Beef Meat Buying Guide

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Shopping for beef can be incredibly confusing. Every beginning cook has walked into a supermarket to buy a steak and stood paralyzed in the meat case, staring at package after package of beautiful meat, asking themselves what a “chuck tender steak” is. And every beginning cook has, at some point, walked out of the supermarket with the wrong cut of meat for their preparation. Rather than continue to make costly mistakes, check out this handy beef-buying guide for your next barbecue.

BEEF CUTS AND OTHER BASIC BEEF TERMS

Before we start, let’s get a few definitions out of the way.

  • 1
    Primal cuts - In butchering, primal cuts are pieces of meat that are separated from the carcass during butchering. 
  • 2
    Subprimal cuts - Subprimal cuts are made by butchers to break down the larger cuts into more usable pieces.  If the loin is the primal cut, the tenderloin would be a subprimal cut.
  • 3
    Forequarter - Cuts of meat that come from the front of the cow.
  • 4
    Hindquarter - Cuts of meat that come from the back of the cow.

Primal Cuts of Beef

1. Chuck or Shoulder

Bone-in chuck steaks and roasts (arm or blade), and boneless clod steaks and roasts

2. rib

Short ribs, the prime rib and rib-eye steaks.

3. brisket

Corned beef or pastrami.

4. shank

Used primarily for stews and soups; also used in ground beef.

5. plate

Short ribs, Pot roast, and Skirt steak.  Also used in ground beef, as it is typically a tough and fatty meat.

6. loin
  • Short loin, from which the T-bone and porterhouse, or strip steaks are cut.
  • Sirloin, which is less tender than short loin, but more flavorful. This can be further divided into top sirloin and bottom sirloin (including tri-tip).
  • Tenderloin, which is the most tender. It can be removed as a separate subprimal, and cut into filet mignons, tournedos or tenderloin steaks, and roasts (such as for beef Wellington). They can also be cut bone-in to make parts of T-bone and porterhouse steaks.
7. round

Round steak, eye of round, top round, and bottom round steaks and roasts.

8. flank

Flank steak, London broil, and skirt steak. 

CLASSIFICATION OF BEEF ACCORDING TO GRADE

Once upon a time, you had to rely on your butcher’s word when examining the quality of your meat. Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) classifies quality into three categories: prime, choice, and select. This grading system not only applies to beef but for most meats such as pork and lamb.

Meat Grade According to USDA
Characteristics
Availability
Cost
Prime
Has several marble streaks (like “veins”)
Tender
• Flavorful
• High-end butcher shops
• Specialty restaurants
• Twice the price of choice meats, but depends on the cut
Choice
• With some marble streaks on meat
• Somewhat tender
• Acceptable flavor
• Local meat shops and supermarkets
• Relatively affordable given the quality, but depends on the cut
Select
• With slight marble streaks on meat
• Tough
• More on the bland side
• Local meat shops and supermarkets
• Cheapest among the three grades of meat

LABELING BASICS AND OTHER TERMS EXPLAINED

Recently consumers have become more interested in where their meat comes from.  In response, producers have begun labeling their products with terms such as “grain-fed” or “organic”.  However, the USDA no longer regulates what beef can be labeled as “grass-fed”, so paying more may not always yield a better product.  Your best bet is to patron a trusted butcher who knows where his product is raised.

Common Labels
Characteristics
Pros
Cons
Grain-Fed Beef
• Tends to be dark in color
• Contains more fat
• Has a milder flavor
• The streaks of intramuscular fat in grain-fed beef contributes to the mildly rich flavor of the meat.
• Lower in omega-3 fatty acids
• Grain is used by farmers to supplement a cow’s diet, but has an affect on the overall quality of its meat.
Grass-Fed Beef
• Contains less fat
• Chewy texture
• Has a gamey odor
• Strong, complex flavor
• The meat has less intramuscular fat due to the nature of the animal’s diet, thus, the meat is more on the chewy side and has a strong, pungent flavor and odor.
• Has a broader range of beneficial fats and nutrients not found in grain-fed meat.
• The pungent flavor may turn off some people.
• Grass-fed beef tends to be more expensive than grain-fed beef.
Organic
• Raised without antibiotics or hormones
• Animals live in conditions that accommodate their ability to graze on pasture
• Fed 100% organic feed
• Has a “USDA Organic” seal
• The “USDA Organic” seal ensures farmers have adhered to strict guidelines for raising these animals.
• Can be a little pricier than regular meats in the market.
Blade, mechanically or needle tenderized
• Meat has been passed through a machine that punctures it with small, sharp needles or blades to break the connective tissues and muscle fibers that results in a more chewy, tender cut.
• Blade-tenderized beef cuts when cooked tend are indeed more tender (when cooked at 160 degrees).
• The blades and needles used to tenderize the beef may transfer disease-causing bacteria such as E. coli. To counter this contamination, make sure to cook the beef to a safe temperature of 160°F.

