Beef Basics- lets get back to it shall we? Over the years we've heard some pretty interesting questions that, to be honest, scare us a little! Sure, we know that grass fed is better, pasture raised this, and no antibiotics that. And all of that is vitally important, I wouldn't do what I do otherwise. But when it gets back to those beef basics, how to cook certain cuts, what they are called, and where they come from in the animal are almost more important that the work that goes into it. After all, if you attempt to grill short ribs for dinner in an hour, you're going to be highly disappointed- so this post is all about education!
To start out this class, this video is incredible. If you are a "why" or a "how" person, and like to know how things are built, its well worth 20 minutes of your time. Actually, even if you aren't, just watch the video. If you just scroll through this post skimming, you'll see a bunch of the same photo in a sense with different cuts of beef. Before a section in this post begins, it'll showcase the "whole" cuts of beef, before it's broken down into steaks. I then go into detail about each cut, and how to cook it. Then you'll see the final photo of each steak taken down off the primal before moving on to the next section of the steer.
As can be seen in the first view of the video, there are 4 main parts of a cow, but in our case, a steer, as we only process steers; the round, or back end, the loin, the rib, and the chuck. Much like our body, each muscle group does different work, and therefore makes for leaner or fattier cuts, more tender, or tougher cuts. Knowing about these differences is literally the difference between successfully cookery, and well, jerky.
I'll start with the back end of the animal, incase you decided to watch the video, this post goes in the same order for easier understanding! The round does a lot of work, and carries a lot of the animals weight in that hind quarter. This makes for leaner steaks, and roasts that need some cooking time. Some common names you've seen in beef cuts- especially those that I offer, are Sirloin Steaks, and Tips, London Broil, Top Round, Bottom Round, and Eye Round Roasts.
Sirloin Steaks & London Broil are very lean, and therefore, not naturally tender. How you prepare this cut will drastically effect it's toothsome outcome. Acid is a natural tenderizer, and since there is little fat in this cut, we have some room to add extra flavor. Opt to marinade this steak in your favorite Italian dressing, or other acid/vinegary based marinade. Toss this cut into a plastic baggie, add the dressing and some thick cut sliced onions and fa'gettaboutit until you get home from work. If you are a diehard griller, than you know no seasons- and toss is on the hot grates for about 4-5 minutes on each side for medium rare. If you are a sucker for salty crust on your beef, try your hand with a cast iron skillet. Take the steak out of the marinade first, and pat it dry, otherwise you'll steam the beef, and smoke your house out! Steak Tips are cut off, you guessed it, the tip of the sirloin, where it meets the hinge of the leg. This tender cut is also called flap meat, and can be utilized in several different cooking methods. (Flap meat is also referenced on the other side of the sirloin, to be a featured later in the post and video.) They are best cooked to medium rare, as to not over cook the delicate muscle fibers that run through this cut. You can grill them, or sear them in a pan with some onions and mushrooms, and finish with a thick pan gravy, or turn the into the ever popular teriyaki tips. Eye Round and Top Round roasts are just that- a roast! Because they are typically smaller in size they are great for weeknight meals, or a smaller family gathering. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Rub your roast with a paste of olive oil and butter thats mixed with chopped fresh rosemary, garlic, thyme and a whole lotta salt and pepper. Lather your roast liberally, and let stand on your counter for about 15-20 minutes. Putting ice cold meat in the hot oven can create uneven cooking, and over cooking because the outside of the roast will brown much quicker than the middle will reach your ideal doneness temperature. If you have a roasting rack, bust that baby out! If you don't, you can utilize the veggies as a makeshift rack on the bottom of your pan. Cut carrots into thirds, onions into slices, mushrooms in half, celery in quarters and arrange on the bottom of the pan. Toss some salt and pepper over the top, a couple whole cloves of garlic, and a sprig of rosemary right in the mix. Set your roast on top of this bed of deliciousness and place in your preheated oven. Cook at 450 for about 15 minutes to sear the outside of the beef, and then lower the oven temp to 325. For medium rare, you want your meat thermometer to show 130 degrees, and allow for 5-7 degrees of carryover cooking once you take the meat out of the oven. This will take about an hour depending on your oven. You'll want to thinly slice these roasts, and serve immediately. Bottom Round roasts is what grandma made. That ropey delicious but often times dry cut that cooks all day, piled high with some gravy and mashed potatoes? and best followed up with a plate of cookies. Yeh, that stuff. These roasts are sizable creatures, but cook down considerably, and make for great leftovers! I find the best vessel to cook this hunk of love in, is my cast iron pot with a good lid. I like to keep this braise technique simple, and let the beef really be the star. Season liberally with salt and pepper- that's it. You can have these ingredients ready to go in the pot though: 5-6 whole cloves of garlic, a bay leaf, a sprig of rosemary, thyme and oregano (use the fresh stuff, you won't regret it), half a bottle of your favorite red wine, and about a quart of your favorite beef stock, and a tiny can of tomato paste Heat up your pot over medium high heat, and add a few swirls of canola or veggie oil. Sear the beef, hard, to a deep golden brown. Reserve to a plate once all the sides are seared. Into the pot goes sliced onions, carrot and celery pieces cut into thirds, to sauté for a few minutes. When the onions are translucent, or see through, add half of that tiny cute can of tomato paste to coat all the veggies. Deglaze the pot with the wine and stock, scraping all the brown bits off the bottom. Add the beef back to the pot- you want to add enough liquid to cover about 3/4 of the beef. Reduce the heat to low, just enough to have a few random bubbles, but not quite a simmer. Throw the lid on, and pour yourself the rest of that bottle of red, and check on dinner in 3-4+ hours. You want to barely be able to pick up the beef from the pot, it should almost fall apart. Here, you have options. You can remove the beef and reserve on a plate and let it cool. From here, you can slice it and reheat it for serving with the hot gravy. Or, you can pull it, and leave it in the gravy. Either way you choose- it'll be a winner!
