Beef 101

The first piece of advice from our table to yours is…don’t be afraid to learn to cook something new! A small amount of time invested in learning about new and different cuts of beef can bring you a lifetime of enjoyment and save you a lot of money in the process!

If you’re anything like I used to be, you know how to turn on the grill, soak a steak in a store-bought marinade, and hopefully not char the outside on your way to unknowingly overcooking the inside. Cooking beef can seem intimidating, especially when the lingo varies as greatly as the texture and marbling of the different cuts available. So perhaps you are comfortable with a filet or a even a ribeye on the grill. But what are you supposed to do with a brisket or a flank steak? And what’s the difference between a KC Strip and a NYC Strip? ( Spoiler: there isn’t one!)

Admittedly, beef is not cheap. So to make the most of your purchase, just a little bit of know-how and preparation time and you can make your family some wide ranging and delicious dinners! You’re only a couple of tricks of the trade away from impressing the entire neighborhood. Oh, and you can save some serious money on some of those more economical cuts while you’re at it.

Understanding Beef Cut Terminology

When looking at the cow, the USDA divides it into eight regions. These are referred to as the primal or main cuts. They are:

  1. Chuck

  2. Rib

  3. Loin

  4. Round

  5. Flank

  6. Short Plate

  7. Brisket

  8. Shank

A few of them you may recognize such as the rib. And you've probably heard of chuck roast, flank steaks, and brisket. We’ll get into how the well-known cuts are used, as well as some great tips for the lesser-known cuts. But to begin, understand that the butcher looks at these main eight areas.

These primal cuts get further divided into sub-primal cuts. These are cuts that are larger than a steak or roast but definitely smaller than half or quarter side of beef. From there they are they're cut into individual size and portion cuts.

The most tender cuts of beef, like the rib and tenderloin, are the ones farthest from the horn and hoof. The toughest areas of the animal are the shoulder and leg muscles because they are worked the most. These tougher cuts can sometimes be the most flavorful, as they often have the best marbling or fat layering. The secret to cooking up amazing dishes with these cuts is simply allowing time to properly prepare the meet and cook it slowly.

Now that we've covered what the primal cuts and sub-primal cuts are, we'll get into the actual cuts of meat that are available to you. To make things a little more confusing, sometimes the same cut can have different names. The short loin is a great example of this. The T-bone and porterhouse steak are both from the short loin and actually are the same steak. But here's the difference: The porterhouse is a bigger version of the T-bone. Most people are familiar with a T-bone steak because it has that bone that looks like a T which divides the meat. On one side you have the filet while the other side has a strip steak.

A strip steak has a lot of different names too such as NY strip, KC strip, and hotel steak. So you can have different variations of the name, but they mean the same thing.

The tender cuts from the center are usually a:

  • T-bone steak
  • Strip steak
  • Porterhouse steak
  • Rib eye
  • Rib steak
  • Filet mignon

Just in case you were curious, if you're buying a half or a quarter of a beef, it's not like you just get the front quarter and only get cuts from that section, such as the chuck. They take all the eight different areas and then divide them up evenly between two or four.

Which beef butchering cuts do you need to know?

There are 8 primal cuts on beef and then your subprimal cuts for individual cuts of steak, roasts, etc.

1. Chuck

Chuck is the meat that comes from the shoulder and can sometimes be considered tough but super flavorful. Types of cuts you'll see from the chuck region:

  • Ground chuck (hamburger)
  • Flat-iron steak
  • Chuck short ribs
  • Shoulder tender medallions
  • Chuck pot roast
  • Top blade steak
  • Chuck eye roast
  • Shoulder pot roast
  • Cross rib roast

Just because all those cuts come from the same area does not mean that you're going to get every single one of them. In fact, most times you can't get every single one because some cuts take specific areas of the meat to get one type of cut, while another type of cut could also include that area. At Rapidan Beef Company, we offer the option of roast or steak cuts, medallions for stew or kabobs, chuck roast, flat iron steaks and of course, ground beef.

2. Brisket

Next up is the brisket, which is the breast of the animal. The brisket area has a lot of fat in it but can be kind of tough. This part normally gets tenderized: barbecue brisket, corned beef, pastrami are all examples of the main uses for this cut of meat. The brisket is the best example of where time and a little know-how can pay off, making you the barbecue king of the neighborhood!

3. Shank

The third area is the shank. This is the animal's forearm, which falls in front of the brisket. Usually, this is considered the toughest cut of meat, and we use it almost exclusively as ground beef, unless clients request otherwise.

4. Ribs

Ribs are next up. I think we're all pretty familiar with the rib section on an animal, cow's ribs and backbone. There are 13 pairs of ribs, but it's the last section – 6 through 12 – that is in the primal section of the ribs. The others are in what we consider the chuck section.

Within the ribs, there is a lot of marbling which gives it great flavor. They're one of our absolute favorites. In addition to short ribs, Rapidan Beef Company offers Boneless Ribeye and the Bone-In Ribeye (also known as the Cowboy Cut or the Tomahawk steak). On a half or whole cow purchase, Rib Roasts are also available.

The marbling not only gives phenomenal flavor, but we know that it also helps give us great tender cuts.

5. Plate

The plate section is the other source of short ribs and is found near the abdomen. It's a little bit fattier. The meat is usually used for:

  • Fajitas
  • Pastrami
  • Skirt steak (cut into Carne Asada cut)
  • Philadelphia steak
  • Short ribs

Have you ever tried your hand at a good Carne Asada recipe? The Skirt steak is your chance to show how one of the lowest budget steaks on a cow can become the most impressively flavorful dish!

6. Loin

The loin area contains what are typically the most expensive cuts if purchasing in a store. It's located at the top, directly behind the ribs. Since these muscles here aren't heavily used, the meat is very tender.

The loin section is broken down into two subsections: the short loin and the sirloin. Popular cuts from the short loin are:

  • Filet mignon
  • Tenderloin steak
  • T-bone steak
  • Porterhouse steak
  • Strip steak
  • New York strip steak
  • KC Steak
  • Top loin steak

The sirloin area is thought to be a little less tender than the short loin, but it has more flavor. Some common cuts are:

  • Sirloin steak
  • Center cut sirloin steak
  • Top sirloin
  • Bottom sirloin
  • Ball tip steak
  • Tri-tip steak

7. Round

Area number 7 is the round. This is your lean and inexpensive cuts typically by then hind end and at the hind legs so can sometimes be tough but not usually super tough. Again, with the leg and shoulder areas, you'll see ground beef from them. Some of the cuts that you get from this area:

  • Round steak
  • Eye round steak
  • Tip steak
  • Tip roast
  • Top round
  • Bottom round roast

At Rapidan Beef Company, sometimes we like a simple, economical steak with our breakfast eggs, and Eye Round or Round Steaks fit the bill. Roasts in a crock pot or oven are also a great way to feed the family and have leftovers for days!

8. Flank

The last area is the flank. It's located below the loin and has no bones. It's lean, flavorful, but tough. It used to be pretty inexpensive, but people now want more lean meat. The two main cuts from the flank area are:

  • Flank steak
  • London broil

Like the plate or chuck, we can have these made into steak cuts or roasts, or we can opt into ground beef and ground beef patties, stew meat, kabob meat and strips such as fajita or Carne Asada cuts.