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Breaking Down the Beef

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Funny story: We recently took a small poll amongst friends composed of two questions: "What do you think is the best cut of beef? And why?" The answers varied from striploin to ribeye, from tenderloin to filet mignon (both mean the same, the latter being the French translation), and we even had a flank steak thrown in for good measure.  The "why's" also varied from taste to texture, with tenderness winning the popularity vote…  By far the best response was from one of the filet mignon guys who responded "because it's French."   Of course… why else!

It's pretty ironic, really.  For most of us, beef in one form or another is a staple in our diets; yet few of us understand the various cuts. The typical grocery store, with its pre-plastic wrapped packages and confusing computer printed labels does very little to help.  Further, most grocery stores (and even a significant number of butcher shops) are limited in the number of cuts they carry because their meat comes into the store pre-cut and they only carry the most popular cuts.  We encourage people to understand different cuts. So, without further ado, in this month's edition of From the Butcher we're breaking down a beef; in a future issue, we'll tackle pork and poultry.

ImageFirst 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, boiling and stewing); such cooking techniques loosen connective tissue creating tender, juicy, and tasty meat. On the other hand, the more tender meat can be cooked with dry heat methods (such as grilling, roasting, and broiling).

Starting 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 pot roasts, stews and ground beef. The infamous corned beef comes from boiled brisket meat - remember that next time you find yourself savoring a corned beef sandwich in your favorite deli.

Boned & Tied Rib Roast
Moving along, the Rib, Loin and Sirloin render the most delicate cuts of beef. Rib eye steaks come from, you guessed it, the rib section. A prime rib roast is the most flavorful roast of beef. 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.  Generally speaking, gourmets and gourmands consider striploin the best steak because of the taste/tenderness balance.  Tenderloin is more tender, but it lacks the flavor intensity - hence the concept of wrapping a filet mignon in bacon.

Aside:  There are two cutting methods when it comes to 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. 

Bone-in Rib Steak
The hip (usually 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.

So there you have it!  Beef demystified in one page!


Common Cuts



Blade Steaks or Roast


Medium Tender,
but like butter when braised

Flank Steak


Less Tender,
but can be great
when marinated
or slowly cooked

Eye of Round & Sirloin Tip Steaks


Medium Tender,
perfect for fast
grilling or frying;
inexpensive cuts

Tenderloin Steak
& New York Striploin


Tender - the most
tender cuts of beef

Rib Eye Steak


Tender - slightly less tender than Tenderloin or NY,
but more flavourful

Top Sirloin


Tender - a great steak; much less expensive than
cuts from the Loin and Rib but still tender and flavourful



Less Tender, great for braising.  Try using beef shanks for a larger and beefier version of osso buco.


About the Butcher

ImageThe Healthy Butcher is located in Toronto, Canada and is Toronto’s source for the best tasting and largest selection of Certified Organic meat, specializing in all cuts of locally grown beef, lamb, pork, chicken, bison, elk, duck, ostrich, Cornish hen, quail, goose, and other premium meats.  The store also offers a wide selection of gourmet prepared foods created by their in-house team of chefs always seeking local, organic, and seasonal ingredients. 
©2007 Ambrosia Gourmet Inc., c.o.b. The Healthy Butcher.  All rights reserved.


cuts of beef
shari payne (Unregistered) 2011-06-30 09:38:57

Can you send a list of beef (the entire cow actually, not pieces and parts)that goes from expensive to inexpensive. What parts are good to have grind and serve as hamburger; it's just myself and my son.

I still can't get my skirt steak "fall apart" tender; need help.

Is a pressure cooker good to get meats soft/"melt in your mouth" tender?
pam (Publisher) 2011-06-30 11:44:58

I suggest some meat focused cookbooks for info on this? Recently published books that may be helpful include Meat: A Kitchen Education by James Peterson (Ten Speed Press, 2010); Good Meat by Deborah Krasner (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2010); and possibly Beef by John Torode (Taunton Press, 2009).
Anonymous (Unregistered) 2012-03-20 17:03:07

hey what about the hanger steak
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