Kitchen 101: Meat Cuts
I have a confession. Most of my Kitchen 101 posts are for y’all. A large part of my blogging here at Chasing Delicious is to show everyone just how easy and fun it is to cook and bake from scratch (even if some of my more recent recipes have been quite challenging). The Kitchen 101 series is just that, a chance to break down the basics, examine the science behind why and the fun behind how. And I thank y’all for understanding as I got political – as political as food can get at least – and preached the benefits of eating produce in season, supporting local farmers, and the like.
Well, this Kitchen 101 post is for me. Ok, it’s for y’all too of course but it’s mostly for me. You see, I’ve never really understood the different cuts of meat. I’ve bought cuts I’m comfortable with, cuts I’ve cooked before, and never really took my blinders off while at the butcher. Today that changes. I’ve challenged myself lately with all sorts of baked treats I never thought I could manage. And they were delicious.
So let’s just see what some of my favorite animals have to offer. It’s time to put down the mystery ground beef and all too easy beef eye round roast. Let’s try something new together.
I’ve decided to cover the primal and most of the household cuts for beef, pork and lamb. These posters reflect the American butcher system so if you live elsewhere, the names and breakdown of the animals may be a little different – these graphics will still give you a good sense of how best to cook certain cuts and where they come from. . Of course even in America there are numerous names for certain cuts so I’ve tried to pick the most common name for each.
I know this post has nothing to do with desserts or baking but the most important part of any meat dish is the cut you use. No matter the cooking method, seasonings or sides you add, the cut of meat you use will make or break a dish.
Cuts are broken down into primal cuts, subprimal cuts and then retail (also known as portion or fabricated cuts). Primal cuts are the big chunks of an animal (indicated by the butchery drawings) that make up the various sections of an animal. Retail cuts are the roasts or steaks you buy at the store and take home to cook. Subprimal cuts fit in between primal and retail – I don’t talk much about subprimal cuts as they are rarely encountered in every day use (although a few do make their way on the charts).
Knowing both the primal cuts and retail cuts of meat can come in handy for many reasons. Most importantly, knowing both will help you cook meat properly – there are some cuts you never want to cook for a long time while there are others that are nearly inedible if you don’t let it simmer away for half a day. Knowing how lean or fatty a cut is will tell you just how flavorful that cut is as well (fat = flavor). You’ll also learn which cuts have the bone left in, another chance to boost the flavor in the cut or to leave you with a bag of bones at the end of the month to turn into a stock. And lastly you can see which cuts come as a roast, steak or ribs – did you know the tenderloin roast and filet minon steaks are the same piece of meat (indicated as the tenderloin on the chart)? So next time you plan to grill up some filet minon for the family, buy a tenderloin and cut the steaks yourself; you’ll save yourself a little money since your butcher isn’t doing the work.
For determining a cut’s toughness, you can first look at the primal cut. While primal cuts are not always consistent in their tenderness, it is a good place to start. Cuts around the legs of an animal (chuck or round on beef, leg or picnic on pork, and leg, shoulder or shanks on lamb) tend to be tougher. Cuts towards the center of the animal are typically, though not always, much more tender. The biggest reason for this convenient breakdown is that the more often a muscle is used by the animal, the more connective tissue it will have, making it tougher. Muscles around the legs are used constantly while those around the backdown, ribs and organs are used less frequently.
There are exceptions to this rule though, so it’s good to do a little research if you’re looking to try out a new cut.
Knowing how tough or tender a cut is will tell you which cooking method to use. This logic also works backwards (if you know that a particular cut of meat is always cooked a certain way then you can likely discern how naturally tender it is).
Tough cuts of meat require long, slow and often moist cooking methods. The most common method for a tough cut of meat is braising. Stewing works well too if you want to cut the meat up. Cuts that are almost inedibly tough, or cuts that contain a lot of bone, work great in stocks.
Tender cuts of meat benefit from quick cooking methods, usually over a higher heat. Grilling and pan frying will do the trick for steaks and smaller cuts. Roasting works well when a tender cut of meat is large like a roast or rack.
Fat vs. Lean:
While the fat content in a cut can also help determine toughness and cooking method, it is usually a better indicator of flavor. Fat is what gives a cut its flavor. Yes, a filet minon is devilishly tender but a ribeye or NY strip is going to have more flavor. This is why I often ask my butcher to avoid trimming cuts too much. That fat surrounding a piece of meat will add flavor while cooking – ok and if rendered right, it is downright delicious to eat. Is it healthy? No but who cares.
Even if you dont plan to eat the big chunks of fat connected to the cut, leave them on for cooking. They can do a few things including flavor the meat, and keep portions of the cut from overcooking and drying out.
Roast, Steak or Chop, Rib, Etc:
Outside of ground beef, stew meat, and kabob meat, there are three basic retail cuts: the roast, a steak or chop, and ribs. For the sake of keeping these graphics from being pages and pages long, I’ve tried to avoid listing steaks and roasts separately. After all, just about every steak we eat comes from a particular roast.
Stew Meat, Ground Meat, Kabobs, Etc:
You may be wondering why my charts don’t contain any reference to stew meat, ground meat, kabob meat, etc. That is because these application-specific cuts can come from anywhere on the animal. Experiment and try different cuts for yourself. Your butcher will likely have no problem taking any cut of meat and grinding it into ground beef for you. As for stew meat that’s easily done at home.
