Beef: a Dinner-time Favorite
One of our favorite (and America’s too) dinner choices is a delicious pot roast or steak- but beef has other uses as well. Understanding what you’re consuming or buying helps a lot to guide and gauge your purchases to maximize what you’ve got. In this basic overview of beef, we’ll divulge into a few various areas of the beef market: Grading, Roasts, Cubed Meats, Stir-Fry, Tender Tips, Beef Jerky, and finally, Steaks.
Grading of Beef
The grade of your meat is essentially the level of marbling (striation of fat inside of the muscle) that a steer has in combination with its density/tension of its musculature. You want to make sure that the muscles are tight and that the marbling is high to assure a high-quality steak or roast. There are also other areas to consider such as bloodshot (red speckling) in the muscle, iridescence in the muscle (looks like the rainbow of color you’d get when looking at oil on water), cysts/puss, and other conditions as well. The best steaks are those in which the muscle is free of all defects and maintains a high level of marbling. The standard grading in the US are as follows:
- Prime: Highest tier of marbling. Highest cost, but also not always available.
- Choice: High tier of marbling; typically available at moderately affordable rates.
- Select: Middle tier of grading. Little marbling. Most available meat in the US and very affordable.
- Standard: Rarely seen in stores; almost devoid of marbling.
- Canning: Meat that does not meet regulations for typical grading margins; thus is regaled to use for canned meals/soups.
Roasts are often the bread and butter beef meal of the typical American family. They can be made in a matter of hours in the oven (cooked at approximately 15-20 minutes per pound at 350 degrees Fahrenheit), or can be left alone to cook slowly in a crock-pot for any number of hours while you’re away from home. They can be shredded, sliced, or chunked depending on the type of meat that you’re using, the method of cooking you’re using, and the length of time you’re willing to let it cook.
Let’s take a look at the two most common purposes of roasts:
- Shredding Roasts: Roasts that will fall apart completely as the fat and sinew in the muscle (and around the muscle) render down during the cooking process and leave a wonderfully potent au jus that can be cooked down even further for a thick sauce if desired. The best example of roast for this purpose is the Chuck Roast. While some may argue that they have too much fat- indeed, a non-fatty chuck roast is incredibly difficult to find… the Chuck Roast is truly the king’s choice for delicious shredded beef.
- Slicing Roasts:Roasts that cook down well and get tender, are often cooked medium or medium rare before serving, and are finally sliced into thin slices for use with sandwiches or a multitude of other dishes.
In many cookbooks, you’ll find Bottom Round and Rump Roasts listed in this portion of the book- though they often chunk well as well… Another nice roast for this category is the Bolar Roast (not as frequently seen in cookbooks). The Bolar Roast is a shoulder clod roast, which is sort of a mixture between a Chuck Roast and a Bottom Round roast. They work well for other applications as well- such as cubing for stew.
I tend to shy away from the Eye Round Roast, as they are very lean and often end up being overcooked unless you are used to cooking them- thus leading to a dry and chewy result. Certainly less than optimal if you’re trying to do a family style meal!
Meats for Cubing
Many times you’ll find recipes asking for you to get beef cubes- but beef cubes at your local grocery store or butcher shop are often made of different types of meat… how do you know what you’re getting, or how do you get something done to match your recipe? For starters, typically beef cubes are made from leftover chunks of roasts (likely from the Inside Round/Top Round or the Outside Round/Bottom Round of the steer) unless the store buys specific meat in order to use for making their beef cubes (such as pectoralis majormuscle). If your recipe asks for something specific, you may need to select a piece of meat to have cut down by your local meat cutter or butcher to make your recipe work.
- Stewing Cubes: Beef cubes that will come apart during slow cooking such as a stew or a crock pot roast. For these, you will likely either want Chuck Roast, Brisket, or Pectoral muscle. These muscles are longer grain muscles that are prone to shredding or falling apart as the muscle is weakened and the bonds of the muscle are rendered down during cooking. They are flavorful and are excellent choices.
