A Home Cook’s Guide to All the Cuts of Beef
Selecting a cut from the meat counter of your local grocery store can be a daunting experience. There are a lot of names for the same cuts and choosing the right cooking method for the particular beef cut you’ve bought isn’t so straightforward. All the confusion can lead to pricey mistakes. That’s why we’ve put together this lesson of the basic beef cuts so you can become a more confident cook.
Beef cows are split lengthwise into two halves and are then broken down into eight large sections called primals. Butchers cut smaller, consumer-sized cuts from these huge pieces. Knowing what general part of the cow a steak or roast is coming from will tell you how tender (or tough) the cut is.
With a few exceptions, if a cut of meat comes from a part of the cow that has moved a lot (walking, standing, grazing), it will be tougher. Tougher beef cuts, such as those that come from the shoulder, are best cooked slowly with liquid added to help break down the tougher muscle fibers. Beef cuts from a less lean part of the cow near the top center of the cow (think steaks, tenderloin) are more tender and more expensive.
Comprising about 100 pounds (26% of the total usable meat per half steer), this large primal comes from the neck end of the steer down to the sixth rib (just past the shoulder). Full of connective tissue, a fair amount of fat, and collagen, cuts from this primal have lots of tough muscle fibers and rich flavor. Most of the meat from this primal is either ground for burgers or braised. A popular, if rare, exception is the flat iron steak, which is very tender.
Beef cuts from the chuck primal:
What Does Chuck Taste Like?
When braised correctly, chuck cuts will melt in your mouth thanks to the marbling of collagen and fat and have a rich, beefy flavor. Burgers, meatballs, and chili made with ground chuck are juicy and tender because ground chuck is around 20% fat. Flat iron steaks, a long, thinnish cut from the top blade, are well marbled and juicy — in other words, a steak lover’s bargain.
How Do You Cook Chuck Meat?
Chuck rib roasts, chuck steaks, short ribs, and flanken ribs are best browned and braised in flavorful liquid over low heat in a Dutch oven or slow cooker, or pressure cooked until well done and tender (a fork will twist easily when inserted into the meat.) Slice braised cut cuts across the grain to cut down on stringiness when serving. Flat iron steaks are best grilled to medium rare and cut crosswise into thin slices.
Directly below the chuck primal in the front chest of the cow is the 10-to-16-pound brisket primal. Because this is one of the most used muscles, it is lean and tough, with coarse muscle fibers. Brisket is also packed with flavor and has a decent amount of external fat which melts and bastes the meat as it cooks. Brisket is a popular cut for marinating (corned beef), long-and-slow barbecue cooking (deep in the heart of Texas), smoking, and braising.
Beef Cuts from the Brisket Primal:
- Point Cut (AKA second cut or the deckle)
- Flat Cut (AKA first cut), which lies flat, is of even thickness, and is leaner.
What Does Brisket Taste Like?
Dense with a meltingly tender texture when cooked low and slow, brisket has a bold, meaty flavor that stands up well to smoking and corning. Think fresh cracked peppercorns, rich beef gravy, woodsy juniper, and smoky barbecue flavors.
How Do You Cook Brisket?
Low and slow is the key to tenderizing this tough cut. Marinating, or “corning” brisket can help break down the muscle fibers, as will braising, slow barbecuing, or smoking to allow a crust or “bark” to form on the outside while tenderizing the meat over time. Slice cooked brisket against the grain to make the cut easier to eat before serving.
Get out your braising pot because cuts from this primal have seen a whole lot of steps. In other words, shank cuts are very lean and thus naturally tough. Cross-cut from the cow’s front and back legs, shanks are tough and sinewy with relatively little marbling. Though they aren’t the most tender cuts, they are great for making collagen-rich broth when boiled or braised.
Beef Cuts from the Shank:
- 1- to 2-inch-thick cross shank, cut with the bone
- Center cut shank
- Whole shank
What Does Beef Shank Taste Like?
It’s all about the mouth feel. When long-braised, the bones and connective tissue create a collagen rich broth that is totally delicious.
How Do You Cook Beef Shank?
Braising or boiling over low heat for a long time is the only way to go with this thrifty cut. Think: osso buco served over saffron risotto, caldo de res, French onion soup, or beef broth for pho.
Coming from the top of the cow from ribs 6 through 12, this is exceptionally tender thanks to little movement of the muscles. This area produces prime rib, prime rib roasts, plus tender back ribs. A nice cap of fat keeps this juicy cut moist while cooking.
Beef Cuts from the Rib:
- Standing rib roast
- Prime rib roast
- Ribeye steak, cowboy steak (prime rib steak with bone attached)
- Back ribs
What Do Rib Primal Cuts Taste Like?
Lots of intramuscular fat and light muscle duty makes cuts from this primal juicy and tender. It is here that you will taste the difference between how the cow was raised: grass fed meat tastes bold and beefy while corn fed beef will be milder tasting.
How Do You Cook Rib Primal Cuts?
Dry heat methods like roasting, grilling, pan searing, and broiling are best. All cuts from this section of the cow are going to be tender, so it’s best not to overcook the meat. Go over medium (internal temperature of 130F) and you run the risk of drying out the meat.
Directly below the rib primal at the bottom of the cow is the plate or short plate, as it is sometimes known. Very tough and high in fat, cuts from this section are usually a bargain and deliver on the flavor front. Hanger steak is a great budget cut, while skirt steak is popular for carne asada and fajitas.
