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Culinary Lesson #6 - The Eight Primal Cuts of Beef

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Q10:  When I go to the grocery store to buy beef, I usually opt for the usual ground chuck or sirloin steak due to their availability.  What's the difference between these cuts?  And how do they compare to some of the other options out there?

A10:  To learn the difference between these two cuts (and several more), it's best to learn about the Eight Primal Cuts of Beef: chuck, rib, short loin, sirloin, round, brisket/shank, short plate, and flank.

Within these eight cuts, there are two main characteristics that are used to describe a cut of meat:  tenderness and flavor.  To judge how tender a steak might be, it's key to learn the location that the cut is from.  If it's from an active part such as the legs (shanks), it's going to be tough.  If it's from a muscle that gets little to no motion such as the tenderloin (which is located under the spine), you can count on it being extremely tender.   The second characteristic, flavor, is all about how much marbling (intramuscular fat) a cut has.  When a steak with great marbling is cooked properly, the fats will melt and form a juicy, flavorful, aromatic steak.

Unfortunately, there's a trade off between these two characteristics.  Generally speaking, the more tender a cut is, the less flavorful it is.  Likewise, the more flavor a cut has, the more likely it's a tougher cut.  Luckily, there are many ways to get the best of both worlds, some of which include marinating, curing, brining, and the using spice and/or herbal rubs.

The following list goes over the location, characteristics, and sub-cuts of the eight primal cuts:

  1. Chuck is essentially the shoulder of the animal which runs from the neck down to the 5th rib.  It is full of flavor and connective tissue, and is usually ground or slow cooked when served as a roast.
  2. The rib area is from the 6th to the 12th rib and is where prime rib and rib-eye steaks come from.  Common ways of cooking ribs include smoking, grilling, pan frying, and roasting.
  3. The short loin defines the area between the last (13th) rib and the hip, and consists of two main muscles:  the tenderloin and the shell.
    • The tenderloin runs along both sides of the spine, and thus is extremely tender due to the lack of motion in that area.  It's common to pan sear or roast the tenderloin, or else slice into steaks (filet mignon) and cook individually.  Since the tenderloin makes up such a small fraction of an animal, along with the fact that it is so tender, you can usually expect this to be the most expensive cut.
    • The shell contains well known cuts including strip, T-bone, and Porterhouse steaks; all of which are great for the grill.
  4. Sirloin is a fairly tough but flavorful cut of beef that falls in the hip region.  The sirloin is divided into several sections including sirloin, top sirloin, bottom sirloin, and tri-tip.
  5. The round is opposite of the chuck and is usually cooked in liquid (braised) due to its lack of marbling.  Similar to chuck, ground round is commonly used in hamburgers.
  6. On the underside of the animal, we start off with the brisket and shank.  Brisket is typically slow cooked and shredded whereas shanks are usually used in stews.  In addition, brisket is commonly brined, smoked, and steamed, resulting in pastrami or corned beef.
  7. The short plate is a fairly flavorful cut directly beneath the rib area and is used for short ribs, skirt steaks, and hanger steaks.  Used in fajitas, stir-fries, or sandwiches, steaks from this area are usually just seared enough to keep the meat at a medium doneness.  
  8. The last of the eight main cuts is the flank, which is a flat, boneless cut that is typically served similar to short plate cuts.
For a more detailed visualization of these cuts, check out this poster which also details suggested cooking methods.

To learn more about how to properly cook a steak, check out Culinary Lesson #32.

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