the rear primals:

Primal cut: Loin

Sub-primal cut: Short Loin

The three subprimals of the loin are the most tender cuts of beef. The short loin is where the good ole T-Bone steak comes from (and also Porterhouse steaks which are similar to T-Bone but contain a larger area of tenderloin though most butcher shops will label all the steaks a T-Bone). On one side of the T is the New York strip steak and the other side is the tenderloin/filet.
What are my options: T-Bone steaks or NY/tenderloin

Primal cut: Loin

Sub-primal cut: Sirloin

A leaner portion of the loin, this muscle group is the source of sirloin steaks
What are my options: top sirloin steaks
Hidden gem: Tri-tip
Primal cut: Loin

Sub-primal cut: Tenderloin

The most tender muscle, a portion of the tenderloin extends into the short loin (hence TBone steaks) but the remaining tenderloin can be cut up into tenderloin (also called filet mignon) steaks or left whole as a roast.
What are my options: tenderloin steaks or roast

Primal cut: Round

This is a very lean muscle group that does a lot of work and so requires moist heat or careful cooking. The round, both top and bottom can be cut into steaks. The boneless rump roast also comes from this primal as well as the sirloin tip roast (which is not part of the loin primal at all but from the hip which is in the round primal).
What are my options: steaks, kabob meat, roast or grind.
Note: The round is a common source of cube or minute steaks which are simply boneless round steaks (top or bottom round) run though a tenderizing machine to slash the muscle fibers to make a quick cooking steak (made famous in chicken-fried steak but also great for other fast cooking applications like stirfry). Any boneless steak from a beef can be tenderized though I am sure one might get quizzical looks if you asked to tenderize the tenderloin. 

Primal cut: Flank

With the exception of the flank steak, most all of the flank primal is ground into hamburger. The other muscles are just too small for anything else.
What are my options: flank steak

Primal cut: Shank

The shank, or upper portion of the leg is an incredibly tough cut of meat but full of wonderful flavor for soups and beef stock. The low, slow, braised dish osso bucco uses cross-cut veal shank but can be prepared with beef shank. Some shops will automatically cross-cut (cut the meat perpendicular to the bone) the shank where others leave it whole. If you have a preference, speak up.
What are my options: shank or grind

Now that you have a good idea of all the different types of cuts on a beef and have given thought to how you might use them, we are ready to give our cut and wrap instructions to the butcher. This will be covered in Lesson five: cut and wrap instructions.


Isabel said...

awesome site, answered all my questions. thnak you, now i'm confident enough and educated on this subject that i will be able to order my 1/2.

Katia said...

Wonderful! Enjoy your side.

Unknown said...

This was very informative for my wife and I to make the 1/2 beef disission- thank you tom & Betty

Katia said...

Happy to help!

Anonymous said...

You have wonderful information. Is it free for the cutting and pasting to share with others.

Katia said...

You are welcome to share with friends and customers, non-commercial distribution permitted with attribution. Thanks for stopping by!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful information, this was the first time we are buying a 1/2 of a side of beef. Thank you so much for the usefull information and all the different ways it can be cut.

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