Beef Cuts from the Plate:
- Hanger steak (aka onglet, hanging tenderloin)
- Skirt steak
- Short ribs
What Do Cuts From the Plate Primal Taste Like?
Steaks from this primal will be loosely textured and a little chewy but with great, bold flavor. Short ribs will be very rich and silky and tender when braised correctly.
How Do You Cook Cuts from the Plate?
Hanger and skirt steak need to be trimmed of fat and are best seared/grilled and served rare to medium rare. Both cuts take on marinades well because of their loose structure. Slice the steaks against the grain to reduce chewiness. Short ribs are best braised low and slow, so get out the slow cooker.
Welcome to Steakville! Immediately behind the Rib section on the top of the cow is the loin primal, divided into the short loin and sirloin sections. The short loin contains the most tender (and priciest) cuts because they are tender and well marbled, think porterhouse and chateaubriand and you’ll get the picture.
Beef Cuts from the Loin:
- Strip steaks (aka NY strip, Kansas City strip)
- T-bone steaks (which contain at least ½ inch of the tenderloin)
- Porterhouse steaks (including 1 ¼ inches of the tenderloin)
- Filet mignon (tenderloin cut into small, thick steaks)
- Chateaubriand (serves 2, center cut of the tenderloin)
What Do Cuts from the Short Loin Taste Like?
Steaks will have lots of flavor and juiciness with a nice chew. Tenderloin is tender/squishy with a mild flavor.
How Do You Cook Cuts from the Short Loin?
Dry heat in the form of grilling, searing, or broiling is best for the juicy, tender cuts of this primal. The tenderloin can be roasted whole.
Behind the short loin subprimal but still in the loin primal, heading towards the hip bone, lies the less-tender sirloin subprimal. The top sirloin is usually cut into lean sirloin steaks. The bottom sirloin is usually divided into larger cuts like the tri-tip roast, and bavette (sirloin flap).
Popular bottom sirloin cuts:
- First cut sirloin steak (pin bone steak)
- Sirloin steaks
- Tri tip roast
- Bavette steak
- Sirloin tips
What Does Sirloin Taste Like?
High grade sirloin is tender and fairly juicy with a beefy, steak flavor. Sirloin tip steak and sirloin tips are slightly less tender but can be delicious if braised for a short time.
How Do You Cook Bottom Sirloin?
Sirloin steaks, bavette, and tri tip are best grilled/smoked to medium rare. Eye of round is best seared and roasted to rare or medium rare and thinly sliced across the grain. Sirloin tip steak and sirloin tips can be used in quick braises like stroganoff.
Below the loin primal along the abdomen of the cow lies the long, flat flank primal. This cut has long, fairly coarse muscle fibers that are tough but very flavorful. Think of this as the fajita steak.
Beef Cuts from the Flank:
- Flank steak
- Hanging tender (butcher’s steak, onglet)
- Fajita strips
What Does Flank Taste Like?
Flank cuts taste richly beefy and feature long, ropey muscle fibers that are loosely bundled together, so they absorb marinades well. The long fibers make the flank chewy, but cutting across the grain makes the cuts easier to eat.
How Do You Cook Flank Steak?
Because there isn’t much marbling, it’s best to quickly grill or broil flank to medium rare and slice it thinly across the grain on a diagonal. Marinating the meat can help infuse it with flavor and more moisture. A larger piece of flank steak can be rolled around a filling and roasted to medium rare for an impressive looking roast. You can also braise flank steak and pull it apart into shreds, ala the Cuban specialty Ropa Vieja.
From the rump and back leg of the cow, this is the second largest primal and produces lean, fairly tough cuts that don’t contain much collagen. They are however affordable, and when cooked correctly, they can be a good budget friendly choice. Divided into the top round (rump) and bottom round cuts, there’s lots for a thrifty cook to explore here.
Beef Cuts from the Top Round:
- Top round (London broil)
- Deli roast beef slices
- Top round steaks
- Beef jerky
What Does Top Round Taste Like?
This cut is most commonly roasted and sliced thinly. Because there is little marbling, it can be dry if over cooked.
How Do You Cook Top Round Cuts?
Top round from the inner thigh is the most tender of the two round subprimals, but it is very lean. If you season it with a bold meat rub, roast it to no more than medium rare, and slice it against the grain, top round roasts can make a delicious roast beef dinner or sandwich filling. Top round can also be cut into thin strips for quick-cooking stir-fries or marinated and braised for hours, like German Holiday treat, sauerbraten.
Bottom round cuts are a popular cut for economical cooks who know how to harness the flavor.
Beef cuts from the bottom round:
- Sirloin tips (knuckle)
- Sirloin tip roast
- Bottom round roast (rump roast)
- Eye of round roast
- Eye of round steaks
- Swiss (cubed) steaks
- Extra lean ground beef
What Does the Bottom Round Taste Like?
Though bottom round tastes similar to top round, cuts from this subprimal tend to be tighter grained, so they are relatively tough and dry by themselves.
How Do You Cook Bottom Round Cuts?
The best approach for an eye of round is to roast it and cut it thinly. Bottom round roasts generally do not make the best braised pot roasts because they can be dry and stringy, though a slow cooker can do wonders for this economical cut. Bottom round is used in the Southern Italian dish braciole, thin slices of meat wrapped around herb stuffing that are braised in tomato sauce. Mechanically tenderized Swiss steaks from the bottom round are commonly used for chicken fried steak.
Special thanks to Eataly for providing so many amazing cuts of beef for our studio shoot!