How does the meat from a cow turn into a steak? How does a butcher determine how to break down meat into cuts, and what are the different cuts of beef? How a butcher renders a cow carcass often comes down to cultural preferences and can vary from butcher to butcher since most cow parts can be broken into several different cuts, with some cuts having multiple other names.
Why Knowledge About Beef Cuts Matter
Understanding the different cuts of beef is essential to know how to prepare beef for consumption. Each section and cut can offer a range of flavors and textures and often need different cooking methods. So if you want a juicy steak or the perfect slow-cooked roast, knowing the difference between hindquarter cuts and forequarter can help you find the ideal cut for your dishes.
Beef cuts begin as large sections called primal cuts, of which there are eight. These primal cuts of beef, or primals, are then broken down further into subprimal, or " food-service cuts." The food-service cuts are further sliced into individual steaks, roasts, and other beef cuts we commonly see at the butcher or grocery store.
When a butcher has a side of beef, it is literally one side of the beef carcass split through the backbone. Each side is then halved by a butcher between the 12th and 13th ribs, and these sections are called the forequarter (front of the cow) and hindquarter (back of the cow.)
What sections of the cow make the most tender cuts of beef? Areas further from the horn or hoof, such as ribs or tenderloin. The tougher meat parts are found in the shoulder, abdomen, and leg muscles as they are worked the most.
The Forequarter Cuts
- Beef Chuck
Beef chuck is cut from the forequarter and consists of shoulder, upper arm, and neck parts. While beef chuck can be tough, it is an exceptionally flavorful cut of beef. Beef chuck is a primal cut with a lot of connective tissue, which makes it an excellent choice for braised dishes or slow-cooking dishes such as stew or pot roast, which tenderizes these cuts. Due to its fat content, beef chuck is also an excellent cut for creating ground beef to produce moist, delicious burgers.
Cuts of Beef from the Chuck:
- Chuck Arm Roast. Chuck arm roast is a cut that is commonly more than 2 inches thick. Chuck's arm roast contains the round arm bone. It may include a cross-section of rib bones and has more than five distinct muscle tissues in the cut, intermuscular fat (fat between muscles), and intramuscular fat (known as marbling, fat within the muscle.)
- Boneless Chuck Arm Roast. A boneless chuck arm roast is the same as a Chuck arm roast, except any bones are removed.
- Chuck Arm Steak. This steak is cut less than 2 inches thick, usually about ½ an inch thick, which can contain a round arm bone and may contain cross sections of rib bones.
- Chuck 7-Bone Roast. The roast is taken from the center of the blade portion of the Chuck. This cut is more than 2 inches thick and contains a flat blade of bone in the shape of a "7" backbone and rib bone with more than five distinctive muscles.
- Chuck 7-Bone Steak. A steak is taken from the center of the blade portion of the Chuck, usually less than 2 inches thick, with a flat blade of bone in the shape of a 7.
- Chuck Blade Roast. A roast is cut from the Chuck containing a flat blade bone, possibly backbone and rib bones, and is more than 2 inches thick.
- Chuck Blade Steak. A steak less than 2 inches thick contains a flat blade bone, backbone, and rib bone.
- Beef Rib
The beef rib is made from the top part of the center section of the rib through the sixth and the twelfth ribs. This primal cut is used for the traditional standing or prime rib roast. It's also the source of the delectable ribeye steak.
The meat from this primal cut is already tender, so steaks and roasts from the beef rib can undergo many forms of dry-heat cooking and remain tender. The beef rib primal cut is directly above another primal cut known as the beef plate, and where it is divided can differ. The lower parts of the ribs are where beef short ribs come from.
Cuts of Beef from the Rib:
- Rib Roast, Large End. This is a roast taken from the larger rib end, cut more than 2 inches thick. Rib roast contains a flat blade bone on one end and 2-3 curved rib bones on one side, with more than five distinct muscles, and the oval-shaped ribeye muscle is seen in both faces.
- Rib Roast, Small End. This roast is taken from the smaller end of the rib and cut more than two inches thick. It contains flatter rib bones on both ends, and the oval-shaped ribeye muscle is visible in both faces.
