Beef Cuts Explained: Different Cuts of Beef Every Professional Cook Should Know

Up your cooking game with this guide to understanding how beef cuts are created and categorized!

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May 14, 2024 16 min read

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When you’re navigating the meat department, searching for that perfect cut of beef, the variety of options can be bewildering. Prime rib, New York strip, flank, rib roast – the list goes on. Before you know it, choice paralysis sets in, and you can’t decide which cut is the right one to purchase.

Choosing the right cut can make a world of difference in your dish’s texture, flavor, and success. But how are you supposed to know which cut is right?

If you’ve ever felt lost amid the sea of beef labels, you’re not alone. This guide may help you demystify the process and confidently choose the right cuts of beef for your recipes. Let’s dive in!

Understanding the Different Cuts of Beef

Beef cuts are divided into primal, subprimal, and secondary, but that’s not a designation of quality. Primal cuts are the largest cuts from a cow, which are divided up into smaller subprimal cuts. Then, subprimal cuts are divided further into secondary cuts.

It might help to think of beef cuts like a book: the primal cuts are like chapters—they’re the largest division of the book and comprise smaller sections of text. Subprimal cuts are like pages, and secondary cuts are passages or paragraphs.

The meat from each cut has different characteristics that make a difference in how to cook it and how delicious it can turn out. Two of the most important aspects of any cut are:

Marbling: Marbling is the term for an intramuscular fat that breaks down when cooked to coat the cut’s muscle fibers. It’s the fatty tissue that makes a well-marbled cut look like a slab of marble. It also creates a finer texture and a deeper flavor in the final product. You’ll find marbling in many finer cuts of steak, though natural tenderness determines the quality of some of the priciest steak.

Toughness and tenderness: While some people may think of tenderness as a result of cooking, the choice of cut itself has a lot to do with it. A muscle that gets less use in a cow’s lifetime will be more tender than one that was worked hard. Tender cuts like those from the rib or loin primal are typically more expensive and require less intense cooking methods to make them tasty — a good pan sear can do the trick. Tougher cuts from the shank or round may be better suited for stews and other methods that give the meat more time to break down.

Let’s take a quick look at each of these beef cut categories, after which we’ll break down how what you get at a restaurant or grocery relates to them:

Primal Beef Cuts Diagram

A diagram of a cow divided into eight primal cuts of beef.

Primal Cuts of Beef

There are eight primal beef cuts, which are the largest cuts and are based on where the meat is cut from the cow. However, some would argue the loin primal to be two separate cuts: the sirloin and short loin, as shown in the diagram above. That would make nine cuts, but we’ll discuss the two loin cuts as one here.

Subprimal Cuts of Beef

The subprimal cuts are based on the muscle structure and fat content of the primal cuts. While these sections are smaller cuts of beef, they are still larger than the beef you’ll typically find at the grocery store.

There are different amounts of subprimal cuts from each primal. For example, there are multiple subprimal cuts of primal cuts like loin and chuck but no subprimal cuts of beef flank.

Secondary Cuts of Beef

When you think of meat from the grocery store or meat counter, you’re likely thinking of secondary cuts. These are the cuts that result from individually cutting and portioning subprimal cuts of beef.

Understanding the difference between beef cuts and their unique characteristics can empower you to create dishes highlighting the unique flavors and textures of each one.

Understanding USDA Beef Grades

Along with the primal cuts, you may also find beef cuts broken down by USDA grades.
 

USDA Grade Marbling Flavor Tenderness Juiciness Price Availability
Prime Most Abundant Richest Most Tender Juiciest Highest Limited
Choice Moderate Very Good Very Tender Very Juicy Moderate Widely Available
Select Least Good Moderately Tender Moderately Juicy Lowest Widely Available

The Eight Primal Cuts of Beef Broken Down

Understanding the eight primal cuts of beef and the subprimal and secondary cuts they comprise is the first step toward an informed purchase. Again, primal cuts aren’t better than subprimal or secondary. They’re just bigger, and they’re made up of the cuts we might recognize in the grocery store. There are diverse options, from lean cuts ideal for slow cooking to well-marbled cuts that deliver tender beef dishes, all from a single cow.

