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Breaking Down the Beef

By September 8, 2014 No Comments

We’ll start  by going back to basics – understanding cuts of meat.

This is a topic that we’ve taken as our primary responsibility to educate consumers for two reasons: (1) To promote sustainable agriculture… consumers need to understand that all meat is good meat, not just Striploins and Tenderloins, except that different cuts require different methods of cooking; and (2) To understand that eating organic does not equate to eating expensive… in fact, we are firm believers that you can buy organic meat and spend the same or less than you would buying conventional meat just by being selective in the cuts you choose — without any loss of quality or flavour (the economics of eating organic being the subject of a future newsletter).

This article features the many facets of Breaking Down the Beef. Together, beef and pork make up 54kg of annual per capita consumption in Canada.  We reissue the beef article because beef is the best starting point to understand cuts due to its larger size.  Once you understand beef, pork and for that matter, any four-legged animal, is a cinch.

Without further ado – let’s break down a side of beef.

Understanding the cuts.

First and foremost, understand that beef is muscle tissue.  As a result, regularly used muscles will result in tougher meat, while lesser used muscles will result in tender meat. This doesn’t mean that the less tender cuts aren’t worth eating – au contraire – some of the tastiest cuts come from the tougher muscles. However, the rule is that tougher meat requires slow, moist cooking methods (such as braising, stewing and boiling); such cooking techniques loosen connective tissue creating tender, juicy, and tasty meat.  Unfortunately, in today’s world of high-heat, prime-cuts only, drive-through style eating, braising or stewing has become a foreign concept to some people – but believe us, the process is a cinch and the result is the ultimate comfort food; especially for cold winter nights.  For more information and recipes on braising, read Braised Comfort.  On the other hand, the more tender cuts of meat can be cooked with dry heat methods (such as grilling, roasting, and broiling).

BeefCutsDiagramStarting from the front, the chuck, brisket, and shank are generally the most exercised muscles and hence, among the toughest cuts.  From these parts we get meat for the ultimate pot roasts & stews and the most flavourful ground beef.  Our popular pastrami comes from the brisket.

The Healthy Butcher’s Beef Cut Chart

HB-Cut_Chart_Poster-Beef_Named_CutLines-Transparent-FINALRULE OF THUMB: The fat content in all four-legged animals is the highest at the front of the animal (i.e. the Chuck in the picture above), and the lowest at the rear of the animal (i.e. Hip).  In between is pretty much a uniform scale (i.e. Rib is higher fat, or more “marbled” than the Loin, and the Loin is more marbled than the Sirloin).

Prime Rib Steak  T-Bone Steak
Tri-Tip Steak
Moving along, the Rib, Loin and Sirloin render the most delicate cuts of beef. Rib steaks come from, you guessed it, the rib section (“Rib Eye” refers to boneless, “Prime Rib” refers to bone-on). The Loin produces the popular T-bones, porterhouses, striploins (a.k.a. New York Strips), and tenderloins (a.k.a. Filet Mignon, Chateaubriand, Tournedos, Medallions, or Filet de Boeuf).  Finally, the sirloin provides a variety of steaks differing by where in the sirloin they are cut, such as bottom sirloin, tri-tip and top sirloin grilling steaks (the sirloin provides great value!).  Generally speaking, gourmets and gourmands consider striploin the best steak because of the taste/tenderness balance.  Tenderloin is more tender, but it lacks the flavour intensity – hence the concept of wrapping a filet mignon in bacon.Aside: There are two cutting methods when it comes to cutting the Loin – one method will produce the full tenderloin along with striploin steaks, the other will produce steaks that contain both portions of the tenderloin and the striploin separated by a bone, namely T-Bones and Porterhouse steaks.  These prestigious steaks we are so used to seeing on steak house menus are almost never seen in Europe because European butchers only cut the loin in the method that separates the tenderloins and striploins from the bone.  The rib steak, however, is the same all over – in France it is called entrecote, and in Italy it is costata or contracoste.  In Florence, rib steak is the meat for the famous Bistecca Fiorentina.

The hip (also called the round) includes the sirloin tip, eye of round, outside round (bottom round), and inside round (top round).  The round is the leanest part of the beef and has more meat without tendons than any other part of the animal. The sirloin tip and the inside round have the finest-textured meat on the round.  Because of the lack of fat content in the round, it is not advisable to braise meat from the round, instead use it for quick grilling or frying, including quick grilling steaks and stir fry.

Last, but not least, we arrive at the flank and short plate. The muscle fibers are relatively coarse but contain sufficient intramuscular fat to maintain a little tenderness.  Skirt steak (from the plate) and flank steak are delicious when grilled.  However, they must not be overcooked, benefit from being slowly marinated, and should be cut against the grain for a softer texture. Mexican fajitas are often made from marinated strips of flank steak.  One of our signature cuts – the Vacio – comes from the flank section of the beef; we’ve called it Vacio because this is the name of the cut in Argentina where it is extremely popular for slow grilling.  Vacio is known as Bavette in France.

So there you have it!  Beef demystified in five paragraphs!

Blade Steaks or Roast Chuck Medium Tender, but like butter when braised.
Flank Steak Flank Less Tender, but can be great when marinated or slowly cooked
Eye of Round & Sirloin Tip Steaks Hip Medium Tender, perfect for fast grilling or frying; inexpensive cuts
Tenderloin Steak & New York Striploin Loin Tender – the most tender cuts of beef
Rib Eye Steak Rib Tender – slightly less tender than Tenderloin or NY, but more flavourful
Top Sirloin Sirloin Tender – a great steak; much less expensive than cuts from the Loin and Rib but still tender and flavourful
Shank Shank Less Tender, great for braising. Try using beef shanks for a larger and beefier version of osso buco.


References and Learning:

Learn more about cuts of Pork:
“Breaking Down the Pork”

Learn more about cuts of Lamb:
“Breaking Down the Lamb”

Learn more about cuts of Chicken:
“Breaking Down the Chicken”

Learn more about cuts of Duck:
“Breaking Down the Duck”

Learn more about cuts of Elk:
“Breaking Down the Elk”

Learn more about various cooking methods and appropriate methods for each cut: Cooking Library