How to Perfectly Cook Different Cuts of Beef
When I was growing up, my mother often shopped at a place called Service Grocery—which not only delivered, but had a real live butcher with appropriate accoutrement in the back of the store. His actual counter/showcase was rather small—especially by the mega mart standards of today—but I remember he was always dressed in snowy white from head to toe, always dropped everything to talk to my mother and greet the passel of kids that followed her around, and within moments would select, cut and wrap whatever she had asked for. I grew up seeing beef cut from the carcass and trimmed down from larger cuts. I saw first hand where all the different choices came from on the beef itself and heard the discussions about what they were named and the virtues of each one.
The best part of it, though: none of it's really difficult. It all comes down to a balance of flavor vs. texture—and that is dependent on where on the beef the meat is cut. For the most part, you can choose what you wish to cook based on that. As flavor increases, so does the amount of connective tissue. As connective tissue is lost, tenderness is gained.
Going a little further, the types of cuts are often grouped together, which makes it easier to know what you're getting, and therefore which cooking technique will maximize the particular cut you have. You don't want to braise a rib eye steak, and grilling a pot roast would result in shoe leather. So, cast a quick eye at the charts, look back at them if you need to, and let me show the first steps to success. Let's go!
Chuck Eye Roast
Braising or Stewing
Braising and stewing are often used on cuts of beef known as chuck—chuck roasts, chuck steaks, chuck tips, chuck stew meat—about the only thing you wouldn't choose these methods of cooking for is ground chuck, which I'll talk about later. But in a nutshell, if the name contains the word chuck, it'll be a great candidate for this. If the pieces are large, you'll braise. If the pieces are small, you'll stew, but the basic techniques for both are the same.
Chuck cuts come from the shoulder area of the beef. If you look at the beef charts, you'll see one labeled "chuck", the other labeled roasts and "stew meat". These cuts are some of my favorites—they're relatively inexpensive, they're easy to cook, and the flavor is unbelievable. The chuck cuts often result in many of the 'beefier' flavors. You also sometimes have the brisket—rom near the leg—thrown into this category as well. The reason is simple: there is far more collagen and connective tissue in the shoulder area than in other areas of the beef. The muscles have seen more use, and they are not the smooth, uniform shapes and sizes you find in the rib or loin. Take a look at the picture labeled "chuck eye roast" as opposed to the "rib roast"—and you'll see. All that white stuff is not only fat, but connective tissue. That stuff means a lot of flavor.
The tradeoff for flavor though is texture, and that's why you braise or stew. You do have to cook it the right way for the texture to become the butter, fall-apart tender result that you're after. It's Ok though—because it's simple.
Braising (and stewing) is called a combination method for cooking—it involves first searing meat to achieve a crust and develop flavors, then slowly cooking it over a period of time with liquid. In my opinion, it's one of the simplest methods—think crock pot, when you think braising. For these cuts of beef, it's your best secret weapon. My tool of choice is a large Dutch oven with a lid—it's more adaptable than the crock pot and one less pan to wash. To do this, you'll first want to brown off the roast in hot oil, which helps deepen both the color and the flavors. You'll then add some liquid—often containing an acid such as wine, a touch of citrus, beer or vinegar. Either reduce the stovetop to low to maintain the liquid just below the simmer, or pop it in the oven at 250F and walk away for several hours. I also like the oven over a crockpot because low in the oven is lower than low in the crockpot.
If you have smaller pieces—such as many sold as "stew meat"—then the basic method is the same. You still brown the meat on all sides to develop the flavors, then add aromatics or liquids—the order depends on your particular recipe. Long cooking times over low heat again result in tender, spectacular meat with beautifully developed flavors.
It's that simple. There are literally hundreds of variations on the recipes that involves roasts, from the New England Boiled Dinner, to Sauerbraten, to Beef Bourgignon, to a beautifully simple Basic Pot Roast. But those are flavor variations—that involves the choice of aromatics you add to your roast, and perhaps a marinade before hand. The actual technique of cooking is the same for them all. Try one of these recipes: Basic Pot Roast, or Perfect Pot Roast.
Rib eye and filet on the grill
Pan Frying, Grilling, and Broiling
All of these techniques have something in common—the application of high heat for quicker cooking. The cuts of beef used for these can and sometimes are the higher quality steaks—especially for pan frying. See my article on Beef Rib Eye in this application. High-quality cuts are great for this—the amount of connective tissue they contain is relatively tiny, meaning that they don't need long cooking times in order to break that down. They're already tender—what the cook has to do is maximize the flavor in these cuts.
