Choosing the right cut of beef isn’t always easy. There are dozens of different types of cuts that butchers regularly offer, and what qualities make the ‘best’ cut can vary depending on what type of steak you’re grilling or what dish the beef will be used for. Luckily, there are some general guidelines you can rely on depending on what kind of cut you’re looking for. Here’s a quick walk-through that explains how you can select the best possible cut of beef:
What Cuts When?
There are many different cuts of beef, and the names for each cut vary by country, but here are the American cuts of beef and the most common uses for each:
The chuck is used commonly for bone-in chuck steaks or roasts; however, the trimmings (and sometimes whole boneless chucks) are also ground to make hamburger meat.
Beef ribs can be used to make short ribs of various kinds, and this cut is also the source of prime rib and ribeye steaks.
Brisket: Other than its use to make barbecue brisket, this cut is also used to make corned beef and pastrami.
Shank: Because it is the toughest of cuts, the shanks are generally used only to flavor stews and soups.
Plate: The plate, located near the stomach of the cow, is another source of meat for short ribs (especially when pot-roasting,) and it is also used for skirt steaks.
Loins: There are three different possible cuts from the loin of the animal. The short loin is where T-bone and porterhouse steaks are cut from when bone-in, and it is also used for strip steak. The sirloin, which is less tender but more flavorful than the short loin, is used for sirloin steaks, while the tenderloin is used for tenderloin steaks, filet mignon, and roasts such as beef Wellington.
Round: Meat from the round is lean and tough, and most commonly used to make top or bottom-round steaks and roasts.
Flank: The flank is used mostly for grinding meat, but is also the source of flank steak, used for fajitas and London Broil.
Tender Vs. Tough
Depending on what you’re cooking, you may want a tender steak or a tougher cut. The tenderest cuts of beef come from the muscles on the animal that see the least work; in general, cuts get more tender the further you get from the horns and hooves, since these support the animal’s head and body. The toughest cuts tend to come from the animal’s neck and legs, known as the chuck and shanks, respectively.
When do you want a more tender cut, and when should the meat be tougher? That depends on what you’re using the beef for. When it comes to cooking mouth-watering steaks, you usually want tender cuts that make the steak ‘melt’ in the consumer’s mouth. However, there are also certain dishes where tougher cuts are more desirable. When slow-cooking or braising beef, for example, tougher cuts are actually the better choice.
How to Choose the Best Tender Cuts
When looking for the best tender cut of beef available, there are a few qualities you should always keep an eye out for. You want to look for fewer muscle groups within the cut (only one muscle if possible,) because multiple muscles means more connective tissue, which makes meat tougher and chewier. A fine meat grain is another sure sign of a tender cut, and as for fat content, lean to medium fat marbling is best; more fat means chewier meat.
How to Choose Tougher Cuts
If you’re using slower cooking methods like stewing or braising the beef, chances are you’ll need a tougher cut. But how can you choose tougher cuts? One sign of a good tough cut is plenty of connective tissue between the muscles. This tissue, known as collagen, might be tough and chewy when raw or cooked quickly, but it becomes moist and tender when slow-cooked. However, while connective tissue is good for tough cuts like the chuck or brisket, you don’t want excessively thick or ropy tissue and muscle fibers. Plenty of fat marbling is also desirable when slow-cooking, as this will add great flavor to roasts and stews.