1. Chuck

The chuck cut is located around the shoulder of the cow. Because it’s a muscle that is worked often, it’s known as a tougher cut of beef. However, it has a rich, beefy flavor and lends itself well to braising and stewing. During braising, meat is seared at a high temperature to help lock in the flavor. Then, it simmers in a covered pot with flavorful liquids such as wine or broth. The stewing process is similar to braising but skips the searing process and is generally used for small pieces of beef, such as stew meat. These cooking methods help break down the connective tissue in the meat, resulting in tender, melt-in-your-mouth beef.

Due to chuck being a tougher cut, it is a budget-friendly option and can easily be used to feed a crowd.

Subprimal Cuts: Chuck tender, chuck rolls, square-cut chuck, and shoulder clod.

Popular Secondary Cuts: Chuck tender roast, flat iron steak, shoulder tender medallions, cross-rib roast, and ground chuck (having undergone an additional tenderizing technique).

Popular Restaurant Dishes: Pot roast, braised beef short ribs, carne asada (uses thin-sliced chuck).

2. Rib

Cut from the back of the cow, the rib primal is a favorite among beef lovers. There is rich marbling throughout that results in tender meat packed full of beef flavor when cooked. With so much natural flavor, cuts from the rib are typically cooked with light seasoning to allow the natural flavor to shine and are well suited for dry cooking methods such as grilling or roasting.

The high marbling content and tenderness make rib cuts one of the more expensive cuts of beef.

Subprimal Cuts: Rib primal, short ribs.

Popular Secondary Cuts: Ribeye steak, rib roast, and boneless rib eye roast.

Popular Restaurant Dishes: Grilled ribeye steak, prime rib roast.

3. Loin

The loin primal is the most tender cut of beef. It’s located behind the rib cut and is known for its minimal connective tissue, resulting in melt-in-your-mouth beef dishes. Due to the natural tenderness of the meat, it’s best cooked with high-heat cooking methods to sear the exterior, locking in the juices and flavor. As seen in the diagram above, it’s sometimes subdivided into the short loin and sirloin.

The loin is considered a premium cut of beef which comes with a premium price, making it the most expensive beef cut.

Subprimal Cuts: Short loin, sirloin.

Popular Secondary Cuts: New York strip steak, filet mignon, porterhouse steak, T-bone steak, sirloin steak.

Popular Restaurant Dishes: Grilled steaks (New York strip, filet mignon, porterhouse, T-bone), beef Wellington (uses filet mignon).

4. Round

Located in the hind of the cow, the round primal comes from exercised muscle with a lack of marbling. It can be a drier cut of beef when not cooked properly; however, it does well with slow-cooking methods that break down the connective tissue while pulling out the rich flavor, like braising and stewing.

The round primal is a large cut that provides a good amount of meat for butchering. Because it is a leaner cut with less marbling, the round is a budget-friendly beef option.

Subprimal Cuts: Round, knuckle.

Popular Secondary Cuts: Rump roast, eye of round roast, flank steak, London broil.

Popular Restaurant Dishes: Sliced roast beef sandwiches, carne asada (sometimes uses round), stir-fries (using thinly sliced cuts).

5. Flank

Flank is a flat, long cut from the cow’s abdominal muscles. Due to continuous muscle use, it has a visible grain running throughout the cut. Flank is a lean cut of meat that boasts a robust beefy flavor. To help the cut achieve maximum tenderness, try marinating the meat and cooking it with high-heat methods such as pan-searing or grilling.

Flank is one of the mid-range cuts of beef, but it offers delicious options for stretching your budget. For example, you can turn it into fajitas by cooking and serving it with peppers and onions to help the meat go further.

Subprimal Cuts: Flank steak.

Popular Secondary Cuts: Flank steak.

Popular Restaurant Dishes: Marinated grilled flank steak, fajitas.