- Kabob Cubes:These cubes need to come from higher cuts of meat in order to assure that your cooking leaves you pristine results. If you’re doing fondue or kabobs, you’ll need one of a few select meats that will match the profile of the quality that you’re looking for. Some of the choices at your disposal are:
- Top Sirloin (Sirloin Steak):Tried and true, the Top Sirloin is typically the lowest grade of steak offered in steak houses across the US. It is a good muscle with fair tenderness and decent flavor. Overall, the muscle is on the lean end, but if cooked medium or under will serve its roll properly.
- Sirloin Cap (Coulotte/Picanha): The cap on the top of the Sirloin muscle group. It is more tender than the rest of the Sirloin section, and has excellent marbling. Often used as a roast or as steaks, it also works well cubed for pristine kabobs.
- Beef Tenderloin (Filet Mignon): Obviously the most expensive of the steak choices because it is the most tender. However, it is not the most flavorful meat choice. It does, of course, marry well to any seasoning or broth you wish to cook it in… making it an obvious choice for premiere chefs and steakhouses. When tenderness matters, sometimes it’s worth the splurge to impress your guests. Do remember that due to its leanness, it will cook quickly…
Meats for Stir-Fry
Whether you’re making a traditional Chinese dish or you’d like to try to cook something using thinly sliced strips of beef, you’re likely looking for Stir-Fry strips. Not all meat is suitable for Stir-Fry, as it needs to have a certainly quality of tenderness for the best results. Often times when you’re buying Stir-Fry meats at a grocery store, they’re using the lowest grade possible to allow the premium cuts/leftovers to go into the pile for Tender Tips. Most times you’ll wind up with Sirloin Tip meat or possibly Top Sirloin trim. Some of the better cuts to use are as follows:
- Sirloin Cap (Coulotte/Picanha):Yet again, we run into the Sirloin Cap. It is one of the most versatile muscles for cooking and yields good texture, tenderness, and flavor in any variety of cooking. So long as the muscle is cut cross-grain, and it’s hard to do it wrong.
- Shoulder Tender (Teres Major):The Shoulder Tender is a peculiar muscle in steer. It is from the shoulder- so it sounds like it would be tough; but it is quite the opposite. The shoulder tender makes VERY tender Stir-Fry strips and is essentially a lesser version of the Beef Tenderloin. For its price, it is quite a bargain!
- Premium Steak Trim: Various premium level steaks (New York Strip, Rib Cap/Spinalis, Ribeye/Delmonico, etc.) are used to great success for Stir-Fry, but are often cost prohibitive. They can be used, however, if price is not an issue or if you’ve got an inside deal for the meat you’re buying.
Meats for Tender Tips
So you’re looking to make some Tender Tips or want to make some old-fashioned tips and toast? The right Tender Tip makes all of the difference in these recipes. I’ve seen some less reputable stores use every kind of meat in the shop, merely made into small cubes or bits, as their idea of Tender Tips for the customer. However, real Tender Tips are made solely from the highest qualities of steaks. Nothing under the grade of Top Sirloin should be used for Tender Tips. Of course, there is the ultimate in tenderness (the Beef Tenderloin/Filet Mignon) that garners the name Tenderloin Tips when cut down- but typically that meat doesn’t go into traditional Tender Tips (being sold solely under the name Tenderloin Tips). Here’s what makes our list:
- Top Sirloin and Sirloin Cap:The sirloin section of a steer makes excellent use for all varieties of uses. The cap muscle is especially well suited for tips and toast. Cut out any bulky fat deposits in the muscles and any membrane that may have been left by the cutters and cut your tips small enough to be bite-sized and you’ll be in good company.
- New York Strip:Quality bits of meat leftover from cutting steaks are often kept off to the side and added into the packages of meat you find in stores. It makes for a great addition to your bowl of tips.
- Delmonico and Rib Cap:Another high cut of steak that adds wonderfully to your Tender Tip list. Highly marbled, extremely flavorful, and readily available at just about any grocer or butcher shop- this steak is costly, but well worth its price.
- Beef Tenderloin:If tenderness is of the highest importance, the Tenderloin Tip is impossible to beat. It is easy to season (best when finished in butter), cooks quickly, and is fork tender when cooked medium or less. The most expensive option, but definitely a showstopper when done correctly. I typically cut these larger than my other Tender Tips to ensure that they aren’t overcooked.
