Since my visit to the restaurant specialising in beef where my knowledge of beef was grilled, I have been swarming my butcher with ‘cut’ questions. To fend off the incessant inquiries, the poor chap bulks with the justification that he only hangs what he sells.
This essentially means what remains after the ‘big’ hotels as he calls them have taken their literal pound of flesh. As I would learn, however, there are eight main cuts of beef known as the primal cuts. It is from these first cuts that the final portion cuts are derived.
Now, what you and I mostly purchase from the resident butchery is the chuck cut that happens to be the toughest. A cow’s legs and neck muscles do most of the work, so the muscles there are firmer and the meat is tougher.
You must be kicking yourself for settling for the short end of the stick all these years, but as it turns out, knowing the cut and expanding your cooking options is the flavour secret. Whether it’s chuck, brisket, rib, loin, round, plate, or flank, the most important thing you need to know is how to cook it.
In essence, you can as well ruin a prime cut by preparing it wrong. That fact, notwithstanding, a good rule of thumb to remember is that beef gets more tender (and expensive) as the distance from the horn and hoof increases.
Note that the size of the muscle fibres isn’t the only thing that determines how tasty a piece of beef will be: the presence of fat and collagen and the way the beef is cut and cooked all play a huge role in the flavour. Fat is the main source of flavour in beef, and it melts when cooked for longer periods of time.
Collagen turns into gelatin when cooked long enough, which is why tough cuts like brisket become meltingly tender when slow roasted. Remember to look out for even marbling, which refers to the flecks and seams of white – intramuscular fat to be precise.
Cutting meat against the grain into thin slices also shortens the muscle fibres, reducing the amount of work you have to do to chew them, which is why skirt-steak fajitas, from the tough flank, taste tender. Ageing meat also makes it richer, beefier, and considerably tenderer than standard steaks.
Expect to pay more, however, thanks to the reduced yields after drying time and trimming loss, as well as how time-consuming the process is.
Other factors that affect the flavour is the choice of feed the animal was exposed to with grass-fed boasting the most flavour and grain-fed being the tenderest. The state of the animal at slaughter also counts and it is recommended cows are slaughtered one a time after being stunned to avoid clenched muscles.
BD Life has worked out this primal cut highlight to guide you the next time you are faced beef predicament:
1. Chuck: Beef chuck comes from the forequarter or plainly from the cow’s shoulder. Chuck, probably what you’re most familiar with, consists of parts of the neck, shoulder blade, and upper arm. It is a very flavourful region that can be cut and prepared in many ways but is also typically a firmer cut of beef.
Due to its versatility and cheap cost, it’s great for any type of cooking! The types of portion cuts you can find for chuck are ground chuck (hamburgers), chuck short ribs, shoulder tender medallions, chuck pot roast, shoulder steak, flat-iron steak and stew meat, amongst others
2. Short Plate: Often grouped with the brisket beef region, short plate cuts are found near the stomach of the cow. Its location in the cow lends to cheap, tough and fatty cuts of beef. This is also where you’ll find your other source of marbled short ribs.
3. Rib: As the name implies, the rib primal cut refers to meat cut from the cow’s ribs and backbone or the top part of the centre section. Of the 13 pairs of ribs on a cow, only the last six are classified in this section – the rest are grouped with chuck and short plate.
Rib cuts are notable for their fatty marbling, tenderness, and distinctive flavour. Rib cuts are a little pricier than most and are often better slow-cooked than grilled. It's also the source of the delectable rib eye steak as well as the classic French entrecôte.
4. Brisket: A barbecue favourite, the brisket cut belongs to a cow’s breast. Brisket is known for its fatty, tough texture, but if prepared correctly (low and slow) it can be cooked to melt-in-your-mouth perfection.
Just be careful when slow cooking – with brisket, there’s a slim margin between juicy and dry! That’s why you should always tenderize and marinate this cut before slow cooking to soften it up.
5. Shank: The beef shank is the leg of the animal's thigh. Each side of beef has two shanks, one in the forequarter and one in the hindquarter. This beef cut is notable for its sinewy dryness but cooking attention can extract fantastic flavour if the luxurious Italian dish osso buco is anything to go by.
6. Loin: Moving on to the beef primal cuts from the hindquarter, or back of the animal, the short loin is where we find the most desirable cuts of meat. These include T-bone and porterhouse steaks, as well as the strip loin or strip steak. This is where you’ll find your most expensive cuts of beef.
The loin is located directly behind the ribs and, due to its location, is not a heavily used muscle. This makes loin very tender compared to more muscular cuts. The loin primal cut comprises two parts worth mentioning: sirloin and short loin.
Beef sirloin is another large section of the carcass that runs from the 13th rib all the way back to the hip bone and from the backbone clear down to the belly. The tenderest cut of beef is the beef tenderloin found within the loin.
This is where we get the sought-after fillet mignon, which is made from the very tip of the pointy end of the tenderloin.
7. Flank: The flank primal cut is located just below the loin. Typically you’ll only find one of two flank cuts; a flank steak or a skirt steak, both of which are best grilled at high heat. Since it has tough muscle fibres, it can get even tougher if it's overcooked, so be careful with this boneless lean cut.
8. Round: The beef round primal cut basically consists of the back leg of the steer. Muscles from the round are relatively lean, but they're also tough because the leg and rump get a lot of exercise.
Due to the leanness of this cut, it’s important to thoroughly research how to prepare and cook the individual portion cuts of this primal region; sometimes it calls for high heat cooking (like top, bottom and eye round portion cuts), or slow-cooking (like rump and eye roast).