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January 30, 2015

Cuts of beef, from hook to horn

You, my loyal readership, have spoken: this week’s Fact Primer is all about the various cuts of beef that can be procured from a cow.

Butchers in different countries use different terminology. Here, we’ll be discussing the primal cuts of beef as they’re defined in the United States.

Please don’t blame me if you crave a hamburger, a fajita, or even some filet mignon by the time you finish reading this post.

Primal beef cuts

Primal refers to the first, largest cuts from a carcass. It shouldn’t be confused with prime, a designation of quality granted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In that vein, the USDA gives out eight grades based on (1) the meat’s quality and (2) the amount of marbling (fat separating lean meat). The three highest are:

Prime – from young cattle; usually only available in restaurants
Choice – tender; most cuts can be cooked with dry heat
Select – leaner meat; should be braised or marinated

How to remember this? Well, you know the cell phone company MetroPCS? For high-quality service, cows use Moo-troPCS. (I’ll be here all week.)

The remaining grades are, in descending order: Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter, and Canner.

Hoof & horn

A cow’s neck and leg muscles do most of the work, so they are typically the toughest cuts of meat. As such, the farther a cut is from hoof & horn, the more tender it will likely be.

Here’s a video of a cow doing more legwork than usual.

And how do we obtain those cuts? A butcher will divide the carcass into quarters: straight down from front to back, and near the middle laterally.


Primal beef cuts shanks

Those of you familiar with English monarchs (which should be at the top of your list if you’re going to be on the show) will recall that Edward I was known as Longshanks because he was unusually tall.

Shanks can be found at the top of both pairs of legs. Because they are close to hoof, the meat is tough, and is typically used for stews.


Primal beef cuts forequarters


One of the cheapest cuts, chuck is used in flat-iron steak and pot roast. Its steak is sometimes known as 7-bone steak as the shoulder bone looks like the numeral 7 when cut across.

Its balance of meat and fat makes it great for ground beef.

Mnemonic: “Pull over to the shoulder! I gotta upchuck!”


There are three secondary cuts using the ribs.

Short rib

Known as Jacob’s Ladder in Britain, consists of bone, muscles, and tendon, with some fat on one end. Has 3-4 ribs. Also comes from the plate primal cut (see below).

Prime rib

Usually slow roasted with salt & pepper, it contains up to 7 ribs. A popular Friday- or Saturday-night special.


The choicest part of the center of the prime rib (think of a hurricane’s eye), usually served without a bone. Called entrecôte in French, and sometimes ascribed to the restaurant Delmonico’s in New York. Often used in cheesesteaks.


From the Old Norse brjósk (cartilage), the brisket covers the breastplate.

Many people prefer to slow roast brisket using a spice rub; it’s also used for corned beef and pastrami.

Mnemonic: brisket and breast both start with br.


In addition to containing some short ribs (see above), the plate is the source of skirt steak – a fatty cut of the diaphragm.

Meat from the plate is typically used in stir fry and fajitas.

Mnemonic: after the baserunner skirted the tag at the plate, he let out a huge roar (using, one assumes, his diaphragm).


Primal beef cuts hindquarters



The flank, basically the animal’s underbelly, is tough to cook perfectly, particularly if the girth is uneven. The meat is especially lean.

Preparations from the flank include London broil and carne asada.

Mnemonic: the British [London broil] outflanked the Spanish Armada, whose sailors were lean from carne asada.

(Yes, I know carne asada is a Latin American approach, but a rhyme’s a rhyme.)


Tough and lean with minimal marbling, round is often preferred by minimal meat-eaters.

It can be braised or slow-roasted; it’s also the source of beef jerky.

Mnemonic: Stop looking at my round rump, you jerk!


The loins can be divided into three subsections.

Primal beef cuts loins

Short loin

Three popular preparations come from the short loin: porterhouse, T-bone, and strip steak.

Let’s compare the other two with the T-bone. Porterhouse contains more of the tenderloin; it carries (like a porter) more weight. Strip steak is just the larger meat part of the T-bone.

Note: When in doubt for an adjective for a cut, go with short (loin, rib).


Top sirloin is the most coveted section of this cut. It’s found right below the tenderloin and is also known as top butt (tee hee).

Bottom sirloin, often just called sirloin, is cheap. You’ll usually see this served grilled as tri-tip steak.

There’s no evidence to suggest any king knighted his steak, but the name “Sir Loin” was used for a fake rapper on Aqua Teen Hunger Force.


As you might guess, this cut is quite tender, and contains some of the “best” meats, including those used for filet mignon, Chateaubriand, beef Wellington, and carpaccio.

OK, now I really want to grab lunch at Katz’s Delicatessen. (I’ll have what she’s having.)

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