One of the most important things a chef can know is what the different cuts of meat are, where they come from, and what is the history of a particular piece. By educating yourself as to what the cut is, and the grade of the cuts themselves, you can pick a winner every time!
Lets begin by looking at a side of beef first. This will help to visualize where the cuts are coming from. Logically it would go that the less a muscle is used, the more tender the cuts will be. This is because it has lived an easier life than the muscles that get worked out constantly.
There are many names and sub-cuts beyond what i have outlined here, but if you use this as a start, you will have a very good idea what is going on. When it gets tough is if something is mis-named and you are expecting one thing, and get another. When in doubt, ask the person in the butcher shop where a specific cut originated.
So, the Chuck and the Round are pretty straight forward. They are the thighs and shoulders, which obviously mean they get a workout. That being said they are going to be best used in methods that will tenderize them like a long and slow method. Obviously, not something you want to cook as a steak. The Shanks need the slowest and general moist methods of cooking. Braising is the best choice to break down the connective tissues in the pieces.
The Bottom three sections, the Flank, Plate and Brisket are semi-tough and can be used in some of the less tenderizing methods, like grilled or broiled. These cuts are ones that you need to be mindful of the grains when slicing. Slicing the wrong way will cause the slices to be chewy for sure.
Working in to the middle we find the ribs, which don’t have much meat outside of what is usually BBQ’d and/or smoked. The Ribeye is the cut inside the ribs and is typically a very flavorful cut. Prime rib comes from this area too, and a Delmonico is basically a steak from the Prime Rib instead of the roast.
The loin section is where we start to get the tender cuts from. These cuts are generally lightly used, so they contain tender pieces, and also pieces that may not have the same distinct flavors as the other cuts. The Sirloins, top and Sirloin are both in the areas that are somewhat tender, not as much as the Tenderloin, but often have more of the marbling and fat than even adjacent muscles could have. This makes them often more flavorful.
The Tenderloin and Sirloin are the last to discuss because they are often the most sought after, and sometimes even together, as in the case of the T-bone or Porterhouse. Typically the Porterhouse is split with half of the side containing the Filet, and the other half is a Sirloin, so it is really the best of both worlds. The NY Strip is a sirloin, usually trimmed closely, and can even be served with the bone in. The filet on the other hand is a steak cut from the center of the Tenderloin. The Chateaubriand is the skinny half of the Tenderloin turned into a roast.
Knowing where these meats are coming from and how much they are used can really impact the tenderness of a particular cut of steak. Now, lets take a look at the other component of what makes a quality meat and the amount of moisture it will contain.
GRADES OF MEATS
I can go into a long diatribe (haven’t I done that enough?) Anyhow, if you really want the scoop on grading of meats, Wikipedia is a great place to begin your investigation. What I will do is give you a crash course in what matters in selecting great meats. Basically you, as a consumer, will encounter about three grades of beef, and usually the Prime cuts are left for restaurants.
First, we have to understand what makes prime so much better, and that comes down to fat. Yep, fat. In fact, that is where meat gets most of its flavor and the majority of its moisture. The melting of the fat during the cooking brings those things to the party, so it makes for a better quality of meat.
There is a fine line between marbling, which is what we are talking about, and something being fatty. Marbling is when the fat is distributed through the meat, providing flavor to the whole piece. Anyone who enjoys a NY Strip over a Filet will tell you this is part of the reason, as I would. The more you have, the better the grades. If you look at the three steaks in the picture you can see the difference in the amount of fat inside the meat. This is called the marbling, named after the look of the stone it resembles. One would find steaks lower than these grades to be tough and dry as a result.
Now that you know what is what, and where is where, you can have a better idea what you are buying. The good thing is that these cuts apply to pretty much any meats you will buy, like lamb, pork, veal, even game meats. The cuts are always the same.