If you’re looking to make Beef Jerky, know that you’re going to lose approximately 2/3 of the weight that you put into your dehydrator/oven in order to make it. That’s right- for every three pounds of beef you’re putting in, you’re going to get just about a single pound of jerky back out of your efforts! Make sure that you’ve got an excellent seasoning mixture for your marinating process and allow it to soak/marinate for at least a full day before dehydrating your meat. If you’re smoking, the smoke that you’re using will also play a large role in the flavoring of your jerky- but for the rest of jerky makers, the liquid smoke you use will be a predominate flavor. Meats to use are as follows:
- Top Round:Also called London Broil in many places, this roast can be cut easily into good sized strips for your jerky purposes. Since it has a low fat content, you’re likely to get good jerky without large fat deposits and reservoirs for a good bite and eating experience.
- Bottom Round:I know a lot of people using bottom round since it’s typically the cheapest meat to buy for jerky. It works relatively well, but if you’re buying a full piece for jerky, you’ll find there’s a bit of trimming to do before it’s ready to be cut into jerky strips. Also be sure to watch out for the seam/wall of silver skin/’iron’ (very tough portion that is typically inedible) that separates usable meat on the roast- as you don’t want to include that chewy bit with the rest of your jerky!
- Flank Steak: If the sky is the limit, some people recommend Flank Steak to make your jerky with. I find it’s a bit too expensive and there are some fat deposits in it which make it less desirable to me… but it’s definitely a known cut to use for jerky regardless; albeit an expensive one. Makes smaller slices of jerky, as the muscle is long and thin.
When it comes time for a great meal, few main courses come to mind with more frequency than a steak. Steaks come in all shapes and sizes and in all grades of quality from the lowly Bottom Round steak to the revered Center Cut Filet Mignon and Porterhouse Steaks. All steaks serve their purpose for a variety of preparation and serving needs, but the steaks in highest reverence are as follows:
- New York Strip Steak: A great steak from the Loin primal of the steer. Known for being lean and tender. While the flavor is lacking behind a Delmonico, it is a great all-rounder steak.
- Delmonico (Boneless Ribeye) Steak: The Delmonico steak, made famous by the Delmonico Restaurant in New York, is an excellent steak from the Rib section of the Steer. It is highly marbled and offers the best flavor in the animal.
- Rib Cap Steak:The Rib Cap Steak is one of the parts of the Boneless Ribeye, and is a popular steak for modern aficionados of beef. It is also called the Spinalis steak, and is a small steak that typically weighs no more than three quarters of a pound to a pound. It is a thin steak that packs incredible flavor. Despite its cost, it’s well worth trying at some point.
- Ribeye Filet:A rounded steak that looks very much like a Center Cut Filet Mignon, but has much more marbling. A fine alternative to Filet Mignon at a more reasonable price. Not a common steak to find, but the flavor is worth the search.
- Porterhouse/T-Bone Steak:Steaks cut from the Short Loin subprimal of the steer. The Porterhouse Steak is a combination of the New York Strip and the Filet Mignon separated by a bone. The T-Bone Steak designation of the Short Loin begins when the Tenderloin portion begins to shrink beneath the acceptable size- typically after three or four Porterhouses have been cut off. Great tenderness on one side, and a bit more flavor on the other. The bone also adds flavor- which is a benefit.
- Center Cut Filet Mignon:The most tender steak and generally the most expensive. More or less circular in shape for ease of searing and cooking, it takes well to any seasoning- whether savory, salty, or something else. While all Filet Mignon is equally tender, the center cut is symmetrical while the end cuts are more oblong in shape- thus rendering its status as the supreme steak.
Of course, there’s more to eating and enjoying beef than steaks, roasts, tender tips, beef jerky, and stir-fry- but this guide is a basic gate into some of the options you have access to for each of the above areas. Now that you know your beef, all that’s left to do is pick your sides and cook your meal. Was there a steak we missed or a question you had about anything beef related? Feel free to ask in the comments and we’ll get back to you!