What are the Different Cuts of Beef?
We’ve all been there, wandering the meat section of the grocery store or browsing the offerings at a local butcher shop, trying to figure out what separates one cut of beef from another. You know you like ribeye steaks, but how do they compare to T-bone steaks? What’s the difference between an eye rib roast, a top round roast, and a tri-tip roast? And what in the heck is a shoulder top blade steak flat iron?
The good news is you’re not alone in this maze of meats. There are literally dozens of different beef cuts, and the meat industry hasn’t done the average consumer any favors with marketing jargon that jumbles our understanding even further. But with the help of our BBQ experts, we’re going to walk you through everything you need to know about cuts of beef and where they come from. We’ll start with the basics of beef harvesting, explore the 9 primal cuts of beef and their subprimals, and even dive into preferred cooking methods for specific cuts. No more guessing at the grocery store, and no meandering through the meat section!
How Are Beef Cuts Harvested?
When it comes time to harvest meat from cattle, butchers split a beef carcass in half longways through the backbone before halving it again down the center between the 12th and 13th ribs. This leaves 4 beef quarters — a pair of forequarters and a pair of hindquarters — with a clear view of the animal’s ribeye. This muscle serves as the basis for USDA beef grades, which are determined by professional inspectors using strict specifications. It’s worth noting that many mail-order cuts of meat are selected only from USDA Prime and Top Choice cattle. Regardless of grade, the primal cuts of beef are then harvested from the forequarters and hindquarters.
A word to the wise: despite “Prime” being a USDA beef grade, it has nothing to do with whether meat is “primal” or “subprimal.” Those are simply names for different divisions of cuts. A primal cut can be from USDA Select beef, just as a subprimal cut can be from USDA Prime beef. Remember that grades like “USDA Prime” measure meat quality, while cut divisions like “primal” indicate the hierarchy of individual pieces of meat.
The 9 Primal Cuts of Beef
The individual beef cuts we’re used to buying online or from the store originate from somewhere within the 9 primal cuts of beef. They are:
In the forequarters, you’ll find the chuck, rib, short plate, brisket, and foreshank (or beef shank). The hindquarters, meanwhile, are home to the short loin, sirloin, round, and flank. These major beef cuts are sold wholesale to meat distributors, retail stores, and restaurants, which then trim them to produce specific cuts for sale to consumers; for example, porterhouse steaks are cut from the short loin primal.
As we go through each of these main beef cuts, consider cattle anatomy and how that plays a role in the meat’s composition. The most tender pieces of beef (such as the rib and the tenderloin) are located farthest from the horn and hooves, while tougher cuts are harvested from the shoulder and leg muscles that do most of the work throughout the animal’s lifespan. We’ll start with the forequarter before moving to the hindquarters.
No, it’s not short for “Charles” — the chuck cut includes parts of the neck, shoulder blade, and upper arms. (“Arms” in this case means the 2 front legs; the beef industry is an interesting place.) Because chuck beef is located close to the horns, it’s typically tough and needs to be slow-cooked in stews, pot roasts, or braised dishes to bring out the best of its incredible flavor. This beef section is also the source of ground chuck thanks to its decent fat content. Additionally, its proximity to the rib primal and, more specifically, the muscle that produces ribeyes makes the chuck home to several cuts of steak.
The most popular cuts harvested from beef chuck are 7-bone roasts, flat iron steaks, and Denver steaks. Other cuts might be labeled as such in your local grocery (take a deep breath if you’re reading this aloud): boneless short ribs, shoulder petite tender, shoulder petite tender medallions, boneless shoulder pot roast, boneless shoulder steak, shoulder center ranch steak, boneless chuck eye steak, shoulder top blade steak, shoulder top blade steak flat iron, boneless chuck steak, and ground beef.
As the name suggests, this beef primal is located in the ribs, most notably the top-center section between the 6th and 12th ribs. This meat is highly desirable for its tenderness and fattiness, making ribeye steaks a perfect fit for dry-heat cooking methods like grilling and searing. The beef rib is also where we find beef short ribs and standing rib roasts (aka prime rib) — other wonderful, mouthwatering individual cuts that could stand some slow-cooking in addition to searing.
Beef Short Plate
This cut runs from the lower part of the ribs down to the belly, nestled snugly between the brisket and flank. It’s sometimes called the long plate (again, the beef industry works in mysterious ways) based on where it’s separated from the rib primal; the exact dividing point is somewhat arbitrary. Whether “short” or “long,” the plate contains plenty of cartilage and connective tissue. For this reason, plate cuts like beef short ribs are often braised to dissolve the chewy cartilage into delicious gelatin.
Another notable short-plate product is skirt steak, an extremely flavorful but thin cut taken from cattle diaphragm. It’s thin enough to be grilled over high heat, but you still need to account for all those connective fibers by marinating overnight and slicing the steak against the grain once cooked. Short plate beef is also fairly fatty, so it’s commonly used to make ground beef in addition to the skirt steak and beef short ribs subprimals.
You probably know what a brisket is, but what about the brisket primal? It’s a moderately fatty yet thick and coarse-grained cut from the area around the breastbone; in simplest terms, brisket is cattle’s chest muscle. Like other tough cuts full of muscle fibers, whole briskets should be given the low-and-slow smoking treatment to break them all down and let the natural flavors shine through. Brisket subprimals are obviously the star of the show — you don’t become the namesake of an entire cut for nothing — but it shares a home with corned beef and ground brisket burgers.
