Inside the Butcher Shop: Beef Cuts 101
It’s a fact we all know, but often choose to ignore: the juicy grass-finished beef steak on our plate was once part of a bovine. At the farm, we strive to make our animals comfortable and content so that they will grow and develop in a stress-free environment. This is good for the animal, the forages, the land, and for the farmer. The cycle of life moves along until the measure of creation is fulfilled for the animal—and we omnivores continue that cycle at the dinner table.
A significant part of the field-to-fork process in the meat industry is the butchering of an animal. So I spent some time with my butcher the other day in order to share a behind-the-scenes look at butchering. The cutting of meat is somewhat of an art form, with lots of cultural variations. The standard American cuts that you see at the grocery store or on a chart such as this one distributed by the Beef Council tell only part of the story. Meat cutting is the art of identifying and separating the muscle groups from the bones and sinews. Once the muscle groups are separated, they can be sliced and trimmed into the familiar cuts of beef. Here’s a look at some of the most interesting beef cuts.
[Warning: The following photos may be too graphic for non-meat eaters! Read on at your own discretion.]
This cut comes from the front of the back half of the spinal column and ribs; the area is known as the loin. There are three main muscle groups involved. Depending on the cutting of this section, the butcher can produce a porterhouse, T-bone or strip steak. By removing the bone, he can get a New York strip and tenderloin steak or filet (as in filet mignon). Surely every beef eater has had a T-bone steak and noticed the difference on each side of the T. The small side is more tender and less fatty. Taken alone, that piece is actually the tenderloin. The tougher and larger side of the T is the strip steak, or, without the bone, a New York strip steak. A porterhouse steak is the largest cut from this part of the animal and is larger because there is a third muscle group on the large side of the T, which is small and quite tender. Only four or five steaks cut from this area will qualify as porterhouse because the muscle is small and runs out as the meat section tapers smaller.
The next photo shows a T-bone on the left and a porterhouse on the right as mirror images, but note the additional round segment on the far right side of the porterhouse.
The ribeye is my favorite steak. These cuts come from the back and rib section right in front of the T-bone area. Made into steaks with the bone in, it’s a rib steak, or de-boned, it’s a ribeye steak. Either way, it’s tender and flavorful and has just the right amount of fat. A ribeye steak is great for grilling or broiling. If this area isn’t cut into steaks, it will be cut as a bone-in or boneless rib roast. Sometimes this is referred to as prime rib, which may or may not be accurate; in the strict sense of the usage, this cut is only considered prime rib if it has been graded “prime” by a USDA inspector. When the word “prime” is used in this official sense, it means that there is a heavier internal fat content (aka marbling). Somehow, “choice rib” doesn’t have the same ring to it, but a rib roast graded to the USDA choice standard is pretty darn good if cooked properly.
The Lean Cuts
The large muscles at the rear of the cow provide the leanest cuts of beef. Sirloin steak is probably the most well-known cut, followed by rump roast. The rear-most muscle or round is most often cut into strips for fajita meat or stir-fry pieces. It can also be used to create round steak or kebab chunks.
The most interesting cut in this area is the tri-tip. This is a triangular muscle right at the bottom of the sirloin area, similar in size to the animal’s heart. The tri-tip is one of the best lean cuts because it is fairly tender. It can be grilled whole or cut into steaks. There are only two of these on the whole cow.
The Thin Muscles
The thin muscles are found on the underside of the cow, and from this area we get cuts such as brisket, skirt steak and flank steak. One common use of brisket is corned beef. Properly marinated and cooked, it is also makes a wonderful roast-style cut. The skirt and flank are very thin pieces of meat, which, ideally, should be marinated before grilling, then sliced into strips for flavorful fajitas. All of these cuts can also be cured into beef bacon or pastrami.
The Front Section
The front section of a cow is also known as chuck. The most common usage is for chuck roast or pot roast, which are usually slow cooked to tenderize the meat. The meat from the front section is a little tougher because it’s cut from muscles that are used a lot. However, there is also a lot of beef flavor for the same reason. One of the most flavorful steaks from the whole cow is a chuck-eye steak. It’s not very popular, probably because sometimes it can be kind of tough. This varies from one animal to the next, however, and the degree of toughness is not as predictable as tenderness measures on other steak cuts. Chuck steaks should be cut thin, perhaps tenderized, and not overcooked. The flavor can’t be beat.
So there you have it. Work with your local butcher to get your favorite cuts!
Note: All butchering images courtesy of John Brady.
Editor’s Note: What’s your go-to cut of beef, and how do you like it prepared?