Beef Reference (wip)

This is a work in progress (in fact it’s been about three years since I first started this), posted here so I may remember to actually write the actual reference guide. It’ll probably be a neat pdf and maybe even an interactive flash if I feel like it.


  • Terms
    • Dry heat cooking: any non-convection heating process; that is, cooking in direct contact with or separated only by air from heat source, like grilling, roasting, pan frying, and broiling
    • Grain: visible bundles of muscle fiber; when “cutting across the grain,” you break these fibers into smaller pieces, making it easier to chew and releasing the flavorful extractives inside the individual fibers
    • Marbling (intramuscular fat): flecks of fat found within the muscle; more marbling makes the meat juicier, more tender, and more flavorful; highest marbling earns “Prime” rating (highest USDA quality grade)
    • Moist heat cooking: cooking methods using moisture to heat the food, like braising, steaming, stewing, and poaching
    • Primal cut: a large section of a carcass from which cuts are made (e.g. “chuck,” “round,” and “short loin”)
    • Pot roast: economical cut that is best braised for a long time (breaks down collagen in tougher cuts, making it more tender); not to be confused with a roast, which is usually just a large cut that is best suited for roasting
    • Steak: thickly sliced cut, usually sliced across the grain
  • Working from the front of the carcass to the rear in American primal cuts (preferred cuts are italicized):
  • Chuck (lower neck and shoulder, to the fifth rib)
      • Chuck cuts are quite flavorful, but they are best if braised, stewed, or slow cooked in some way to break down the collagen, lest it be tough and chewy. Using an acid like red wine or a small amount of vinegar helps tenderization. This is where most of your preferred ground beef come from.
    • Cuts
      • Blade roast: good for pot roast, but should cooked with moist heat
      • Chuck eye roast: the tougher side of the rib eye cut; usually braised, but fine roasted
      • Clod: one of the cheapest cuts of beef, braising recommended
      • Cross rib pot roast: meat on top of first ribs
      • Cube steak: any tough cut that the butcher seriously tenderizes with some expert mallet work or, more often, a machine; chicken fried steaks are made from cube steaks
      • Mock tender: one of the more tender cuts, but still requires braising to be acceptably tender; the steak version of this is called a chuck eye steak
      • Seven-bone pot roast: one of the toughest cuts from the chuck, requires a long marinating time
      • Shoulder pot roast: tough, often in two parts – one with a round bone (usually the tenderer of the two), one boneless
      • Short ribs: considered “Flanken-style” when cut across the bone
      • Top blade steak: also known as the flat iron steak, considered a perfect grilling steak if cooked up to medium and works well marinated, but it’s tender enough to not require it (in fact it’s only slightly less tender than filet mignon)
      • Under blade pot roast: not as tender as the top blade roast (from which is cut the flat iron steak), but still a fine moist-heat roast
  • Brisket and Foreshank (the lower chest and top of front legs, respectively)
      • The brisket is one of the toughest primal cuts, but it is quite flavorful. One of the most popular uses is in a Deep South meal of slow-cooked marinated, spice-rubbed, or barbecued brisket, sometimes smoked. It may also be brined and then slow-cooked to yield corned beef. Always slice a brisket across the grain, and cook with the fatty side up!
    • Cuts
      • Brisket, flat half: the leaner and thinner half, should have a layer of fat on one side, usually what you get when you request brisket; often slow cooked as per the popular Deep South meal
      • Brisket, point half: the fattier and thicker half, often has extra fat throughout the cut (which could mean more flavor), but it’s still brisket
      • Shank cross cut: braise or stew it; otherwise, use the bones and meat around it to make a nice soup base
      • The shank may also be ground to yield lean ground beef
  • Rib (the meat between and around ribs 6-12)
      • Rib meat is quite tender, thanks to the great marbling and that the area is not very exercised. Since the cut is already so tender, it’s best to use dry heat cooking (like grilling) and to not marinate. The whole cut is pretty large (makes up about 10% of the weight of the whole carcass) so the roast is usually split into two parts, and then each rib feeds two people! A roast with bones is called a “standing roast” or “prime rib,” while a roast without bones is called a “rolled roast,” because it is rolled and tied (though it’s less flavorful than the standing roast).
    • Cuts
      • Back ribs: a seven-bone rack leftover from the carving process of the above cuts, what you usually get as “barbecued ribs;” can be cooked with either dry or moist heat, but always use the low-and-slow cooking method to break down the connective tissue between the ribs; also, remove the sheet of fat (called “fell”) from the underside of the ribs before seasoning/marinating
      • Rib roast, large end: ribs 6 through 9 or 10, tender and fatty, closer to the chuck, steaks cut from this end are larger than steaks from the small end
      • Rib roast, small end: ribs 9 or 10 through 12, more tender and lean than the large end, closer to the loin
      • Rib-eye roast: a rib roast without all the bones, leaving only the large center rib-eye muscle; it’s best to smoke, grill, or cut this into steaks
      • Rib-eye steak: a steak cut of the rib-eye roast, very tender and well-marbled, usually boneless
      • Rib steak: a slice of the rib roast plus some of the surrounding muscle, fat, and rib bone; different from a rib-eye steak
  • Plate and Flank (part of the diaphragm muscle and muscle on the belly, respectively)
