The Low Carb Luxury Online Magazine      October 24, 2003    PAGE NINE      
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        Exploring Cuts of Beef by Jarret Hughes

Jarret Hughes has held numerous cooking positions at cafes, diners, and family restaurants. He takes a "keep it simple" attitude toward cooking, preferring olive oil to truffle oil. Jarret strives to inform readers about the history of various foods while offering professional advice regarding food purchase and preparation.

Carcasses were hanging everywhere. Big steel hooks were driven through the legs and the bodies swayed back and forth. The room was cold and damp. Large gray barrels filled with innards lined the walls. Several people in blood stained clothes scurried around with saws and knives of all sizes. I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into the fresh meat they were hacking away at.

I was twelve years old and it was my first trip to the meat processing plant with my grandfather. My grandfather was a small town butcher who cared about quality. That’s why he visited the meat plant at least a couple of time per year, even though the plant made regular deliveries to his butcher store. He walked around the plant and inspected the machinery and the employees. He wanted to make sure he knew where his sides of beef were coming from. It was from these large pieces of beef that he would create beautiful steaks and roasts for the community.

But why should you bother reading an article about different cuts of beef? First, one part of the cow can have a drastically different taste and/or texture than another part of the cow. Second, have you ever stood in front of the meat case for what seems like forever trying to decide which steak or roast will be the most tender and/or most flavorful? Don’t be embarrassed to admit it. Most of us have done the exact same thing! The same thing can even happen when we look at the numerous menu items at our favorite steakhouses. Hopefully, this will help you to make informed choices the next time you go out for a steak dinner or purchase beef to cook at home. Let’s start at the top by looking at the composition of beef.

Composition of Beef:

A cow’s muscle tissue is basically comprised of three things: water (75%), protein (20%), and fat (5%). Nutritionally speaking, beef contains an insignificant amount of carbohydrates.

Muscle fibers play a big role in the texture and tenderness of beef. The more connective tissue that is present in the muscle fiber, the tougher the beef will be. Beef is high in connective tissue if it comes from a part of the animal that is exercised often (such as the legs). Older animals also have more connective tissue than younger ones (think veal). The good news is that even a tough piece of beef can be made more tender if cooked properly. Slow, wet cooking is required for beef that is high in connective tissue. Conversely, beef that is low in connective tissue can be cooked over high heat for short amounts of time and still remain tender. These pieces of beef can be found in the parts of the animal that are not exercised as often (e.g., around the rib area).

Cuts of Beef:

There are four stages in the beef cutting process: carcass, partial carcass (sides and quarters), primal cuts (a.k.a. wholesale cuts), and fabricated cuts. I’m not going to talk too much about the carcass and partial carcass stages because, unless you are a butcher, you will never see beef when it is in such a large chunk.

When your local butcher or grocery store gets their beef, it is usually in the partial carcass state. The butcher then cuts the carcass into the eight basic primal cuts: loin (includes both the short loin and sirloin), rib, round, chuck, flank, short plate, brisket, and shank.

Unless you purchase your meat wholesale, you are unlikely to come across a whole primal cut of beef. The eight primal cuts are cut down further into the smaller cuts we are used to seeing in the meat market or grocery store. These are called fabricated cuts. The following table summarizes some of the common fabricated cuts that are obtained from the primal cuts. Note that the primal cuts are listed in order of tenderness, starting with the most tender cut (short loin).

Primal cuts

Common Fabricated Cuts


Short loin

T-bone steak (includes strips such as NY strip), porterhouse steak, top loin steak, tenderloin steak (includes filet mignon, chateaubriand, and tournedos), tenderloin roast.


Sirloin steak, top sirloin steak, sirloin tip steak, tenderloin roast.


Rib eye steak, rib steak, rib roast, rib eye roast, back ribs


Round steak, top round steak, tip steak, top round roast, bottom round roast, eye round roast, rump roast


Top blade steak, chuck eye roast, blade roast, 7-rib pot roast, cross rib pot roast, short ribs


Flank steak (London broil)

Short plate

Skirt steak


Corned beef


Stew meat

As illustrated, most steaks come from the loin and rib cuts and most roasts come from the round and chuck cuts.

Grades of Beef:

By law, all beef must be inspected by the federal government. However, beef grading is not required by law. There is a big difference between the two. Inspected beef merely means that it is disease-free and fit for human consumption. Grading, which is usually done by the USDA or another third party, is based on texture, firmness, color, maturity of the animal, and marbling of the fat.

As consumers, we only need to be aware of three grades of beef: prime, choice, and select. Thankfully, the other grades such as standard, commercial, utility, cutter, and canner, aren’t sold in retail stores.

Less than 2% of all beef earns the highest grading of “prime.” Most of this meat is very expensive and is sold to the top restaurants of the world. It usually can’t be found in retail stores. Therefore, the best way to sink your teeth into a piece of prime beef will be at a fine dining establishment. Be aware that the word “prime” in the menu item “prime rib” does not necessarily mean that the beef grade is prime—it may or may not be.

Choice grade is close in quality to prime. A choice steak, for example, may have the same firmness, color, and texture of a prime steak, but the marbling my be slightly inferior. Luckily, this grade is becoming more and more common in retail stores. I would recommend spending a few extra dollars on a choice cut if it is available, especially if a meal is being prepared for a special occasion.

Select beef is abundant in retail stores. This grade is one step down from choice, which basically means that it will be a little tougher in texture and a little less complex in flavor. It can still be a good quality meat if prepared correctly. However, a select cut can quickly turn into a piece of tasteless shoe leather if cooked improperly.

What to Look for in the Store:

The next time you are at the store looking for beef, use the following criteria to make the best selection.

Color – This is the easiest criterion to distinguish. Take a look at the beef. Fresh beef will be shiny and bright red—raw beef should never be brownish in color. The fat around the steak or roast (if present) should be bright white and not yellow.

Smell – The smell shouldn’t be obviously apparent. Fresh beef will have a very light scent. If it smells strong or “buttery,” pass.

Firmness – Beef should be fairly firm to the touch. Beef should never be mushy (unless it is ground).

Marbling – When possible, select steaks that have a good amount of marbling running through them. If you are concerned about fat intake, look for one that has little or no marbling. Just realize that you are giving up flavor for leaner meat.

Finally, don’t be afraid to talk to your butcher (even at grocery stores). Let him or her know what you are looking for and they will usually be more than willing to help you select the best piece of meat.


Copyright © October 2003  Jarret Hughes and Low Carb Luxury

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