To do that—any of the cuts labeled sirloin, New York, T-bone, rib eye, filet, etc.—you can use a combination of methods. Marinades and rubs work well, although frankly if your cut is very high in quality, it's hard to beat the liberal application of salt and pepper. Ensuring you have a great crust—with a grill, a great skillet or a rocking hot broiler, is your next step, and the last is to not overcook. Check out my article on How to Cut and Grill a Ribeye—I broke a lot of the information down in it, and most of the high-end cuts would be treated in the same manner. And in the video you can see how to sear. The same principle works for the broiler or the grill. Make sure you have lots of heat—that seals these great tender cuts and keeps them juicy and luscious.
When you're looking to employ quick heat with one of these methods you'll also be able to consider some lesser quality meats—most particularly the flank steak, and a little-known cut that's become very popular recently called the flatiron steak. Both of these have intense, fabulous flavor, and actually can be cooked like you would cook higher quality, tender cuts. The trick to these is to make sure you slice them correctly. That sounds simple, but it's all the difference in the world. Most of the time it just means slicing across the narrow end—you'll see instructions that say to slice across the grain, or on the bias. All that means is that you slice the meat so that the muscle fibers are short—you're cutting across them. Look at the picture of the flank steak—you can look at the top of the steak and see how the long fibers run across the length of the steak. You cut the other way.
These cuts are from the underside of the carcass—near to the legs, or the ribs. So the muscles have done more work—they're tougher and have more connective tissue. But that also means more flavor. These particular cuts carry the best of both worlds—and traditionally were really cheap. In recent years they've been 'discovered' and the prices have risen accordingly—but they still represent awesome beef flavor for less money. Cutting them across the fibers shortens them to the point where they're very tender. Slice the wrong way you'll chew for hours.
Barbecue Beef Ribs
Beef Brisket Barbecue
Barbecuing, Smoking, and Curing
My absolute favorite type of barbecue is the beef brisket. This is a relatively tough cut, full of flavor but full of "stuff" that makes it tough. Slow heat is the key here, just as it is with the chuck cuts that are best braised. The difference with barbecuing and smoking is that the heat is dry. What works is that the meat is slowly cooked over a long period of time, allowing the meat to slowly cook at the same time that fat is rendered and the connective tissues soften.
The result is tender, succulent and fall-off-the-bone tender. There are of course other cuts that are fabulous on the grill—check out this article on Barbecuing and Grilling for more information on the different methods. But in a nutshell, grilling is for high fast cooking—and the brisket and ribs need slow, long heat to tenderize. For brisket, with lots of connective tissue, you'll also want to treat the final product as you do a flank or flatiron steak and cut it across the grain. The muscles fibers run the same way they do in those cuts.
Now that I think about it—low and slow means low and slow. Chuck roasts though, unlike brisket, lacks the right distribution of fat that brisket has, and which makes it all right for dry heat. Chuck cuts do have fat, but not enough I don't think to make them work this way. Although won't promise that—and might try one just to see what happens.
Briskets are also the cuts that are used in some brined meats, most notably Pastrami and Corned Beef. In these cases, the meats are first cured by soaking them in intensely flavored brines. They are then slow cooked—either with an intervening smoking step or not, depending on the cook's preference. The will roll your socks down they're so good.
Ribs can be a little confusing to the novice in this. If you purchase a rib eye, or rib roast, you're buying very prime beef, and the meat is absolutely beautiful. It needs to be roasted or quick cooked to maximize the flavor. Trim off just the rib portion though, and you have two completely different things. The reason is because all the stuff that holds the muscle to the bone goes with the ribs themselves—the steaks that are attached by it are mainly free of the stuff. So if you purchase just the ribs—which I love to do—you need to remember that you'll need one of the 'low and slow' methods. Put those bad boys on the smoker!
Ok—we're going back up the "quality" scale for roasting, in a manner of speaking. I usually think of pot roast when I think of roasted beef—remember it's braised. The pot is to hold the cooking liquid and moisture. So I supposed it's not truly a roast at all.
Because roasting is a dry heat method it's usually done in the oven, although technically barbecuing is a type of roasting in an enclosed space—just with very low heat. Roast Beef though, is dry cooked in an oven and is usually from a relatively expensive cut of meat. Remember we discussed the low tissue, higher fat content in the cuts from the rib and loin area? These are those—if they are sliced they become steaks. If they are left whole they are roasts. The tenderloin (where filet mignon comes from), rib eyes, prime rib (a variation of rib eye) and sirloin roasts are all candidates for dry roasting. That means an initial high heat to set the crust, then a relatively short time in the oven. I use 500F and 350F respectively for that. I've done sirloin roasts that were less than two hours for a perfect medium rare in the middle.