- Rib Steak, Small End. This steak is taken from the smaller end of the ribs. The bone can be left in or removed and is generally cut about 1 to 2 inches thick.
- Ribeye Roast. This boneless roast is taken from the rib and cut over two inches thick.
- Ribeye Steak. A bone-in or boneless steak cut against the grain from the Beef Ribeye Roast. Cut is usually less than two inches thick, and the primary muscle of the oval-shaped ribeye muscle is visible in both faces.
- Beef Plate
The beef plate is also known as the short plate (or long plate, depending entirely on where it has been separated from the rib primal cut). The beef plate primal includes short ribs and is also where the skirt steak is located.
Skirt steak comprises the diaphragm muscle attached to the inside of the abdominal wall by a system of thick connective tissues that need to be carefully trimmed away by a butcher. Cuts from the beef plate are also extremely flavorful and generally thin pieces of meat, allowing cuts from the plate to be cooked over high heat, as long as it is not overcooked. Beef plate cuts have coarse muscle fibers, so you always cut against the grain, or it will turn chewy.
Cuts from Beef Plate:
- Plate Skirt Steak. A long, thin steak made from the diaphragm muscle with no bones. Skirt steak has considerable amounts of outside fat.
- Plate Short Ribs. This is a rectangular-shaped cut made from the plate containing the lower end of rib bones with alternating layers of lean meat and fat.
- Beef Brisket
Beef brisket is another delicious cut of meat, although it is tough and needs to be cooked in a particular way to make it tender. It's a moderately fatty cut of beef, but that is to your advantage as the fat tenderizes into a succulent cut. Brisket comes from the area around the cow's breastbone and is the chest or pectoral muscle. It's a thick, coarse-grained meat that should always be cooked at low temperatures for a long time.
Brisket is frequently used for making pot roast and the traditional choice for corned beef, and of course, it's a trendy cut for slow cooking in a barbeque or smoker.
Cuts from Beef Brisket:
- Whole Brisket. This beef cut is taken from the breast section of the cow between the foreshank and the plate containing no bones. It is a large, grainy cut of meat made of several layers of coarse, fatty muscles with a diagonal grain.
- Brisket, Flat Half. This is a rear portion of the whole brisket, with sides cut nearly parallel, containing no bones.
- Brisket, Point Half. This is a cut taken from the forward portion of a whole beef brisket, cut so it tapers to a point and contains no bones.
- Beef Shank
A beef shank is the upper part of the cow's leg or thigh. Each side of beef comes with two shanks, one in the forequarter and one in the hindquarter. This cut of beef is extremely tough and full of connective tissue. Beef shank cuts are used to create dishes like the Italian Osso Bucco and feature in many worldwide cuisines.
Beef Shank Cuts:
- Shank Cross Cuts. Tough cuts are taken from either the foreshank or hindshank, cut perpendicular to the bone and usually 1 to 2 and ½ inches thick containing bone.
- Boneless Shank Cross Cuts. The same as Shank Cross cuts with bones removed.
- Beef Short Loin
Within the hindquarter, or back of the cow, the short loin holds the most desirable cuts of meat. These include the legendary T-bone, porterhouse steaks, strip loin, or steak. The beef short loin is roughly 16 to 18 inches long and yields only 11 to 14 steaks, depending on how thick they are cut.
Steaks from the short loin are cut starting at the rib end and working toward the rear. The first-cut steaks are club steaks or bone-in strip steaks, the center cut is T-bones, and finally, a butcher may be able to get two or three porterhouse steaks near the sirloin end.
The tenderloin region extends from the short loin back into the sirloin, and it is worth noting that if the beef tenderloin is cut, there can be no T-bone or porterhouse steaks cut, as both of these steaks include a piece of the tenderloin muscle. Dry heat is always best for cooking tender cuts of the short loin.
The tenderloin area of a cow is also where the rarest and most tender steaks are cut, known as Filet Mignon steaks.
Cuts from the Beef Short Loin:
- Loin T-Bone Steak. A steak is cut less than 2 inches thick and contains a T-bone with two primary muscles, the largest is the top loin; the smaller is the tenderloin with some fat along the top loin edge.