Buying Beef By Cut

Now that you are thoroughly familiar with the labels on those glorious packages of beautiful meat, it’s time to get down to the nitty gritty.  What cut do you use for smoking?  Braising? Grilling?

1. Beef Primal Cut: Chuck or Shoulder

Shoulder Steak


Characteristics: Relatively lean with a mild beef flavor

Flavor: 2/5

Tenderness: 2/5

Cost: $

Other name/s: Chuck steak

Recommended Cooking Method: Grilling

Notes & Tips: After cooking, meat should be thinly sliced on a bias.





Top Blade Roast


Characteristics: A boneless, flat cut with a mild flavor, which can sometimes be substituted for a chuck-eye roast.

Flavor: 3/5

Cost: $$

Other name/s: Chuck roast, first cut, blade roast, top chuck roast

Recommended Cooking Method: Braising, stewing

Notes & Tips: Top blade roasts reach their maximum flavor with long, slow, moist cooking.  Try using this cut for your next pot roast for succulent meat and outstanding gravy.

Blade Steak


Characteristics: a small shoulder cut that has a rich flavor and is very tender

Flavor: 3/5

Tenderness: 3/5

Cost: $

Other name/s: Top blade steak, flat-iron steak

Recommended Cooking Method: Stir-frying, braising, stewing, broiling, grilling

Notes & Tips: Remove the gristle line at the middle of the meat and cut the steak into thin slices for stir-fries.  Also makes great kebabs.

Chuck 7-Bone Roast


Characteristics: a cut based from a number seven-shaped bone that has a rich flavor

Flavor: 3/5

Cost: $$

Other name/s: Center-cut pot roast, center-cut chuck roast 

Recommended Cooking Method: Braising, stewing

Notes & Tips: When braising, add less liquid than you would a top blade roast as this cut already has a deep flavor.


Chuck Eye Roast


Characteristics: Boneless roast cut from the center (or “eye”) of the first five ribs; extremely tender and juicy due to the abundance of fat in the meat

Flavor: 3/5

Cost: $$ 

Other name/s: Boneless chuck roll, boneless chuck fillet

Recommended Cooking Method: Braising, stewing, roasting

Notes & Tips: For pot roast, use kitchen twine to handle this cut effectively.

Chuck Shoulder Roast


Characteristics: Mild flavor, not a lot of fat or connective tissue.

Flavor: 2/5

Cost: $$

Other name/s: Chuck shoulder pot roast, boneless chuck roast 

Recommended Cooking Method: Braising, stewing.

Notes & Tips: Because of its low cost, chuck shoulder roast makes great stew meat.  Cut in smaller chunks, brown the meat and cook slowly with root vegetables.

Chuck Eye Roast


Characteristics: Its rich flavor is comparable to the seven bone roast but contains more connective tissue and ample amount of fat.

Flavor: 3/5

Cost: $$

Other name/s: Bottom chuck roast, California roast 

Recommended Cooking Method: Braising, stewing, roasting

Notes & Tips: Meat tends to fall apart when carved because of its tenderness.


2. Beef Primal Cut: Rib

Rib Steak


Characteristics: A bone-in steak cut from a prime rib roast

Flavor: 3/5

Tenderness: 3/5

Cost: $$$

Other name/s: None

Recommended Cooking Method: Grilling, roasting, barbecuing



Rib-eye Steak


Characteristics: A rib steak without the bone that has an oval shape and a narrow strip of meat that curves around one end; a beefy, tender and juicy cut of beef.

