Have you ever wondered whereabouts in the cow your favourite cuts of beef come from?
Well wonder no more, as in this handy guide we’re going to explain how a body of beef is broken down in the butchery, and where all the classic cuts come from.
Primals, Sides and Quarters
Primals, sides and quarters are the first major cuts that are made, to break the body down into manageable pieces.
What is a side of beef?
The first thing that happens to a body of beef after slaughter is to split it in half, right down the spine of the cow. The two separate halves are therefore known as “sides of beef”, as each is one side of the cow.
What is a forequarter or hindquarter?
The next step is to split these two sides in half again, between the 12th and 13th ribs. Half of a half is a quarter, hence they are called “quarters of beef”. The front half is known as the “forequarter”, the rear half the “hindquarter”.
What are Primal Cuts?
Breaking the quarters down into Primal Cuts is the next step.
Each quarter can be divided into two once more, creating four primal cuts, which are in turn broken down further into subprimals (nothing to do with dodgy mortgages…).
- The Chuck Primal
Chuck, Thick Rib, Shank, Brisket
- The Rib Primal
Fore rib and thin rib
- The Loin Primal
Sirloin, Tenderloin, Flank
- The Round Primal
Rump, Topside, Leg
It is after being split down into primals that the beef can then be hung to improve the texture, flavour and digestibility of the meat. We hang our ribs and loins for a minimum of 3 weeks, though usually closer to 6. Our chucks and rounds we hang for 2 weeks. (The difference is due to the types of cuts you get from each which we’ll get to in a second).
After they’ve been hung, they are then butchered into the subprimal cuts which you can see in the diagram below.
The line that separates the rib cuts from the sirloin and flank is the divide between the forequarter and the hindquarter.
The different subprimals are essentially different muscle groups, which have different properties depending upon factors such as the frequency and intensity with which they work.
What determines the flavour and texture of a cut of beef?
There are three main factors that affect how flavourful and tender each cut of beef is.
- Work done by the muscle
Muscles that work more regularly and with higher intensity have stronger, denser muscle fibres, whereas muscles that do less work tend to be softer and smoother.
A good rule of thumb is “distance from horn or hoof”. The further a primal cut is from either the head or the foot, the less work it will do, and the more tender it will be.
This is why cuts from the sirloin are so highly prized; they do very little work so are very soft and tender. This doesn’t mean that more hard working cuts such as brisket and shin can’t be fall of the bone melt in the mouth delicious, they certainly can, but you need to cook them low and slow to achieve this.
- Connective tissue in the muscle
A lot of the rich flavour in beef comes from the connective tissue in the muscle. The tendons and ligaments are particularly high in proteins and minerals.
As you may have guessed, the more a muscle works, the more connective tissue there’ll tend to be, so while they may not be as tender, many people rate the cuts closer to the horn or hoof as superior, providing you’re willing to put in the hours in the kitchen.
- Fat content
Last, but by no means least, we have to to consider the fat content, specifically the intramuscular fat. It is this fat which creates the beautiful white marbling that runs through the muscle.
More marbling not only helps add flavour and mouth feel, but also facilitates a wider variety of cooking methods. Cuts with a higher fat percentage can easily be cooked at higher temperatures without liquid. Dry roasting, grilling, barbecuing for example.
Leaner cuts are generally better either braised, basted or stewed. If you do cook lean meat over a dry heat, make sure you do it low and slow, to ensure it stays tender and moist.
Cuts from the Chuck Primal
The chuck primal is essentially the fore leg of the cow and surrounding musculature. As these are some of the hardest working muscles, they are generally muscular and lean, producing cuts that are full of flavour, but best cooked low and slow and / or with some liquid: Basting, stewing, etc.
Brisket has become a very popular cut of meat thanks to its rich flavour. It is essentially the cow’s pectoral muscle. It is best cooked low and slow but over a dry heat such a roasting or broiling for 8 hours plus. A classic recipe is 16 hour Texas BBQ brisket!
