The first piece of meat I cooked on my family’s gas grill had a great sear and a rich brown color with streaks of charcoal black. However, once I took my first bite I realized the huge mistake I had made. The steak was rubbery and extremely tough to chew. I had overcooked it. After the defeat, my steaks gradually became more flavourful and tender every time I cooked them. I was driven to learn about different grilling techniques. Yet, the most important thing that helped me improve was learning what makes meat tender or tough, and how to best prepare each cut.
Tender Vs. Tough
Kept simple, meat is primarily made up of a combination of protein and fat. The softer and more tender qualities in meat come from the presence of the fat and the way its distributed as well as the size of the muscle fibers in the meat. The areas of the cow which have the least strain and get the least exercise usually have thin muscle fibers. This leads to very lean meat with very little fat. In the middle of the back (loin) is a prime example. The muscles that are strained and exercised when the cow walks and supports its weight have thicker muscle fibers and tend to have a lot more fat.
Another factor that plays a big part in the tenderness of the meat is the presence of fat and a part of the connective tissue called collagen. Fat appears both in thick layers that form over the protein and within the fibers as marbling. Marbling describes the density and spread of white fat which forms streaks through the protein. When cooking, the marbled fat actually melts which leads to a succulent, flavourful, and much more tender meat. Similarly, collagen turns into gelatin when it’s cooked over a long period of time. This is why the tougher cuts like brisket if roasted or smoked long enough can seemingly melt apart when you pull it.
The Eight Primal Cuts of Beef
Beef is butchered and separated differently around the world, but in the U.S it’s divided into eight primal cuts. When you see beef at the butcher however, it is usually broken down further into smaller pieces like steaks. Knowing which cut of meat you are dealing with can guide you on how to best prepare and cook it to be it’s finest.
Chuck is the largest primal cut, coming from the cow’s shoulder muscles which tend to do a lot of work for the cow when grazing and supporting weight. These muscle fibers are thick and have collagen surrounding them making it a tougher cut of meat. Yet, due to the chuck also containing plenty of fat, when prepared and cooked correctly it can actually become tender. With all that fat comes an abundance of flavor too.
Chuck also has plenty of connective tissue, collagen, so the best way to prepare any chuck cut it by applying gentle heat over a longer period of time. It’s also important to ensure the meat stays moist and doesn’t dry out over this time. This is why chuck goes so well braised, slow-cooked, or sous vide.
Chuck is also an excellent choice for ground beef because of the high-fat content. Also, By breaking it down it shortens the muscle fibers making it less tough and chewy, delivering juicy and flavourful morsels. I’ve made thick beef burger patties from this ground beef many times. Grilling it at a high heat initially to get some color and melting the fat, then lowering the heat while it cooks through and becomes succulent.
The ribs of a cow actually begin in the chuck cut, but, when talking about the rib as a primal cut, it is the ribs six through to 12. The rib is much less hardworking than the chuck, but still has a decent amount of fat. This gives the rib a unique quality of being both flavourful and tender and also explains why the rib is home to several amazing and popular cuts of beef.
One of the most popular cuts of the primal rib is beef short ribs. This is because they become delectably tender when slow-cooked, braised, or smoked over a long period of time. Nothing compares to smoked ribs, and hickory is a dream pairing when looking at the best woods to use for smoking ribs.
Equally as popular is the ribeye steak which tends to have a good amount of fat around the edge, but also marbling throughout. This leads to a succulent and flavorful choice. Particularly true when applying a high heat over a shorter time such as on a charcoal or gas grill between 450°F to 500°F.
Primal loin contains the 13th and last rib of the cow and is one of the areas where the muscles exert the least stress. Therefore, some of the most tender and luxurious meats come from this section and in the U.S butcheries, you will find them cut into steaks.
Starting at the rib end is the strip steak, which you can either get by itself or as part of the T-bone steak. This is accompanied by the tenderloin and separated by the iconic T-shaped bone. The porterhouse steak follows on the sirloin end, which contains both top sirloin and a larger part of the tenderloin.
The tenderloin itself is a section that extends from short loin into the sirloin. This can either be left in as part of the T-bone and the porterhouse, or removed completely as a cut of its own also known as the filet mignon. If the butcher removes the tenderloin, the T-shaped bone is also removed and the remainder of the short loin is referred to as the New York strip steak.
These steaks are naturally tender due to the size of the muscle fibers. Dry-heat cooking such as grilling on your favorite grill will return the best outcome in flavor and texture.
Continuing as a part of the loin primal, the sirloin extends to the hip bone. Although naturally less tender, this cut is more flavourful due to the higher fat content. The Sirloin can be divided into two subprimal cuts:
- Top Sirloin: Usually broken down into sirloin steaks such as a pin-bone steak, these sirloin steaks are ideal for grilling. They have a good tenderness if cooked at a medium-high heat yielding great beef flavor.
- Bottom Sirloin: Tougher than the top sirloin, this cut is either made into ground beef like Chuck, or can be used for smoking or roasting as tri-tip, ball- tip, or sirloin flap.
Located directly under the loin is the primal flank, which is made up of the abdominal muscles. Although flank is lean and quite tough, it is unique in the way that its texture helps it absorb marinades. Marinating will not only help pair the beef flavor, but it will also help prevent the meat from drying out when cooking. When cooking a flank steak it’s best if the meat is thin and grilled quickly at high temperatures. Slicing against the grain will also make it less chewy and more enjoyable. This is because the muscle fibers are cut to be shorter in each piece.
