You could go to the supermarket, buy a staple like filet mignon, throw it on the grill, and call it a day. But there are so many other fascinating cuts of beef out there to learn about and explore—why limit yourself?
“Different cuts have different flavor profiles and different methods of preparation, and the more you know, the better cook you’re going to be,” says Alex Jermasek, head butcher at Belcampo Meat Co. A vertically integrated company, Belcampo owns its own ranch, slaughterhouse (designed by “meat whisperer” Temple Grandin), and retail butcher shops throughout California.
But before we get started, there are a few important meat facts to keep in mind:
- Avoid buying beef that has a bright-pink artificial look (that means it isn’t fresh)
- Heavily worked cuts (meaning, cuts from parts of the cow that are most active) typically have more beefy flavor, and a dark red color
- Fat equals flavor. Fat is your friend.
- A beef carcass is divided into primal cuts (e.g., chuck or shortplate), which include subcategories known as subprimal cuts (e.g., flat-iron or short ribs)
- Classic steaks that you find at high-end steakhouses—including New York strip, T-bone, porterhouse, filet mignon—all come from the short loin. Here’s an awesome guide to grilling those steaks.
Study up and become the meat master you were destined to be.
What is it: The largest, most heavily-worked group of muscles on the animal, which means it needs to be cooked for several hours. Chuck is your stereotypical pot roast; it’s also great ground into a burger blend.
Where it is on the cow: Shoulder muscle
Fat content/marbling: Chuck contains connective tissue (fat and collagen) that breaks down when you cook it.
How to cook it: A go-to economical cut for slow cooking, chuck can be prepared by your butcher as a roast, or as stew meat that’s perfect for beef Bourguignon. You can do a barbecue-style chuck as well, where you smoke it and then braise it.
What to look for when buying: If you’re cooking a pot roast, you want your chuck to be fairly consistent in girth so it cooks evenly.
Average cost per pound: $5-$6
What is it: A long, flat steak that first became popular in the U.S. in the early 2000s. Because it’s flavorful, tender, and easy to cook, flat-iron is recommended for people who are timid when it comes to cooking beef.
Where it is on the cow: Sits right on top of the shoulder blade (part of the chuck)
Fat content/marbling: One of the more well-marbled parts of the shoulder, so it’s tender and has a lot of flavor
How to cook it: Sear it hot and fast on the grill, about 4 minutes on each side. Get a nice char and some pretty grill marks. Season with salt, pepper, and olive oil, and you’re done.
What to look for when buying: A good flat-iron has nice marbling throughout, and is ¼- to ½-inch thick. The flat-iron itself is comprised of two parts—there’s an upper part and a lower part, and in the middle is a giant tendon that is almost inedible. The tendon should be removed by your butcher.
Average cost per pound: $14-$16
What is it: One of the most heavily-worked parts of the animal. It’s tough, but when cooked low and slow, it has a nice texture that allows it to shred apart.
Where it is on the cow: The lower chest, right underneath the front leg
Fat content/marbling: Brisket is fatty and well-marbled
What to look for when buying: There are two distinct parts to a whole brisket: the first cut (called the “flat”) is less fatty and good for braising, and the second cut (called the “point”) is fattier and good for smoking and turning into BBQ.
Average cost per pound: $7-$10. You’ll probably see brisket prices increasing in the near future, says Jermasek, because it’s one of those cuts that’s so highly sought after for barbecue. (Think of it as meat gentrification.)
What is it: When you take a cross-section of the whole sirloin, it’s typically called a “top sirloin” steak. Jermasek isn’t the biggest fan of the traditional top sirloin; he says there are too many different cuts in the one steak, causing it to cook unevenly. He likes to break down the sirloin into its different parts, including what’s known as the “top sirloin cap” (also called the picanha in Brazil and culotte in France). Ask your butcher for a “top sirloin cap” the next time you want to cook a delicious steak at home.
Where it is on the cow: The lower back/upper butt area
Fat content/marbling: Lean, but very tender. Top sirloin has a really nice fat cap on the top, which makes up for the lack of fat within the muscle.
How to cook it:
- To cook the top sirloin cap: Sear for 4 to 5 minutes on each side, until it gets good color. Be sure to render some of the fat on top (the fat cap) by placing it face-down in the pan. What you’re looking for is a nice brown caramelized fat. Cut the steak horizontally so you end up with a small piece of the fat on every part. Alternatively, skewer and grill the top sirloin cap like they do in Brazil.
- To cook a traditional top-sirloin steak: Cook a couple of minutes on each side, then finish it off in the oven.
What to look for when buying: You want it to be a dark-red color, and to have a beautiful and thick fat cap
Average cost per pound: $19-$20
What is it: Tri-tip became an iconic Central-Californian cut in the late ’50s when a guy in Santa Maria started dry-rubbing it, cooking it over a wood fire, and then slicing it thin and making sandwiches. Tri-tip is sometimes called “Newport Steak” on the East Coast.