If you have somehow never seen a cow in your life, you might be unaware of just how big they are. The average cow will produce nearly 500 pounds of retail cuts or enough to feed the average American for two and a half years. And we Americans love our beef. We are the second highest beef consumers in the world and next to poultry, it’s the meat we eat most. Ready for a staggering number? America as a whole consumes nearly 40 million tons of beef a year (that’s 80,000,000,000 pounds – yes that’s 80 billion with a “B”).
It can be easy to go straight for our favorite, tender loin cuts when looking for a good piece of beef but some of the most flavorful cuts are in the round and chuck. These tougher cuts are laden with delicious fat that really gives the cut a hearty, delicious beef flavor.
Up until a couple years ago my favorite cut was the tenderloin – there’s something about a piece of rare meat melting in your mouth that is seductive – but now I find myself exploring the more marbled cuts. I promise you won’t be disappointed trying a cut with a little more marbling. Just make sure you cook it properly.
What attracts me most to beef is the range of doneness you can achieve. I personally order all my beef rare (assuming I know it’s a good cut and where it’s coming from) but you can safely cook beef to any degree of doneness. Just be sure you are getting clean, fresh beef.
Unless of course you’re Jewish, Muslim or health conscious , you probably eat a lot of pork as well. Pork comes in a close second behind beef for the non-poultry meat favorite in this country. In fact did you know 99.9% of the pork eaten in this country is in the form of bacon? Ok. That’s a lie. But it sure does seem that way.
Speaking of bacon, we humans are obsessed with smoking and curing pork. Because of this, I decided to include the most common cured pork products (that can be directly tied to a particular cut) in these posters.
I personally don’t eat a lot of pork. In fact with the exception of the occasional cured slab of pork, few slices of bacon, or lard in my pie crusts, I don’t cook with pork. I used to a lot though. The pork tenderloin is a delicious cut. And who doesn’t love a good ham (ham refers to a cooked or cured leg or shoulder on the pig).
As for cooking pork, the USDA has just dropped the finished temperature 15 degrees but it is still a good idea to cook pork all the way through. Food borne illnesses usually only affect the very young or old, or those with immune deficiencies but it’s never fun being on the wrong side of food poisoning.
Somehow America, the meat-obsessed country, eats little to no lamb at all. I personally don’t understand this as lamb is this foodie’s favorite red meat. If you’ve never had lamb you need to go out and by some lamb loin chops right now. Seriously. Well, first finish reading and then share this post with your friends, and then you can go buy some lamb.
Lamb loin chops and lamb shank are both incredible cuts. Both are very different and need to be prepared accordingly but you wont find a better piece of meat anywhere, on any animal.
Like beef, lamb is ok to leave a bit pink (or if you’re like me, a lot red) in the center. Just make sure you are sourcing fresh, clean lamb.
You may notice that certain retail cuts share similar names – there are lots of eyes, tips, tops, etc. It’s for this reason when ordering a cut from your butcher, you’ll want to make sure you indicate the primal cut as well as the retail cut. So if you want a eye roast from the cow’s hind quarter you’ll want to say something like this: “Beef Round Eye Roast”.
Please support ethical butchers and meat processing companies who encourage, support and practice zero-waste animal rendering. Don’t be afraid to ask the butcher for off cuts, bones, and other parts for making stocks or other dishes that are forgiving with the cuts.
Resting: As for any meat you always want to let it sit and rest for 5 to 10 minute after it is finished cooking. The reason for doing this is that the meat continues to cook after and the juices are still flowing and redistributing. If you carve a cut right away you will loose all the juice and the cut’s flavor and tenderness. Letting it rest gives everything time to settle.
Carving: While it’s not a steadfast rule, a trick to making tougher cuts of meat seem more tender is to slice them very thin. Again, be sure to let the cut rest before carving.
Doneness: While this is one of the trickiest bits of cooking meat to master, there are a few tricks. My favorite is the face test. With your finger, press your cheek, your chin or nose and lastly your forehead. Then press the cooked piece of meat with your finger. If it feels like your cheek, it is likely rare. If it feels like your chin or nose then it is in them medium range. And if it feels like your forehead, it is well done. Yes, you can use a thermometer but the minute you stick it into the meat, you’re going to lose a lot of juices.
Now, take the bull by the horns (yay puns) and buy a cut you’ve never tried before. Try that whole pork leg you’ve been clamoring for, or those lamb shanks you’ve been a little nervous to try, or switch out your favorite filet minon for a good ole ribeye. Go out and grill with confidence, you wonderful foodies you!
Note about this post: The post is meant to be used as a reference. Information about cuts and meats has been researched and collected from numerous sources including but not limited to: National Live Stock and Meat Board, American Angus Association, Cattlemen’s Beef Board and National Cattlemens’s Beef Association, The Texas Beef Council, “Kings of the Carnivores” from The Economist, Food Republic by Matthew Ward, Gourmet Sleuth, Meals for You, Derrick Riches for About.com, Danilo Alfaro for About.com, Lori Alden for The Cook’s Thesaurus, Recipetips.com, Meat and Livestock Australia, Bay Area News Group, Virtual Webber Bullet, Guida Garrubbo, Andrew Grygus of Clove Garden, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall of The River Cottage Meat Book, and The Culinary Institute of America and The Professional Chef, Ninth Edition.
Check out the other Kitchen 101 posts.
Don’t forget to check out the The Sweet Tooth Paper Goods Company where you can buy all these posters as a set or individually. Ten percent of Kitchen 101 poster sale profits will go towards supporting education in the culinary arts.