Where does beef come from? Part 4 - An anatomical context
Knowing your way around cuts of beef can be useful when cooking, and can help guide you in achieving the flavor you enjoy.
The last step in understanding where beef comes from is perhaps the most closely related to consumers: the selection of cuts of meat and their location within the cattle. Factors ranging from the anatomical area within the animal and the way the meat is cut can affect flavor, change the best method in which to cook and even make certain pieces more likely to become tough.
As a general rule, the more defined muscle a piece of meat has, the more prone to toughness it will be. Choosing the area from which the cut of meat comes from can be as important as choosing beef or chicken. For example, if cut from a well-used part of the cattle is chosen like skirt steak, which is found along the belly of the animal, any cooking past a medium rare or medium temperature could make the meat tougher. Additionally, the longer any cut of meat is cooked, the more moisture or “juice” it releases, leaving it tougher as it loses liquid.
The cheapest cuts of beef are often from the most-used parts of cattle because there are simply more muscles in use than not, making this cheap beef more abundant and somewhat tougher in nature. However, as many butchers will agree, these cuts can offer more flavor than their expensive counterparts. Many of the cheapest cuts can be found along the bottom side of the animal, starting from front legs to back: the fore shank, brisket, shin, short plate, flank steak and round roast. Though the round roast may be mildly more expensive, it is one of the cheapest roasts that can be bought. The next cheapest is most likely a chuck roast, which comes from the front shoulder of the cattle. These cuts of meat are usually recommended to be slow-roasted to bring out tenderness or made into a pot roast or dish with other ingredients besides beef. In fact, some even recommend cheaper cuts as the slow cooking process draws out juices which may readily come out of a more tender variety of meat, causing the meat to become tough and dry.
More expensive pieces of meat are typically juicy and tender but require a bit more flavor to be imparted by the chef. If you are looking to make an occasion special or just to try some high-quality cuts of beef, prime rib is one option to consider. This roast, starting at around $10 to $12 a pound, has long held a reputation as one of the swankier meat cuts, but why? Many factors go into making a prime rib roast, among them are: the trim, the grade, the marbling and positioning of the cut. All beef that is sold in the US must be approved by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and a prime cut of meat is described as having “amazing tenderness, juiciness, flavor and fine texture,” according to the USDA. This means its fat is evenly distributed throughout the cut of meat, making it more flavorful and it’s more moist and tender than most cuts of beef. In today’s butcher shop however, “prime rib” is a term thrown around quite loosely. A true “prime rib” not only needs to be of good quality, but also must be a roast cut from the sixth to the twelfth ribs of the cattle.
Two other cuts that are more expensive in nature are the tenderloin and part of the tenderloin called the filet mignon. These cuts are prized for their tenderness and, since only two loins are found in each animal, they are one of the more rare cuts. The tenderloins are narrow strips found starting at the beginning of the round roast or hindquarters and going through the sirloin and short loin portions of the animal. A filet mignon is simply the most succulent end of the tenderloin. Filet mignons cost about $8 a pound, while tenderloins are about $10 a pound.
While plain sirloin steak is the most popular form of steak consumed by Americans, lesser known cuts of beef also have their place in the market, and can provide consumers with unique taste options or tenderness where it is least expected. One in particular lesser-known variety is the Hanger steak. Named for the way it “hangs,” between the stomach and diaphragm close to the kidney, the hanger steak is noted for its desirable, gamey flavor. Hovering at around $2 a pound, the hanger steak is thought to be great on the grill, especially when marinated. Another unique cut is the Tri-Tip steak. Usually starting at about $5 a pound and increasing from there, this unique option is not as frugal as the Hanger steak. This cut is part of the sirloin, found between the midsection and round or hindquarters of the cattle. It is tender because of its origin in the sirloin, but its position as bottom sirloin, where it helps the animal to operate its legs, allows nice flavor to develop not usually given to more tender pieces of meat. The quality of this meat is clear when the main recommendation is simply to sear the outsides with an oil and herb mixture and enjoy plain!
According to an article by the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, Americans consumed 61 pounds of beef in 2009. Though consumption has plateaued in recent years, the numbers indicate that beef, while not native to the Americas, still is and will remain a large part of the American diet. Whether it is knowing exactly which farm and field your beef comes from, or just knowing where the cut you prefer is found within the animal, the Michigan State University Extension promotes beef education to advance the public welfare and knowledge.
Other articles in this series:
- Part 1 - A geographic perspective
- Part 2 - A vernacular lesson
- Part 3 - A lesson in beef cattle breeds