If you’ve been confused by beef cuts before, you are not alone. Most people go to the store and look at the different beef cuts, their labels, and price, without understanding what the difference is between most products.
With our help, you’ll quickly learn all about the location of brisket, short ribs, chuck, loin, flank, and other major beef cuts. More importantly, you’ll understand the best way to cook them, which will significantly help you the next time you are shopping for beef cuts.
You don’t want to slow cook a piece of meat that’s supposed to be grilled on a high-heat, and once you learn all the basics, you’ll make sure not to do it again!
Already confident in your beef cut knowledge and looking for a good online delivery service to have different cuts come straight to your door? You'll want to read our review and buyer's guide for the best mail order steaks. You may also benefit from reading our review of the best meat subscription programs.
What Are the Primal Cuts of Beef?
Primal cuts of beef are major sections that are separated from a cow during the initial butchering. There is a difference in making these beef cuts between cultures, so you’ll find different definitions depending on whether you are looking at American, British, French, or other cuisines. We’ll focus on how things are done in the United States.
So, most butchers and chefs identify 8 or 9 primal beef cuts. If you look at a beef cuts chart, you can see:
After the animal is divided into primal cuts, it is time for a butcher to work their magic and make sub-primal cuts. These beef cuts are bigger than steaks and roasts and need more butchering to become single cuts of beef you usually see at the butcher shop and supermarket.
Beef Cuts Basics
Now let’s cover each primal beef cut and how it is later divided into sub-primal and then into different cuts you can buy at your local supermarket.
Beef chuck comes from the cow’s forequarter, and it consists of the neck, shoulder blade, and upper parts of the arm. This part produces tough meats because of a great deal of muscles and connective tissue. However, one thing this section is not lacking is flavor.
Because of a chewier texture, fat content, and rich flavor, chuck is often used in stews, as slow cooking makes it more tender. It’s also perfect for making ground beef, later used for juicy burgers.
The most popular individual beef cuts that can be acquired from this part include flat iron steak, chuck roast, Denver steak, boneless short ribs, country-style ribs, and more.
Located at the center and the top section of a cow’s hindquarter, rib primal is probably the source of your favorite cuts of beef. It consists of the last part of ribs, from the 6th to 12th pair, while the first rib section is located in the chuck.
Steaks and roasts from rib primal are tender and delicious, as there are not as many muscles in this area, and there is a lot of fat. The most famous cuts include short ribs, prime rib, standing prime rib, rib steak, and ribeye steak.
For the most part, grilling and smoking are the best way to prepare these beef cuts. The one exception would be prime rib, which can benefit from slow cooking in the oven.
Brisket is located below the chuck, and it’s basically the breast of the cow. This part contains little fat, making the meat's texture a little tough but tasty. That means that you need a little skill to cook it the right way, but most people manage to handle it just fine.
The best way is to slow-cook it on low-heat, allowing it to become tender and bringing out the flavor. You can also cook brisket in a barbeque or smoker, but remember, slow cooking is the key.
Brisket is commonly used for pot roast and corned beef. It’s also great for stews and medium-ground beef.
Plate or short plate is located at the front belly region, below the ribs. It’s relatively fatty, making it suitable for ground beef. It’s also an excellent source of bone-in short ribs, which are ideal for cooking slowly over moist heat. This process dissolves the cartilage, making it more flavorful and tender.
Another memorable beef cut from the plate is skirt steak. Skirt steak is thin and full of flavors, and it’s best cooked over high heat. Just be careful not to overcook it.
The front and the hind shank are located at the animal thigh. Both forearm and foreleg are made of muscles with very little fat, so the meat is tough and not suitable for dry cooking. Instead, it can be used in stews and soups, as braising shank cuts makes them more tender.
The loin is a section of cow where the most expensive cuts come from. It is located between the rib and round and on top of the flank. Because there is not too much muscle, the loin is very tender, so most beef cuts originating from here are super juicy and suitable for grilling.
This section is divided into short loin and sirloin.
The most popular cuts from the short loin are filet mignon, tenderloin steak, New York Strip steak, strip steak, T-bone, and Porterhouse steak. The difference between a T-bone steak and a Porterhouse is that Porterhouse steaks have more meat on them. And once you cut the filet from the Porterhouse, you are left with a strip steak.
Sirloin is a little less tender, but it’s packed with flavor. It’s divided into tenderloin, top sirloin, and bottom sirloin. Beef cuts that originate from the sirloin include pin-bone, tri-tip, and ball-tip steaks, all suitable for roasting and barbecuing.
The tenderloin is the most tender cut of beef, and it extends from the sirloin into the short loin. Filet mignon is made from the front end of the tenderloin, while the famous Chateaubriand is the center portion of it.
All steaks and roasts from this section are best for dry heat cooking methods like grilling, roasting, and stir-frying instead of slow cooking.
The flank is located below the short loin and bottom sirloin. It’s one of the leaner cow parts, so flank steaks should be cooked shortly on high heat. Flank steak is great for Carne Asada.
Another not so popular cut from the flank is London broil. Some cooks like to marinate these beef cuts to give them a little moisture.
Round is the back leg of the cow. Since this primal cut is fairly big, it is divided into top round and bottom round. This part consists of very lean muscles because the leg gets a lot of exercise. So you can expect a chewier texture, but if you cook them correctly, this shouldn’t be the case.
The round is where most of your roasts come from. The advantage is that these are mostly the less expensive beef cuts, and they are sometimes ground. The most common ones include rump roast, round steak, the eye of round, top round roast, bottom round roast, and tip roast.
No butcher or a chef will give you a list of the best beef cuts in order. Each of them may have a favorite cut of beef, but that’s up to individual taste. Besides, different cuts of beef are used for various recipes, so depending on the cooking methods, you’ll get a different answer. Rib eye is probably the favorite choice of many people, while the flat iron steak is the underdog that offers excellent quality for a reasonable price.
As we mentioned earlier, the basic beef cuts include chuck, brisket, ribs, plate, shank, loin (short and sirloin), flank, and round.
Buying a cow gets you over 200 pounds of meat. You get all of the good stuff, including steaks, roasts, brisket, ribs, and tenderloin, but remember that not everything is steak and lean beef cuts. Most of the beef is ground, and you can expect half of your order to come this way.
How to Choose Best Beef Cuts?
Now that you’ve learned about different beef cuts, it will be easier to choose the perfect one for your next meal. We want to give you a few more tips before going shopping, so stay with us for another minute.
Always check the farms where the animals are raised and how they are treated. This advice goes beyond beef cuts, and you should do it for all your meats.
When buying at the supermarket, check for red and purplish-red color with no discoloration and moisture in the packaging. These are good signs that a beef cut is fresh, so trust your eyes.
USDA quality is rated with Prime, Choice, and Select labels. Prime is the premium choice with abundant marbling and juicy beef cuts, Choice offers less marbling, while Select offers the leanest cuts of the three.
Look for other labels such as grass-fed, grass-finished, extra lean, and see whether they add anything to the product you want to buy.
Keep in mind that visiting local butchers and farms can get you excellent quality beef cuts. You can also order from online delivery services, as they can often get you meats that you wouldn’t be able to get locally. You can take a look at our review of the best meat delivery services here.