Cows can be confusing. As lovers of red meat, we know they’re sources of delicious steaks but it’s hard to discern where different cuts of beef come from.
Knowing the geography of different cuts of beef helps take the guessing out of meat selection. The USDA identifies eight primal cuts of beef and divide cows into eight sections that are separated once again into sub-primal cuts. Your butcher works with sub-primal cuts and shapes them into portions you buy from the case.
Brisket, from the breast of the animal, is used in many of your favorite comfort foods. It can be cured for corned beef or pastrami or slow braised whole and boneless until very tender. It also makes its way into burgers sometimes, mixed in with ground chuck. Chuck sits above the brisket in the breast and comes from the shoulder and neck region. Just like brisket it’s flavorful and has a lot of connective tissue. In addition to burgers and chili gives us the 7-bone roast, beef medallions and flat iron steaks.
The most expensive cuts come from the loin or rib in the center of the cow. Cuts served in restaurants like filet mignon, T-bone and porterhouse steaks come from the loin while prime rib and ribeye steaks come from the rib. As they are the furthest from the animal’s legs and neck where a lot of connective tissue develops, they’re the most tender cuts (“hoofs and horns,” as the old saying goes).
The flank is from the belly of the cow which sits under its stomachs. It’s flavorful but on the tougher side like chuck and brisket, so slow braising your London broil or slow grilling is the way to go. When serving, slice against the grain of the meat. The short plate sits between the brisket and the flank and gives us both short ribs and skirt steak, which is really the diaphragm muscle.
Beef round is from the rear upper leg and butt of the cow including the hip and knee, so it too gets a near-constant work out while the animal is alive. This is where roast beef and pot roast come from, and the leg bone yields the goodness that is bone marrow. Shank is pretty much the shin of the cow and so also is one of the leanest cuts. It’s the one most often used for Bourguignon, osso buco and very lean ground beef.