Where it is on the cow: This triangle-shaped muscle comes from the bottom sirloin
Fat content/marbling: Lean cut, little marbling
How to cook it: Dry rub it, then sear on both sides over a high flame. You want to almost burn the outside of the meat, and then let it rest on the cooler part of your grill (or upper rack of your grill) for another 10 to 15 minutes. Bring it up to medium or medium-rare, whichever you like.
What to look for when buying: Bright red with a small amount of fat running through the meat
Average cost per pound: $15-$20 (depends on what part of the country you’re in)
What is it: Short ribs are fatty and relatively tough, so you need to cook them for a long time to make sure they’re tender. When braising, you should ask for bone-in short ribs; tons of flavor will be leached out of the bone as it braises. Short rib is also excellent in burger blends.
Where it is on the cow: Short rib comes from a larger primal cut called the “short plate”; it’s the large pieces of rib that extend down from the ribeye.
Fat content/marbling: One of the fattier parts of the animal (some areas of the short rib can be 50/50 fat-to-lean meat)
What to look for when buying: Bone-in for braising, fat running throughout
Average cost per pound: $11-$14 per pound for bone-in
What is it: Flank steak looks like a big paddle or balloon-shaped piece of meat; it has a really long grain to it and is good for quick-searing.
Where it is on the cow: Underbelly
Fat content/marbling: Lean with mild flavor
How to cook it: Flank is a good cut to marinate and sear super fast. When you slice it against the grain, it has a really nice texture because you’ve cut all the connective tissue. Flank is the typical cut used for carne asada.
What to look for when buying: Make sure that your butcher isn’t giving you the top-half of the flank that has the silver skin on it. “Any butcher that has self respect will take it off for you,” says Jermasek.
Average cost per pound: $19-$20 per pound
What is it: The round is a massive piece of meat. It’s made up of the top round, bottom round, eye round, and a muscle called the sirloin tip. All of these different muscles have different uses. Many of them make good roast beef—specifically, the sirloin tip and bottom round. London broil is typically made with top round.
Where it is on the cow: The hind leg
Fat content/marbling: Minimal fat and marbling
How to cook it: Make roast beef with the sirloin tip and bottom round; make London broil with the top round. (Recently, at the opening of Belcampo Meat Co.’s Santa Monica location, Jermasek cooked a whole round and set it ablaze.)
Average cost per pound: $6-$9
Tenderloin (chateaubriand, filet mignon)
What is it: The tenderloin is one of the least-worked muscles on the animal, which is why it’s so tender. Chateaubriand is the thicker butt-end of the tenderloin, and the center-cut portion is what everyone knows as filet mignon. People gravitate towards the filet because it’s like the “boneless, skinless chicken breast of the cow,” says Jermasek.
Where it is on the cow: The muscle that sits right up above the spinal cord, at the lower back area.
Fat content/marbling: Low in fat, very tender
How to cook it: If you’re cooking chateaubriand, slow roast it rather than searing it hard and roasting it fast. Jermasek likes to crust the chateaubriand with black pepper, thyme, and shallots, and wrap the whole piece in “caul fat” (beautiful web-like pork fat). He then slow roasts the chateaubriand, and cranks the heat up at the end to give the meat nice color. What you’ll have is a “buttery, melt-in-your-mouth filet thanks to the pork fat.” For a filet or filet mignon, don’t mess with it to much: sear it on both sides, put some salt on it, and let it rest a few minutes.
What to look for when buying: When buying chateaubriand, make sure it’s not too small. Jermasek thinks fattier, more marbled filets are superior; when they’re too lean, filets can taste mealy and gritty.
Average cost per pound: Grass-fed filet will be around $40 per pound
What is it: Although osso buco has been known throughout history as a peasant cut, “it’s the best” according to Jermasek. You need to braise osso buco for a long period of time, because there’s inner-muscular sinew and a marrow bone in the middle of the cut. When the sinew and marrow renders, it melts into the meat, adding a level of richness that you don’t get with most roasts or braising cuts.
Where it is on the cow: The shank, or leg
Fat content/marbling: Sinew running throughout
How to cook it: When you braise osso buco for a long time (at least 4 hours), the inner-muscular sinew becomes gelatinous and delicious. If you’re cooking veal osso buco, you can braise it in white wine and garlic; for beef osso buco, use red wine and beef stock.
What to look for when buying: You want to make sure the bone looks nice and fresh. Veal osso buco should have a rosy, pinkish hue; beef osso buco should be bright red.
Average cost per pound: $10
Now that you’re a pro, it’s time for some next-level cuts: Here’s part two of First We Feast’s Guide to Meat Cuts, focusing on lesser-known—but equally delicious—cuts like banana heel, Denver steak, and bavette.