Cut from the neck and shoulder area, these steaks are again best cooked lower and slower. They don’t need anywhere near as long as a brisket though as they’ve got a much larger surface area to volume ratio, 1-2 hours should do it. This Hairy Biker’s recipe is a great option.
Taken from the shank, this muscle does a lot of work and has plenty of connective tissue.
Best for stewing, the connective tissues will melt into the sauce, making it thicker and full of nutrition and flavour.
It’s not just the meat from the cow that’s full of flavour and nutrition. The large bones from the shank are perfect for roasting, after which you can scoop out the delicious and nutritious marrow from within.
Cuts from the Ribs
Now, I have to admit some bias here, as cuts from rib primal are probably my personal favourites. (Though it’s a tough call, as there isn’t part of a well reared cow that isn’t delicious when cooked correctly!)
Nestled in between the chuck and the loin, for many the ribs have the perfect balance between flavour and tenderness. Add in a very generous distribution of fat, and the result is some of the most delicious and easy to cook cuts of beef.
Rib of Beef
As impressive looking as it is tasty, the rib of beef on the bone is the undisputed heavy weight champion of roasting joints.
Not only does the fat help keep the flavoursome meat moist and tender, the bone conducts heat throughout the joint ensuring it cooks quickly and evenly.
Rib Eye Steaks
So called for the “eye” of fat that runs through the middle of the muscle, the rib eye is the favourite steak of many connoisseurs, myself included!
Best seared quickly over a relatively high heat to seal the outer fat while leaving the tender meat still a little pink in the centre.
The loin is the primal that does the least work, and so contains the most tender cuts. They also tend to be relatively lean, at least in comparison to the ribs.
Ease of cooking, combined with low fat content has long made these cuts highly prized. While they may not be the most fashionable cuts any more, they certainly shouldn’t be overlooked. Their melt in the mouth tenderness more than justifies their reputation as some of the prime cuts from the cow.
Moist, tender and full of flavour, the sirloin can be cut into roasting joints, or sliced into steaks.
Whether you choose steak or roast, as the sirloin is tender and lean, be careful not to over cook it. Best served still pink in the middle.
The fillet is a strip of muscle from the lower middle of the back of the cow that forms part of the sirloin.
Its claim to fame is that it is the leanest and most tender of all the cuts of beef.
Like the sirloin it can either be eaten as a roast or steaks and is best served very rare.
Possibly the most confusing section of the cow, due to the myriad different ways it can be cut coupled with the fact every region names them differently!
These cuts are a great choice for the barbecue, as you’ll know if you’ve been to an Argentinian restaurant (Flank steak is Matambre).
Bringing up the rear we have the round, basically the hind leg of the cow. The round is the leanest of all the primals. Being a leg, it is similar to the chuck, but generally more tender, particularly the rump and topside, which unlike the chuck don’t have to support the head.
A very lean cut, the rump is a good option looking to keep calories low while still maximising their protein intake.
Whether eaten as a roast or steaks, the rump is best cooked slowly over a lower heat to make sure it stays tender.
Topside / Silverside
Topside and Sliverside are taken from the upper rear part of the hind leg. Generally softer than chuck or brisket, but with less gelatin rich connective tissue, they are best slow roasted until medium rare.
If you don’t finish the entire roast at the dinner table, the left overs are delicious when sliced and served cold in a sandwich.
Remember the Rule “From Horn and Hoof”
We hope you’ve found this overview of the main cuts of beef and where they come from useful.
If you’re looking to try something new, the distance from horn and/or hoof of a cut is a good (albeit very rough) rule of thumb to remember.
Cuts closer to the head or the foot tend to be tougher and more flavourful. They should be cooked low and slow to tenderise the meat and release the flavour.
The primals taken from the middle of the cow tend to be the most tender. They can be cooked quickly with a high dry heat and eaten rare in the middle.
Still not sure on how to cook a particular cut? Be sure to check our recipes page. We’re slowly building up a library of a favourites that you can download and print out.
Are you a food blogger with a favourite recipe of your own that you’d like to share? Send it to us and maybe we can add it to our collection!