Chef wearing black gloves cutting steak for beef fajitas on white cutting board

Flank steak lends itself well to marinades and dishes like fajitas.

6. Short Plate

Short plate is a fatty cut full of flavor and rich collagen content that’s located behind the brisket. It benefits from the braising process that breaks down the collagen through slow simmering and the help of flavorful liquids like broth or wine. Due to its fat content, short plate is not often served on its own, but it can be used to make ground beef to bring a strong beefy flavor to dishes like meatloaf and burgers.

The high-fat content in short plate places it as a mid-range price point for beef cuts.

Subprimal Cuts: Short plate.

Popular Secondary Cuts: Short ribs, skirt steak, hanger steak.

Popular Restaurant Dishes: Braised short ribs, Korean BBQ (which uses short ribs), and fajitas.

7. Shank

Shank comes from the leg of the cow. It’s a tough beef cut due to the tendons and connective tissue in the leg, but it boasts a high collagen content and beefy flavor. It requires a long cooking time to render out the fat and break down the collagen, resulting in a tender and fall-off-the-bone dish. While braising is one of the most popular cooking methods, pressure cooking can offer similar results with reduced cooking time if you’re in a hurry.

Shank comes in at the mid-range price point for beef cuts but offers good value for the money with its rich beefy flavor and versatility.

Subprimal Cuts: Shank.

Popular Secondary Cuts: Beef shank.

Popular Restaurant Dishes: Osso buco (Italian braised shank dish).

8. Brisket

Brisket is a fatty cut from the lower chest area of the cow. It has significant marbling and a robust beefy flavor. Brisket does not fare well with quick cooking methods, such as searing, but excels with low and slow cooking, such as smoking. Smoking is a technique used to flavor and cook meat through exposure to smoke from burning wood such as hickory, pecan, oak, or a combination of wood types. The meat cooks slowly, between 200-225°F, to break down the connective tissue. When cooked properly, brisket results in flavorful, tender meat.

The rich beef flavor and marbling make brisket a more expensive cut of beef.

Subprimal Cuts: Brisket flat, brisket point.

Popular Secondary Cuts: Brisket.

Popular Restaurant Dishes: Smoked brisket, pastrami (uses brisket flat).

Primal Beef Cuts Cost Range

  • Most Affordable: Round, Chuck
  • Mid-Range: Flank, Plate, Shank
  • More Expensive: Brisket, Rib
  • Most Expensive: Loin
Chef prepping a cut of beef brisket by trimming fat from the meat.

Brisket packs a big beefy flavor and is a barbecue favorite.

Popular Beef Cuts Used in Restaurant Dishes

Have you ever tried to recreate your favorite beef entree from a restaurant? One key to capturing the taste and texture is knowing what cut of beef to use from the start. The following beef cuts are the backbone of many favorite menu items. Understanding the differences and characteristics of each cut can equip you to create crowd-pleasing beef dishes from home.

Ribeye Steak

Ribeye steak is a restaurant favorite for its bold beef flavor. It’s cut from the rib primal, and the rich marbling throughout the cut bastes the beef while it cooks, delivering a succulent piece of meat.

Ribeye Steak shows up on restaurant menus under multiple names. Bone-In Ribeye or Cowboy Ribeye is where the steak is served on the bone, adding to the flavor and presentation. A Tomahawk Ribeye features a long, frenched rib bone that represents a tomahawk ax. The French Cut Ribeye is not as popular of a term used but indicates a leaner steak presentation due to trimming of some excess fat.

Ribeye is great for pan-searing or grilling.

Marbling ribeye steak on slate board with salt and rosemary

Ribeye steak is a favorite in many restaurants.

New York Strip Steak

New York Strip steak is popular on restaurant menus. However, depending on the location of the restaurant, you may find it on the menu as Kansas City Steak. The strip steak, which derives from the loin primal, gained popularity in New York but actually originated in Kansas City.

With less marbling than the ribeye, it can be a slightly chewier cut of meat enjoyed by those looking for a steak with a well-balanced flavor but more bite and character.