- Loin Porterhouse Steak. This steak is usually less than two inches thick and contains a T-shaped bone and three primary muscles. The larger muscle is the top loin, the smaller one on the opposite side from the bone is the tenderloin, and the jump muscles (small muscles attached to the outside edge of the top loin muscle.)
- Filet Mignon Steak. A steak cut from the tip of the tenderloin is also part of the short loin and is a leaner cut of meat and very tender. Since the tenderloin is so small an area, it only yields a few Filet Mignon steaks, making this cut of meat rarer and pricier than other steaks.
- Beef Sirloin
The beef sirloin is a large section of the cow carcass that runs from the 13th rib to the back of the hip bone and from the backbone to the flank or belly.
Beef sirloin is often subdivided into top sirloin and bottom sirloin. Top sirloin is usually cut to form steaks that are great for grilling. Since sirloin is closer to the rear leg of a cow, the muscles in the meat can be a bit tougher, yet a first-cut sirloin steak, sometimes called a pin bone steak because it contains a piece of the hip bone, is very similar to a porterhouse.
After the top sirloin is separated, the bottom sirloin is split into three main components: the tri-tip, ball-tip, and flap, which do well with roasting and barbequing.
The back end of the tenderloin, the butt tender, is also found within the sirloin. It's either entirely removed by cutting a whole tenderloin, or the entire back end can be sold as a roast.
Cuts from Beef Sirloin:
- Loin Top Loin Steak, Bone-In, or Boneless. Loin Top Steak is a steak cut less than two inches thick and can be bone-in or boneless. It is cut from the primarily top loin muscle and has some fat along its edges.
- Loin Porterhouse Steak. This steak is generally less than two inches thick and contains a T-shaped bone with three primary muscles the top loin, the tenderloin, and the jump muscle.
- Loin Pin Bone Sirloin Steak. Roughly less than two inches thick when cut containing backbone and a portion of the hip bone, which can vary in size. The steak has top loin and tenderloin muscles with some fat and connective tissue between muscles and fat along the edges.
- Loin Flat Bone Sirloin Steak. Flat bone Sirloin steak contains a long, flat hip bone with the top loin and tenderloin muscles as the primary muscle with some fat and connective tissue.
- Loin Round Bone Sirloin. A steak that contains the hip bone, which is cut in a way where the bone resembles a round coin and a portion of the backbone, includes top loin and tenderloin muscles.
- Loin Wedge Bone Steak. A steak cut from various locations within the sirloin section of the loin contains hip bone, usually wedge-shaped, and a portion of the backbone.
- Loin Shell Sirloin Steak. A steak usually contains a round-shaped hip bone, a portion of the backbone, and a muscle structure similar to other Sirloin steaks but with tenderloin muscle removed.
- Loin Tenderloin Steak. Tenderloin Steak contains no bones and features oval-shaped tenderloin muscles with a small 'spur' on one edge. This is a fine-textured, lean steak with a small amount of fat along the edges.
- Beef Flank
The beef flank is cut from the cow's abdomen, below the loin and sirloin. This primal cut is long and fat, containing a lot of muscle as it is used every time the cow walks. Flank steak can be tough if not cooked properly or marinated and is relatively lean.
The best way to cook beef flank is to first use high heat after marinating the meat to prevent it from dying out and avoid overcooking.
Cuts from Beef Flank:
- Flank Steak. The Flank Steak is an oval-shaped steak taken from the flank and contains no bones. The muscles are elongated with the grain, running length-wise along the cut and lean with little fat.
- Beef Round
The Beef Round primal cut consists of the back leg of the cow. These muscles are round and fairly lean but tough as the leg and rump are worked frequently. The Beef Round primal cut is separated further into several subprimal cuts, such as the top Round, bottom Round, and the knuckle. The bottom Round is where the eye of Round and rump roast is cut from.
Beef Round cuts taste best when low and slow roasted to medium-rare and are often sliced thinly and used for sandwiches or roast. Cutting these Beef Round pieces thinly and against the grain is always best.