Flavor: 4/5

Tenderness: 2/5

Cost: $$$

Other name/s: Spencer steak, Delmonico steak

Recommended Cooking Method: Grilling, pan searing, barbecuing

Rib Roast, First Cut


Characteristics: Rib roast cut consisting of ribs 10 through 12 -- which have the big, single rib-eye section with less fat; closer to the loin end

Flavor: 4/5

Cost: $$$$

Other name/s: Prime rib, loin end, small end

Recommended Cooking Method: Grill roasting, roasting, barbecuing

Rib Roast, Second Cut


Characteristics: A rib roast cut consisting of ribs 6 to 8 or 9, which contains more intramuscular fat that adds flavor into the roast

Flavor: 4/5

Cost: $$$$

Other name/s: Large end

Recommended Cooking Method: Roasting, barbecuing

Beef Ribs


Characteristics: large rib cut from bones 6 to 12 of the prime rib, which are about 8 inches long and perfect for barbecuing

Flavor: 3/5

Cost: $$

Other name/s: Back ribs

Recommended Cooking Method: Barbecuing

Notes & Tips: Usually sold as a big slab of rib, but some retailers offer smaller cuts with just 3-4 bones per slab.


3. beef primal cut: short loin

Strip Steak


Characteristics: A cut that runs along the shell muscle in the center of the steer’s back; it is well marbled, has a tight grain with a strong beefy taste and a satisfying chewy texture

Flavor: 4/5

Cost: $$$

Tenderness: 3/5

Other name/s: Shell steak, top loin steak, sirloin strip steak, New York Strip steak, Kansas City strip steak

Recommended Cooking Method: Grilling, pan searing


Tenderloin


Characteristics: The most tender cut of beef with a mild, almost non-beefy flavor 

Flavor: 1/5

Cost: $$$$

Other name/s: Whole fillet, Chateaubriand

Recommended Cooking Method: Grilling, roasting

Notes & Tips: Unpeeled varieties of this cut come with a big layer of exterior fat that should be removed prior to cooking.

For peeled varieties, the fat is seen distributed throughout the cut and may be left as is.

T-Bone Steak


Characteristics: A cut named after the T-shaped bone that appears through the meat. The bone separates two different cuts of meat - the tenderloin on the right and the strip on the left.

Flavor: 4/5

Cost: $$$

Tenderness: 3/5

Other name/s: None

Recommended Cooking Method: Grilling, pan searing

Porterhouse Steak


Characteristics: A large T-bone steak with a bigger cut of tenderloin than a traditional T-Bone steak.  It has a well-balanced texture and flavor like the T-bone steak.

Flavor: 4/5

Cost: $$$

Tenderness: 3/5

Other name/s: None

Recommended Cooking Method: Grilling, pan searing

Filet Mignon


Characteristics: A cut from the narrow end of the tenderloin that is 1-2 inches thick. Filet Mignon has a very mild beef flavor and a pleasantly tender texture

Flavor: 1/5

Cost: $$$$

Tenderness: 4/5

Other name/s: Chateaubriand, tenderloin steak, tournedo

Recommended Cooking Method: Grilling, pan searing

Notes & Tips: Because people tend to value texture over flavor, tenderloin is among the most expensive cuts of beef you can buy.  It also goes by a few different names. 

Chateaubriand is a center-cut steak cut from the largest part of the tenderloin, around 3 inches thick; it is big enough for two servings.

Tournedos are the smallest tenderloin cuts that come from the section toward the tip end of the tenderloin, around 1 inch thick only.


4. beef primal cut: Sirloin

Sirloin Tri-tip Roast


Characteristics: a small, triangular-shaped roast with a gentle flavor and moist, spongy texture.

Flavor: 2/5

Cost: $$

Other name/s: Triangle roast

Recommended Cooking Method: Grilling, barbecuing

Notes & Tips: Tri-tip is a popular beef cut among West Coast butchers.  East Coast butchers turn this cut into sirloin tips, or “steak tips”. 


5. beef primal cut: Round

Cube Steak


Characteristics: A chewy cut of meat without a lot of fat or connective tissue. 

Flavor: 1/5

Tenderness: 1/5

Cost: $

Other name/s: Minute steak

Recommended Cooking Method: Cube steaks are best when pounded with a meat tenderizer and pan seared.  This cut is most popularly used for chicken fried steak.

Top Round Steak


Characteristics: A cut with a pleasant beefy taste and chewy texture.

Flavor: 3/5

Tenderness: 2/5

Cost: $

Other name/s: Inside round cut, London broil

Recommended Cooking Method: Broiling, grilling

Notes & Tips: To reduce the chewiness of this steak, cook it to medium doneness and slice it super thin. 

Bottom Round Rump Roast


Characteristics: A cut that is slightly less tender than the top round roast; juicy and has a mild flavor when cooked.