      • Though not as meaty as the other primals, the plate and flank are quite flavorful. These cuts often tend toward toughness if improperly prepared, so a marinade and thin, diagonal, cross-grain slices are recommended. Cuts from here are also boneless and usually lean, depending on the fatness of the cow.
    • Cuts
      • Flank steak: long, thin, and lean cut from just below the loin and ribs; benefits from marination (just to counter its slight toughness) but quite flavorful on its own
      • Hanger steak: a part of the diaphragm muscle, it hangs under the last rib and loin (thus, “hanger” steak); use an acidic marinade before/during cooking to keep tender; may be grainy or have a slight liver taste, but it’s flavorful nonetheless
      • Skirt Steak: another slice of the diaphragm muscle, the skirt steak is a little fattier than the flank and hanger steaks, but it’s still susceptible to toughness, so marinate if cooking with dry heat; in the Southwest U.S., this is the only cut considered for making fajitas
  • Short Loin (sub-primal cut of the loin primal; includes the 13th rib and top of back, before the sirloin)
      • Arguably the best primal, the short loin is a little-exercised area that yields the leanest and most tender cuts of the cow, so dry heat. Though it is not quite as flavorful as the tougher cuts, short loin cuts should not be cooked far past rare (cooking to medium is pushing it), lest you forfeit the precious tenderness and money laid down for the typically high cost of such cuts. The tenderloin runs through both the short loin and sirloin, but in this section “tenderloin” refers to the short loin portion.
    • Cuts
      • Top loin roast/steak: cut from the eye muscle near the 13th rib, the whole roast makes a fine roast beef, but this cut is usually sliced into bone-in or filet steaks (including the New York strip, shell steak, and club steaks); steak usually includes the rib bone and part of the spine
      • Tenderloin roast: the most tender roast of the whole carcass, tenderloin roasts can dry out quickly, so keep an eye on it; the roast is often cut into different steaks
      • Filet mignon steak: cut from the tenderloin, this is the most tender steak, so don’t even try marinating or cooking to medium; most of the time any tenderloin steak is considered a filet mignon, but staunch french chefs may insist that only the tip end (near the 13th rib) is a true filet mignon cut
      • Porterhouse steak: cut from both the top loin and tenderloin, these are usually sliced thick and grilled (don’t marinate)
      • T-bone steak: essentially a thinner version of the porterhouse with the namesake bone, this is slightly less tender because it is composed more of top loin than tenderloin
  • Sirloin (sub-primal cut of the loin primal; top of back, borders the round and short loin)
      • The sirloin is the more economical half of the loin, but that doesn’t mean it’s less flavorful. In fact, the sirloin can very well be more flavorful than the almighty tenderloin. Tenderness, however, varies depending on proximity to the tender short loin or the tough round. Therefore, cuts nearer the short loin are better grilled straight off, while cuts nearer the round should be marinated first.
    • Cuts
      • Flat bone steak: while the flat bone steak is cut right after the pin bone steak, it is very bony and is considered the least desirable sirloin steak; despite the bones, it is the second most tender sirloin steak
      • Pin bone steak: this is essentially the sirloin side of the porterhouse steak, yet the price is far lower; this includes the tenderloin, top sirloin, and top loin muscles; this is the most tender sirloin steak
      • Round bone steak: this is the leanest and least bony sirloin steak, though it’s only the third most tender and flavorful
      • Top sirloin butt roast: a flavorful, lean roast option (so don’t cook it past medium, or it dries out) suited to marination or spice rubs; if bought whole, you can cut off the top sirloin cap (aka coulotte) and slice that into steaks (they can be a little tough); the bottom sirloin butt runs inside this and is of slightly inferior quality
      • Top sirloin steak (boneless): sliced across the grain from the top sirloin butt roast, these steaks can be great or just ok; grill or broil it, and because of the strong meaty flavor, don’t over-season
      • Tri-tip roast: a triangular cut from the bottom sirloin butt, the tri-tip is a good flavor-for-cost option that works well as long as it stays tender (keep the fat on while cooking, and trim later if desired); this has a fine reputation in california, but not so much elsewhere, so it may be hard to find; this may also be cut into steaks
      • Wedge bone steak: this is the sirloin steak cut nearest the round primal, so it’s the toughest of the sirloin steaks
  • Round (the rump and rear shank)
      • Naturally, the rear hips are well-exercised areas, so the meat is lean and can certainly be tough. Always braise or use some kind of moist heat cooking with the round.
    • Cuts
      • Bottom round roast: outer muscle of the rear leg, this is a very lean and very tough cut; best cooked with moist heat, like pot roasting or braising (if it’s a high-quality cut)
      • Cube steak: any otherwise tough cut that the butcher seriously tenderizes with some expert mallet work or, more often, machine-tenderized; chicken fried steaks are made from cube steak
      • Eye round roast: cylindrical muscle within leg, this is very lean and boneless; it’s one of the toughest cuts, and it should always be slow-cooked or braised with fat attached; often sliced thin for steaks
      • Round steak crosscut: sliced across the entire round, this is a lean yet tough cut, requiring moist heat and a long cook time; when sliced thin, floured, and
      • Round tip roast: cut from the front of the leg, right next to the sirloin tri-tip, this is usually the tenderest round roast (though still not dry-heat-worthy, so braise or slow-cook); can be cut into chunks for kabob meat or sliced cross the grain for a steak (round tip steaks trimmed of some fat and muscle is a ball-tip steak)

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