If you've spent a little money to splurge on good quality steaks, then you'll understand what it means to purchase a roast cut of this same quality. The good news is that these are actually going to reward you for being more hands off—so they're easier to cook than you might think. A good meat thermometer is critical for these—because these are all about temperature. Once you've gotten the crust developed on these, you really want to pay attention to the internal temperature—because that's a pretty fine point. You can attempt these with cooking chart—the ones that tell you how many minutes per pound. But much of the times on those charts are variable depending on the starting temperature—or how close to room temperature it is. Of course then—what's room temp at your house?
For less than $20 (and you spent more than that on your roast) you can get a decent little thermometer that takes all the guesswork out of it for you. I like an internal temp of 130F. You'll also rock if you remember to allow your roast to rest. Resting time for meats vary, but give it at least ten minutes. These cuts really benefit from the redistribution of juices following cooking, and resting will make you look great when you serve it.
Of course, flavors will vary depending on what you choose to use for any aromatics, marinades, or rubs, if you use them at all. I can't over-emphasize the value of just plain old kosher salt in liberal application. That, and lots of pepper, will give a flavor missed by many restaurants—so don't worry about fancy rubs or marinades. You spend money on that roast because the flavor is amazing. Lock it in with technique and you'll be a rock star.
Meatloaf, Part 1
Meatloaf, Part 2
NC Style BBQ Burgers
A Schezuan Beef Stir Fry
Ground Beef, Shank and Some Other Bits
Most cuts of meat that you'll encounter in the grocery fall into one of the techniques I hit above. There are a few other cuts you'll run across though, and they fall into this category. The first of course is the beloved ground beef. I remember watching Mama's orders being ground immediately just for her on a big old evil looking grinder just like this one in the picture (the butcher's close were cleaner though!).
Ground beef is just that—no particular cut that has been ground up. Depending on what the butcher is packaging he may or may not add additional fat, or use a higher quality cut to grind it. When you purchase ground beef pay attention to the numbers on the label. You can find ground beef as lean as 95% if you look hard enough. You don't always want to, though. remember that fat means flavor—it means moisture as well. I like 93% or lower, and honestly the price drops as the fat content increases, so I often buy less lean to fit the budget.
If you brown off ground beef for use in a casserole, you can get away with a higher fat content, because you drain off much of the fat. If I'm then adding intensely flavored ingredients, as in tomatoes, capers, anchovies, garlic, onions and olives, I'll even rinse the ground beef under hot water to remove more of the fat. The flavor isn't noticeable and the sauce is then 'cleaner' flavored.
Meatballs, Salisbury steak, meatloaf, and (of course) burgers all fall into this category, as well as literally hundreds of other dishes—especially across the American Midwest and South. I even made hash from some this morning with potatoes and a fried egg for my kiddos. We seem to love it, and for good reason. It is flavorful, inexpensive, easy to work with and available all over the place. Yay ground beef! The techniques here so too many to mention realistically, but you'll want to pay attention to the fat content and cook accordingly. If the fat needs to drain, cook the meat on a rack over a roasting pan to allow it to drain away, or on a grill—or pan fry or bake then drain. Or, take advantage of a little fat for juiciness for meatloaf and burgers. Fat is the key to this "cut" of meat—how much there is, and where it stays or drains off.
Cuts for stir-fries are often from the "round" (the rear end and legs of the beef). This is often ground for ground beef, but can be found whole. These are similar to the flank and flatiron steaks in that they have great lean flavor, but can be tough. Like those though—it's all in the cutting. Stir-fries of course are all sliced before use—take advantage of slicing across the grain, and use quick, very high heat. Done in a skillet or wok on high heat you'll sear in flavor and maintain moisture, and the correct slicing ensured tenderness. Of course, you can stir fry higher quality cuts if you wish - the same high heat makes those shine too. That's a win-win situation anywhere.
Finally, you'll encounter other things from time to time. The types of cuts are nearly infinite—how many ways do two people cut out paper hearts? Butchers cut the same way. Sure, there's a lot of standardization, but you'll still find "oddities" from time to time. Shank is rare in America, but common in many other cultures. Use it for soups, stews and braises. Rounds are tough, but full of flavor. Slice them up and pan fry or grill them off. Don't be afraid of them. If you know where on the beef the cut came from, you'll be halfway to making a great dish with it.