Flavor: 2/5

Cost: $

Other name/s: Bottom round oven roast, bottom round pot roast, round roast

Recommended Cooking Method: Roasting




Top Round Roast


Characteristics: A cut similar to the top sirloin roast which has a good texture, flavor, and juiciness.

Flavor: 3/5

Cost: $

Other name/s: Top round steak roast, top round first cut

Recommended Cooking Method: Roasting

Notes & Tips: Upon serving, cut this roast into thinner slices as it tends to become chewy when sliced thick.

Eye-Round Roast


Characteristics: A boneless cut that slices nicely, the eye-round roast can be as flavorful as other top cuts with proper treatment.

Flavor: 2/5

Cost: $

Other name/s: Round-eye roast

Recommended Cooking Method: Grilling, barbecuing

Notes & Tips: Because this roast reaches its maximum tenderness in a low-heat oven, barbecuing this roast to a medium doneness is ideal.  Be sure to slice it thin when serving.

Bottom Round Roast


Characteristics: Because it doesn’t have a distinct flavor of its own, bottom round roasts are ideal for stewing and braising. 

Flavor: 1/5

Cost: $

Other name/s: None

Recommended Cooking Method: Braising, stewing

Notes & Tips: Braise or stew the bottom round roast in flavorful liquid.  A combination of red wine and beef broth would be nice.



6. BEEF PRIMAL CUT: Brisket, shank, plate, flank

Skirt Steak


Characteristics: A thin cut from the underside of the cow with more fat content than flank steak. 

Flavor: 3/5

Tenderness: 3/5

Cost: $$$

Other name/s: Philadelphia steak, fajita steak

Recommended Cooking Method: Grilling, stir-frying, pan searing

Notes & Tips: Before cooking, remove the silverskin on the back of the steak for maximum tenderness.  Grill quickly over a high heat and thinly slice across the grain for maximum tenderness.



Flank Steak


Characteristics: A wide, flat cut from the underside of the animal bearing a recognizable longitudinal grain.

Flavor: 3/5

Tenderness: 3/5

Cost: $$$

Other name/s: Jiffy steak

Recommended Cooking Method: Grilling, stir-frying, pan searing

Notes & Tips: This steak is quite thin for its size, so it cooks quickly.  

Flank steak should never be cooked past medium doneness. 

Always thinly slice the steak across the grain, with a heavy bias.

Hanger Steak


Characteristics: The hanger steak refers to the large muscle near the diaphragm on the underside of the cow that hangs down the center of the animal (thus the name hanger steak).

Flavor: 3/5

Tenderness: 1/5

Cost: $$

Other name/s: Butcher’s steak, hanging tender, hanging tenderloin

Recommended Cooking Method: Grilling, pan searing

Notes & Tips: Hanger steak is around a third of the price of tenderloin with a lot more flavor.

Be sure to have your butcher remove all of the excess fat and silver skin that typically surrounds this cut of meat.

Brisket


Characteristics: a large steak with a rectangular shake that weighs approximately 13 pounds and is further cut into 2 sub cuts: flat and point cuts.

Flavor: 3/5

Cost: $$

Other name/s: None

Recommended Cooking Method: Braising, barbecuing

Notes & Tips: The flat cut brisket is a thinner, leaner cut good for slow cooking. 

If smoking is the name of the game, you will want a brisket with a nice fat cap on top to keep the meat moist.




Shank


Characteristics: A cut derived from the cross-section of the front leg with a rounded shape; a fatty, but tasty cut.

Flavor: 2/5

Cost: $

Other name/s: Center beef shank

Recommended Cooking Method: Braising

Notes & Tips: This cut is available with or without the bone in.

The shank is equivalent to the osso buco of a calf’s meat.

It is good to use in soups or simmered dinner recipes like pot-au-feu.

Short Ribs


Characteristics: A meaty cut that is usually taken from the underside of the cow (but can be cut in various parts, too) with each rib bone detached and cut crosswise.

Flavor: 3/5

Cost: $

Other name/s: English-style short ribs

Recommended Cooking Method: Stewing, braising, barbecuing





Flanken-Style Short Ribs


Characteristics: similar to the English-style short ribs, but are cut thinly into cross sections with 2-3 meaty bone pieces.

Flavor: 3/5

Cost: $$

Other name/s: Flanken

Recommended Cooking Method: Barbecuing, braising

Notes & Tips: These short ribs are more rare than the English style short ribs, but are generally sold in butcher shops.


MEAT FACT:

The leanest cuts of meat from four-legged animals almost always come from the loin. Look for words like sirloin or tenderloin.