There are more than 300 different retail cuts of beef, and a typical meat counter may display more than 50 cuts at one time. Primal cuts of beef are wholesale terms that refer to the sections of the animal. Within the primal cuts are many retail cuts, which are the names given to the steaks and roasts you find in the supermarket. Meat labels usually give both the primal and retail cut names. Here are the key primal cuts and retail cuts of beef you may find in the store.
Brisket: The front part of the breast is a boneless cut of beef with lots of fat. Brisket cuts—flat half brisket, corned brisket, point half brisket, and whole brisket—are best braised or cooked in liquid.
Chuck: This cut of beef encompasses meat from the shoulder, arm, and neck of the cow. One of the hardest-working areas of the animal’s body, the chuck contains a lot of connective tissue, and, therefore, is not very tender. Chuck cuts include chuck eye roast, boneless top blade steak, arm pot roast, boneless shoulder pot roast, cross rib pot roast, blade roast, short ribs, flanken style ribs, and stew beef. Ground beef is also produced from chuck cuts, among others. All of these should be cooked in liquid for long periods of time at moderate temperatures. That is the best way to break down the connective tissue and tenderize the meat. The exception is chuck eye roast, which may be roasted.
Flank: From this section, which is just behind the belly, comes flank steak, also called London broil in some parts of the country. It is a flavorful, relatively tender, and lean cut, which is suitable for broiling—though if cooked beyond the medium-rare stage, it gets very tough. It can also be braised, pan-broiled, or stir-fried. The meat should be cut very thin on a sharp angle across the grain to make it easier to chew.
Foreshank: The meat from the front legs of the steer is quite tough, and is used primarily for stew and ground beef. You may also find small steaks labeled shank cross cuts, which are well suited for braising or cooking in liquid.
Rib cuts: Cuts from the ribs are quite tender; however, those from the section nearest the chuck are less tender than the ones from the area nearest the loin. Most rib cuts are packaged as roasts—rib roast, large end (near the chuck), rib roast, small end (near the loin), and rib-eye roast. Often the roasts are cut into steaks, called rib steaks and rib-eye steaks, also known as Delmonico steaks. In general, rib cuts should be roasted, but the steaks can be broiled or grilled. Back ribs, another cut from this section, come with the bone intact and should be either roasted or braised.
Round: This rear section of the steer is so named because it contains the round bone, or femur. Although the muscles in the round are as hardworking as those in the chuck, meat from the round is more tender because the muscles all run in one direction. The round offers three of the leanest cuts of beef available: eye of round, top round, and round tip. As roasts, these cuts can be roasted or braised; as steaks, they can be broiled or pan-broiled. Other cuts from this section include: boneless rump roast and bottom round roast, which should be roasted or braised, and round steak, which should be braised.
Short loin: The tenderest cuts come from the loin, the part between the lower ribs and the pelvis, and the muscle that does the least work. Two of the leanest cuts of beef—top loin and tenderloin—are from this section. The tenderloin muscle yields the most tender meat; from it comes tenderloin roast and a number of steaks. Filets mignons are small steaks cut from the tenderloin. T-bone steaks come from the middle of the loin and include some tenderloin. Porterhouse steaks have the most tenderloin. Shell steaks or strip loin steaks are porterhouse or T-bone steaks without the tenderloin. (These are sometimes called New York or Kansas City steaks.) Roasts from this section can be roasted or broiled; the steaks can be broiled.
Short plate: The rear of the breast, this section contains tough, fatty meat. Cuts include skirt steak, which is the preferred meat for fajitas, short ribs, and spareribs. Skirt steak can be braised, broiled, or pan-broiled. Short ribs and spareribs should be braised. Boneless cuts of beef for stew and ground beef also come from this section of the animal.
Sirloin: Lying between the round and short loin, this section also contains lean, tender meat. The cuts are primarily steaks—sirloin flat bone, sirloin round bone, sirloin pinbone, and top sirloin—though you may also find top sirloin butt roast. Some sirloin is ground. Pinbone is closest to the loin and is the most tender, but it has a lot of bone. Flat bone—the center cut—has less waste than the pinbone, but is tougher. Round bone is nearest to the round and is the toughest sirloin cut. Sirloin steaks, sold with or without the bone, can be broiled; top sirloin butt roast can be roasted.
Ground beef: Most ground beef comes from the chuck, sirloin, or round. Packages are labeled by cut of beef, by fat/lean content, or both. Evaluating the fat content of packaged hamburger meat can be even more difficult than judging full cuts. While a steak or other cuts of beef labeled “lean” must have no more than 10 percent fat by weight, and “extra lean,” no more than 5 percent by weight, these standards don’t apply to meat that is ground. Ground beef labels use what is called compositional labeling, in which the percentage of lean meat is used to define the ground meat’s fat status. For example, ground meat that is 75 percent lean, is also 25 percent fat by weight. And meat that is 25 percent fat by weight actually derives about 77 percent of its calories from fat when cooked; that’s a lot of fat. To get the leanest ground beef, look for those labeled at least 90 percent lean. This will translate to meat that is closer to the official definition of “lean.” Better still, buy a lean cut of sirloin or round, and have the butcher trim it of all external fat and grind it for you. Or you can do it yourself, using a meat grinder or food processor.
Beef liver: Beef liver is an excellent source of riboflavin, folate, vitamin B12, niacin, vitamin B6, vitamin A, iron, and zinc. It is also low in fat, furnishing just 4 grams in 3 ounces, or 27 percent of its calories.