There are numerous different cuts of beef, and it can sometimes be confusing to understand which cut should be used for certain recipes and how to break down large portions of beef for easy use. In this guide to beef cuts, we will briefly explain the different portions and how a sharp chef’s knife and a sharp boning knife can help you process steaks, ribs, roasts and other sections of beef.
How to Break Down Different Beef Cuts
Before we begin beef cuts guide, it’s important to understand how a cow is divided into quarters. First, the cow is split down the middle from the tail to the neck. This creates the two halves from which the hindquarter and the forequarter are cut. These quarters are located exactly as their name describes – the hindquarter is the rear of the cow and the forequarter includes the shoulder and everything in front of the 13th rib. In most cases, the hindquarter and forequarter are broken down by a butcher before sale, then the local grocer or consumer will break them down into the more common beef cuts.
The Beef Forequarter
The front quarter breaks down into four primary, or primal, cuts. These primal cuts include the brisket, chuck, foreshank, and rib. Using a boning knife or a sharp chef’s knife, these primals can be broken down further into cuts you may be familiar with.
The brisket breaks down to the brisket point and the brisket plate. These cuts can be tough, so they are usually used for dishes that are marinated and braised, or smoked for hours to break down the tough connective tissue. The brisket is almost exclusively used when cooking corned beef, and is a staple in the BBQ community, especially in competitive barbecue circles.
Most ground beef comes from the chuck. The chuck contains a high amount of connective tissues, making it an ideal candidate for grinding for burgers, tacos, and other recipes that call for ground beef. It’s also commonly broken down into smaller cubes that can be used for stews, and when cleaned properly can be used for pot roast and other marinated dishes.
The foreshank is one primal that requires no further production after it has been removed from the forequarter. This incredibly tough primal best serves its purpose as a base for beef stock and soups. The meat can be cleaned off of the bone using a sharp boning knife and the tough tissue can be cut away to produce beef for stews.
The rib portion is separated into the short-rib and the seven-bone rib. Short ribs are located in between the seven-bone rib and the brisket in a section known as the short plate. There are a few variations as to how they are broken down, but using a boning knife to cut in-between the bones creates useable portions that are many times seared before braising at a low temperature until the meat is tender.
While most of the cuts on the forequarter require braising or marinating before cooking, the seven-bone rib is an exception. From this primal we derive the rib roast, also referred to in restaurants as prime rib. This cut is often slow cooked and has a good fat content that keeps it juicy and moist during the cooking process (here’s a great prime rib recipe, plus some tips for how to carve it. The bones can be cut off with a flexible boning knife, and it is often broken down into rib-eye steaks for grilling.
The Beef Hindquarter
We’ll conclude this guide to beef cuts with the primals of the hindquarter: the flank, long loin, sirloin tip, and hip. The flank requires no further processing once removed from the hindquarter. It is commonly marinated for grilling over a flame, and is often ground rather than used as chuck when lean beef is required.
The long loin is broken down into two sections: the sirloin butt and the short loin. These are the cuts where most steaks come from. As its name implies, the sirloin butt produces sirloin steaks. This sub-primal takes a little extra preparation and a sharp chef’s knife to produce grillable steaks. The sirloin butt is encased in a layer of fat and is split by tough tissue that must be removed before it can be broken down any further. Once all of this tissue and fat has been cleaned away, sirloin steaks can be cut in any shape and size desired.
The short loin produces most cuts of steak. Some of the cuts that come from this portion include the porterhouse, T-bone, tenderloin, and striploin. The porterhouse and T-bone are essentially the same steak with the exception that the porterhouse is cut from the larger end of the short loin.
The tenderloin derives its name from the richness of its meat. It is one of the highest quality cuts of beef, and its cost in restaurants and butcher shops reflects this. Using a very sharp and flexible boning knife will help remove the thin layer of tissue that covers this sub-primal cut.
The strip loin is cut into steaks that are commonly sold as New York strip steaks. Only about three-quarters of the strip loin is used for steaks since one end of the strip loin has tough tissue that runs through the center, making it incredibly tough to chew. This portion can be cut away and ground, or the tissue is removed so the meat can be used for stews or ground beef. The remaining three-quarters are easily cut into strip steaks with a long chef’s knife.
The sirloin tip requires some cleaning to remove fat, and it is often sold as a sirloin roast. This cut should not be confused with the sirloin butt from the short loin. It is often tough, and steaks cut from this need to be marinated to inject moisture.
From the hip, we come up with the round cuts. The inside round and the outside round are commonly sold as roasts. Portions of the hip that are left over once the rounds are removed can be salvaged for ground beef and stew meat.
Using the Right Tools
When it comes to slicing through meat and bones, make sure your knives are sharp. Not only will this reduce any added blunt force, but will also prevent you from tearing through the meat so your cuts come out nice and clean. The chef’s knife and the boning knife are both great tools for breaking down beef cuts, so be sure these two knives are included in your kitchen knife set.