Cuts from Beef Round:
- Pichanha. Pichana is a cut of beef popular in Brazil and later adopted in Portugal. The cut within the US is often named Top Sirloin cap, Rump cover, Rump cap, or Culotte. This cut consists of thigh muscles and a fat cap.
- Round Steak, Bone-in, or Boneless. A steak that contains one round bone and is an oval-shaped cut with three distinct muscles, top Round, Bottom Round, and eye of Round, and has a small amount of fat around the outside edges.
- Round Rump Roast, Bone-in, or Boneless. A roast cut thicker than two inches, with bone in or out, containing three muscles; top Round, Bottom Round, and eye of Round, usually tied together and has a small amount of fat over the outside edges.
- Round Top Roast. A roast that contains no bone and is thicker than 2 inches includes the Round's top (inside) muscle and has a little bit of fat over the outside.
- Round Top Round Steak. A steak with no bone and one large oval-shaped muscle (top muscle of the Round) made from half of a round steak with some fat along the outside.
- Round Bottom Round Roast. A roast with an irregular shape that contains no bone and two muscles: one large muscle (from the bottom or outside sections of the Round) and is generally wider at the bottom than the top, and one smaller muscle on one side. Some fat is along the bottom edge and has a small amount of fat or connective tissue that separates the two muscles.
- Round Bottom Round Steak. A steak with no bones cut from the Round with two muscles, one large from the bottom or outside section and one smaller on one side with some fat on the bottom edge and smaller amounts of fat or connective tissue separating the two muscles.
- Round Eye Round Roast. A cylindrical roast contains one oval-shaped muscle (eye round muscle) cut from the bottom round muscle with a coarse, grainy texture with a thin layer of fat on the outside edges.
- Round Eye Round Steak. A steak cut from the Beef Round Eye Round Roast with no bone, one oval-shaped muscle with a coarse, grainy texture, and a thin layer of fat along the outside edges.
- Round Tip Roast. A large, thick, wedge-shaped roast cut from the thin side of the Round. Round Tip Roast contains no bones and one large muscle divided into thirds by connective tissue with a crescent-shaped cap muscle of the sirloin on top.
- Round Tip Steak. A wedge-shaped steak less than two inches thick from the Beef Round Tip Roast with no bone and containing one large muscle divided into thirds by connective tissue, with a crescent-shaped cap muscle of the sirloin top.
- Round Tip Roast Cap Off. Round Tip Roast Cap Off is a large, thick roast cut from the thin size of the Round and similar to the Beef Round Tip Roast, but the cap muscle has been removed from the top.
- Round Tip Steak Cap Off. A large steak cut roughly less than two inches thick from the Beef Round Tip Roast Cap Off with no bone and one large muscle divided into thirds by connective tissue.
- Round Heel of Round Roast. A thick wedge-shaped roast cut from the lower Round (leg section), similar to the Beef Tip Roast but the cap muscle has been removed from the top. The Round Heel of a Round Roast contains no bone and several muscles of the Round with a layer of fat outside the edges and many connective tissues between the muscles.
- Other Beef Cuts
In many cultures around the globe, a variety of cuts of beef are used that many Americans may not be familiar with cooking.
Variety Beef Cuts:
- Beef Neck Bones. A cut of the cow carcass' neck bones with more bone than muscle but rich with marrow adds incredible flavor to stocks, broths, and chilies and is used in Black American Soul Food, Asian and worldwide recipes.
- Beef Kidney. A large kidney with several lobes with a strong tasting, iron-rich, occasionally bitter taste.
- Beef Stew Cuts. A collection of irregular cube-shaped pieces of lean meat taken from all over the cow carcass containing no bone and varying amounts of fat.
- Beef Tongue. The tongue of a cow carcass that is highly lean and pure muscle with a Roast Beef muscle consistency and a mild, fatty beef flavor when cooked.
Beef is a delicious and versatile meat that can be cooked in many ways. From the classic grilled steak to the low and slow, fall-apart roast, there are many options when choosing the best cut of beef for your next meal. With its rich flavor and nutritional value, beef is an excellent addition to any meal plan. You can decide on the ideal beef cut for your next delectable dinner when you have the correct information.
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