The final forequarters primal comes from the front upper portion of the arms (again, “arms” means “front legs” here). Foreshank is essentially cattle thigh, so it should come as no surprise that this cut is extremely tough and full of connective tissues. As with similar sections, all that cartilage makes foreshank beef a great candidate for soups or stews; Chef Tony recommends giving braised foreshank a try in a traditional Italian osso buco. The most notable beef foreshank cut is the shank steak.
Beef Short Loin
Moving to the hindquarters, we can spot the short loin in the center of the back. Short loin’s farthest-from-the-hoof placement means it produces some of the most desirable cuts of beef around, and they can be cooked in virtually any way depending on the cut and its thickness (though high-heat grilling is usually preferred). It’s also a high-yield beef primal, with an average of 11–14 cuts per short loin. We’re talking 6 or 7 T-bone steaks and 2 or 3 porterhouses from the sirloin end alone, assuming a skilled butcher. Other popular short-loin cuts: bone-in or boneless strip steaks (aka New York strips), strip loin, tenderloin, filet mignon, and chateaubriand.
Sirloin steak is a favored cut across the country, but it’s just one of the individual cuts harvested from the sirloin primal. The whole sirloin is an 8-inch strip of meat that begins in the backbone and runs halfway down the stomach. Its common cuts — sirloin steak, boneless top sirloin steak, center-cut steak, and tri-tip steak and roasts — are all tender and juicy, though they range from moderately fatty to surprisingly low in fat content. While all steaks derived from the beef sirloin are ideal for grilling and searing, a tri-tip roast should be cooked low-and-slow like a brisket to account for its thickness and toughness.
This is simply the entire hind leg, sometimes called the “beef round,” which contains mostly steaks and roasts. You know the drill for work-intensive beef cuts like this: roasting and low-and-slow methods are your best bets for cooking down the lean toughness, and marinating is a must if you get the urge to grill a thinner round steak. Beef round includes plenty of smaller cuts that may be sold under any of the following names: bottom round roast, bottom round steak (aka Western griller), eye of round roast, eye of round steak, London broil, round tip roast, round tip steak, sirloin tip center roast, sirloin tip center steak, sirloin tip side steak, and top round roast.
Finally, the beef flank is the area between the short loin and sirloin that covers the cattle’s stomach. This section is lean and flavorful despite having tons of connective tissue — as you know well by now, you’d be wise to braise these cuts, or at least marinate them if they’re destined for the grill. The most common flank products are flank steak and ground beef, a pair of cuts most of us are already quite familiar with.
Whew, that was a lot to take in, huh? We don’t expect you to remember every little detail included in such a beefy article, so we made the chart below for you to use as a reference the next time you plan the week’s meals or find yourself stumped in the meat section.
Beef Primals at a Glance
|Parts of the neck, shoulder blade, and upper front legs
|Tough with decent fat content
|7-bone roast, flat iron steak, Denver steak, boneless short ribs,shoulder petite tender, shoulder petite tender medallions, boneless shoulder pot roast, boneless shoulder steak, shoulder center ranch steak, boneless chuck eye steak, shoulder top blade steak, shoulder top blade steak flat iron, boneless chuck steak, ground beef
|Low-and-slow methods like roasting, braising, stewing, or smoking
|Top and center of the ribs, between the 6th and 12th ribs
|Tender and fatty
|Ribeye steaks, standing rib roast (aka prime rib), beef short ribs
|Dry-heat methods like grilling and searing
|Beef Short Plate
|Lower part of the ribs toward the stomach
|Ample cartilage and connective tissue, with some fat content
|Beef short ribs, skirt steak, hanger steak, ground beef
|Braising for beef ribs, marinating and grilling for skirt steak
|Moderately fatty but thick, coarsely grained, and full of connective tissue
|Brisket, corned beef, ground brisket burgers
|Front upper portion of the front legs
|Extremely tough and full of connective tissue/cartilage
|Slow-cooking methods like stewing or braising; also good in soups
|Beef Short Loin
|Center of the back
|Tender, juicy, and fairly fatty
|T-bone steaks, porterhouse steaks, bone-in strip steaks (aka New York strip), tenderloin, filet mignon, chateaubriand
|Mostly grilled, but can be cooked in any way depending on the cut and its thickness
|Strip from the backbone midway down the stomach
|Mostly tender and juicy, but ranges from moderately fatty to low in fat content
|Sirloin steak, boneless top sirloin steak, center-cut steak, tri-tip steak, tri-tip roast
|High-heat grilling and searing, or roasting depending on thickness
|Entire hind leg
|Tough and muscly without much fat content
|Bottom round roast, bottom round steak (aka Western griller), eye of round roast, eye of round steak, London broil, round tip roast, round tip steak, sirloin tip center roast, sirloin tip center steak, sirloin tip side steak, and top round roast.
|Mostly low-and-slow methods like roasting; must be marinated when grilled
|Stomach covering connected to the short loin and sirloin
|Lean and flavorful, but filled with connective tissue
|Flank steak, ground beef
|Braising, or grilling and broiling after being marinated