Plate is directly under the primal rib, and depending on where the butcher separates it you can either have short plate or long plate. The plate includes muscles that form part of the diaphragm and is home to beef short ribs, skirt steak, and hanger steak.
Plate short ribs are from ribs six to eight and tend to have a lot more fat and connective tissue than other short ribs. This makes them an ideal choice for braising as cooking at low heat over a longer time turns the cartilage into gelatin. This leaves you with meat that falls off the rib.
Skirt steaks are naturally a thinner piece of meat, which is cut away from the abdominal wall. These steaks have coarse muscle fibers but are quite flavourful. It’s essential to cook or grill these at a high temperature, and similarly with flank should be sliced against the grain when ready to eat.
The hanger steak is like skirt steak. It is a cut that hangs off the diaphragm hence the name and will usually have a good amount of marbling. Meaning, when cooked at a high temperature on a grill the fat will melt and provide a rich beef flavor and make the steak more tender.
Brisket comes from the cow’s chest, directly under the chuck. The muscles within this space support the majority of the cow’s upper body weight. Therefore its naturally tough, and has an abundance of connective tissue and fat running through it. Although it takes a lot of work if prepared and cooked with care this cut can become the hero of a dish. Brisket consists of two mains cuts, brisket flat, and brisket point but it’s not uncommon to prepare it whole.
It’s well known that the brisket is a dream cut for anyone who loves smoking meat. This is due to the brisket being rich in fat, and therefore having enough moisture within to not dry out when cooking over longer times. This breaks down the connective tissue making it a pull-apart masterpiece. Because of these characteristics, it also works extremely well when slow roasted. If you own a smoker and have not tried to already, I would highly recommend preparing one of your own soon. Try using oak wood to smoke brisket as it pairs well and delivers a strong smokiness.
Round as a primal cut consists of the back legs and hindquarters of the cow. As this supports the cow’s back legs, it tends to be a rather tough cut but is also considerably leaner than the chuck, which supports the front legs. Round is almost exclusively prepared as a roast and can be separated into the top round (inside round) or bottom round (outside round). The bottom round is known for the rump roast.
Similar to how you would prepare chuck, if cooking a round cut you would likely do it as a slow roast in order to break it down. But, because round has considerably less collagen than chuck, it simply means it just won’t turn out as tender and succulent as chuck when cooked. In saying this, the round is also a much cheaper cut, and can still be full of beef flavor. It is just crucial to cut it thinly against the grain, and roast it medium to rare to make up for the toughness.
The primal cut shank is from the front and back thighs of the cow. These muscles are constantly in use and also have very little fat so the shank tends to be one of the toughest cuts. The shank is normally braised at a low heat over time in order for the collagen to turn into gelatin. This process is popular with shank as in the dish osso buco, where the shank is served bone-in, cut to expose the tender marrow.
Watch Now: Cuts of Beef Explained
Selecting and Cooking the Best Cuts of Beef
There are a few key things that you can consider before making your decision about which piece of meat to cook. Personal preferences will play a big part, and ultimately you should follow what you love but some tips can be useful as a guide.
The quality of beef can vary depending on the cow, its diet, its age, and how it was raised. In order to make a clear distinction between qualities, the USDA has graded beef into 3 rankings, this is why you might see this when you’re buying steak. The highest quality (Prime) is usually from a younger cow, being more tender and marbled. Choice in the middle grade and Select is the lesser. It’s important to note that the grade doesn’t always necessarily determine the flavor.
Many people believe that cost always determines how nice the meat is when it comes to buying beef. However, price is primarily based on supply and demand, and higher prices would tend to indicate a more popular option to us as the consumers. It seems to be common that most people prefer a leaner cut which is cooked best at high heat for a shorter time giving it a convenience factor too. If you’ve got the time you may be able to prepare an even more delicious and tender piece of meat for less.
Marbling is a way to describe the amount and distribution of fat within a given piece of meat. It’s different from the larger sections of fat that usually appear on the outside of the meat, marbling appears as streaks of white or yellow within it. When browsing for fattier cuts, check the marbling throughout. Marbling is a promising indicator of how juicy, tender, and flavourful the steak can be.
Grass-fed vs. Grain-fed Cattle.
There are a few simple differences between grass-fed, and grain-fed cattle. The easiest way to physically tell is when looking at the color of the fat. A grass-fed cow’s fat tends to be more yellowish, whereas grain-fed cow’s fat tends to a brighter white. It’s also common for the meat of a grass-fed cow to have less marbling and therefore less fat. This means grass-fed will have lower calories, but will also have less marbling to melt when it cooks and could yield less flavor because of this.
Brisket & ribs are the most common and popular beef cuts for smoking. The process of low and slow smoking transforms the collagen and breaks it down, and renders the fat within the meat, so these two cuts work perfectly. You are able to smoke other beef cuts, but generally leaner meats such as the popular steaks won’t cook as well and are more suited for high heat searing and cooking. When smoking, it’s important to understand how fuel types influence flavor, but generally, the best fuel is lump charcoal as it’s the most natural and provides the most traditional barbecue flavor.
This knowledge can always be drawn upon no matter how long your cooking journey goes. When selecting your next piece of beef have a think about how you can cook it best. Think about where it came from on the cow and whether it is a lean or fatty cut. Don’t forget to check the marbling. If you’re wanting to improve, try to cook some of the cuts you don’t usually go for and use what you now know to best cook that piece.