Without becoming too technical with words most people couldn’t remember yet alone spell, cuts of beef are divided into primal cuts (basic sections) and subdivisions within those sections. It is important to note that some countries interpret cuts of beef uniquely different. For purposes of this article, it only focuses on American Primal Cuts of Beef and its subdivisions.
Forequarter Primal Cuts
Chuck Section. The chuck section includes Chuck Roasts and Chuck Steaks. Trimmings from the chuck area become ground hamburger. Chuck roasts become ground beef. Yes, there is a difference between hamburger and ground meat. Meat from the chuck subsection is considered non-tender cuts of meat.
Rib Section. The rib section includes Ribeye Steaks, Rib Chops (bone-in), Prime Rib Roasts (no bone), Standing Prime Rib Roasts (with bone), Short Ribs and Back Ribs. Meat from the rib section are tender cuts of beef.
Brisket. Brisket is primarily used as barbecue, Pastrami and Corned Beef. They are generally too tough for quick grilling or broiling. They can however be very tender and very tasty when slow-cooked for long periods.
Plate. Meat from the plate produces Short Ribs, Pot Roast, and Skirt Steak which most Mexican restaurants use for Fajitas. Remainders of meat from the plate are typically ground as hamburger meat. Cuts from the plate section are cheap, tough and usually very fatty.
Shank. Meat from the shank is primarily used as stew meat which require long boiling time to become tender. Meat from the shank are the toughest of beef cuts.
Hindquarter Primal Cuts
Short Loin. The short loin produces premium cuts of steak including T-Bone, Porterhouse, and New York Strip Steaks. These are considered moderately tender steaks although the T-Bone and Porterhouse steaks do include a piece of tenderloin filet which is the most tender of beef.
Tenderloin. The Tenderloin is the most tender of steaks and roasts, yet have little fat marbling. Thus, it is the most expensive cut of beef. It can be cut into steaks called Tenderloin Filets and Filet Mignon Steaks. It is an oblong shape with a thick end that gradually narrows to thin. It is the thinnest pointed end that is the true Mignon portion. Long portions of the tenderloin can become tenderloin roasts. Beef Wellington is an example.
Sirloin. Not to be confused with the short loin. It is less tender than the short loin but many consider it more flavorful.
Top Sirloin and Bottom Sirloin. Not nearly as tender as the sirloin. This subprimal cut includes the Tri-Tip Steak and Tri-Tip Roast.
Round. The round is very lean with very little fat marbling. Cuts include Round Steak, Eye of Round, Top Round and Bottom Round steaks and roasts. This beef is tough and usually must be wet-cooked or very slow-roasted versus quick grilling.
Flank. The flank produces Flat Flank Steak best known as London Broil. It also produces the inside Skirt Steak which is the typical fajita meat. Meat from the Flank are considered tough.
Quality of Beef
The above are standard descriptions of location of beef harvesting. Quality of meat is based primarily on two factors: USDA Grade and Location of the Cut. Enjoyment is all about taste and tenderness. Although eating enjoyment can be uniquely subjective, generally the more enjoyable, the higher the cost.
The USDA grades beef on the amount of fat marbling distributed within the lean portion and the age of cattle. The more marbling and younger the beef, the higher the grade. The best grades in order of quality are USDA Prime, USDA Choice and USDA Select. The higher the grade, generally the more tender and flavorful the meat will be regardless of the cut. Tenderness is effected by location of a particular cut of beef. A cut of beef whether it is a steak or roast is a muscle. Degree of tenderness is determined by the amount of exercise the muscle gets while the cattle is alive. Muscles located farthest from the neck, legs and rear will be more tender. The younger the beef, the more tender the meat will be.