Filet Mignon

Filet Mignon is a luxury cut served in fine-dining restaurants. It’s cut from the loin, a minimally exercised muscle, meaning it’s an incredibly tender cut of beef that melts in your mouth.

The cut is typically two inches thick and served with minimal accompaniments to highlight the delicate flavor of the meat.

Raw filet mignon resting on a cutting board surrounded by sprigs of rosemary and garlic cloves.

The tenderness of filet mignon makes it a luxurious fine-dining favorite.

Porterhouse/T-Bone Steak

Porterhouse steak is a crowd-pleaser popular with steak lovers due to its flavor combination. The steak is cut from the loin and has a bone in the center, filet mignon on one side, and strip steak on the other. The T-Bone Steak is the smaller version of the Porterhouse cut. In fact, for a steak to be labeled Porterhouse, the USDA requires that it be cut to at least 1.25 inches thick.

Flank Steak

Flank steak is a versatile workhorse when it comes to beef cuts. It has a strong beefy flavor and benefits from marinades that help tenderize the muscle fibers prior to cooking. It’s a popular cut used in fajitas, stir-fries, and cheesesteaks.

Sliced cuts of beef fanned on a platter with sauteed slices of onion and green and red peppers.

Flank steak is popular for dishes like steak fajitas.

Choosing the Right Cut of Beef

Learning about the different beef cuts and their strengths and weaknesses is the first step to creating mouth-watering beef dishes, but you may still feel overwhelmed at the store. As you hunt the meat shelves for the perfect cut for your next dinner, keep these questions in mind:

  1. How are you cooking the beef? Remember that different cuts cook best with different cooking methods. Consider what type of cut will be a good fit for your recipe for the best results.
  2. What texture and flavor profile do you want? Are you looking for a strong flavor? Or are you less concerned about flavor and more concerned about getting that melt-in-your-mouth tenderness? Consider the recipe you’re making and the texture and flavor you want from the beef.
  3. How much do you want to spend? You’re going to pay premium prices for prime cuts with less availability. If you’re creating a dish for a restaurant, it’s essential to stay within the recipe’s budget to leave room for a profit on the dish. If you’re cooking for a crowd at home, you may want to consider what beef cuts are most affordable while still creating the dish you want.

As you continue developing your culinary skills, try working with different beef cuts and cooking methods. For example, you can try your hand at dry brining or reverse searing, where you cook the meat low and slow first and then sear it at the end, creating a beautiful crust. Invest in a good meat thermometer to ensure your beef reaches the perfect internal temperature necessary for optimal doneness and safety. And if you have additional questions when choosing the right cut of meat, ask your local butcher for advice.

Of course, cut selection can involve some different variables when you’re talking about creating a restaurant menu. As Escoffier Culinary Arts Chef Instructor Luke Shaffer puts it, “When selecting cuts in a restaurant setting, chefs often think about grade, price, and preparation all in conjunction with each other.”

“If I’m making a braised dish, or something heavily sauced or spiced, I’m more likely to choose a Choice grade beef since the nuance of marbling is not the focus in those processes, and that dish is likely to garner a lower price on the menu. Conversely, if I’m really featuring the beef in a pure form – steak tartare, carpaccio, or simply grilled – I would go for the Prime grade where that marbling will be highlighted, and the menu price can make up that higher cost on my end.”*
Luke Shaffer
Luke Shaffer
Escoffier Culinary Arts Chef Instructor

Continuing to Build Your Knowledge and Skills

No more feeling lost in the meat department! With a clear understanding of each beef cut’s differences in texture and flavor, you can confidently tackle beef dishes. Craving a melt-in-your-mouth steak to throw on the grill? You’ve got it. Looking for an affordable cut to feed a crowd? No problem. The possibilities are endless.

Interested in continuing your culinary exploration? Culinary school may be the right option for you. Escoffier’s culinary arts programs can introduce you to topics like culinary foundations, purchasing and cost control, and menu design and management. Contact us today to learn more about how culinary school can help you on your career journey.

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