Perhaps the most easily identifiable portions of the animal, is anything that comes from the loin section of the steer; shown above are the main portions of the loin section, and each steak is listed in this next section! Flank Steak is a very popular selection for many people, unfortunately for me, there are only 2 of these steaks per animal! I think that flank is a versatile, fun steak! Its a great steak for marinading, literally toss it in a ziplock bag with some zesty Italian dressing and thinly sliced onions before you head to work, and dinner is half ready when you get home.... sort of. The way the muscle fibers run in this steak make its cooking techniques limited, but its in your favor. It will cook quickly, and should be eaten pink as to not over cook the muscle and make it extremely tough. Ideally you should cook this on the grill, but a screaming hot cast iron pan on the stove top will do the job too. Cook just 2-3 minutes on the first side, another 2 on the second, and let it rest. Even more importantly than cooking it pink, is letting the steak rest, and cutting it against the grain. Slice the steak and enjoy with classic sides of starch and veggies, or serve on top of a salad. This is also a great option for your favorite south of the boarder dishes, like fajitas! or I suppose, west of the boarder, and go the stir fry route! For these dishes, you can cut the steak before you cook it, and it will cook in a minute or so in your hot pan, ready to serve with veggies for stir fry or fajitas. Sirloin flap is another great grilling steak. Flap steak is cut from the bottom sirloin and is sometimes call beef loin tip. It is less tender than more expensive steaks, but has a good beef flavor. It is ideal for marinating and needs to be cooked quickly on high heat to medium rare. Cut the cooked steak thinly across the grain before serving. This is the cut of beef that is often used for carne asada, popular in many Mexican American restaurants. Flap meat lends well to citrus, and again, using my favorite kitchen tool, a ziplock baggie. Juice a lemon, a lime and an orange, as well as seasonings to your personal taste- chili powder, oregano, cumin, and a couple of crushed cloves of garlic and 1/3 cup of both soy sauce and olive oil into the bag with the meat. Let this all hang out in the fridge over night. Grill quickly, over high heat to medium rare and cut across the grain. A tip for any marinade: Use equal amounts of oil and acid, such as a mild vinegar or wine. Add your favorite fresh herbs, garlic or spices. Add 1 tbsp. of brown sugar to the marinade to help the meat brown quickly. If you don't put soy sauce in your marinade, season the steak generously with salt just before grilling it. Suet is the connective tissue and fat that protects the animals' vital organs. While we don't eat it, it is very useful for home cooks and DIY'ers alike. It can be melted down and used as cooking fat, purified for soap, or used in the binding agent for bird seed bricks! Perhaps the most easily identifiable steak/cut or roast is the tenderloin. Also known as filet mignon once cut from the tenderloin, these steaks are often the most expensive cut as they are so limited from the animal. The nicest portion of the filet comes from the head end, as it is the widest, thickest cut, and as the tenderloin tapers down towards the tail, a full portion steak becomes less consistent in shape. A beautifully butchered filet is roughly the size of your fist. Because there is so little fat in this cut, its best cooked medium rare or medium, and served with some sort of deliciously buttery sauce. This steak is typically rather thick, and will take a few minutes to cook evenly through. A seasoned cast iron pan, or an oven safe pan is good to get the job done. The initial sear for that salty crust is best done in a high-heat friendly oil like canola. Season the room temp steak liberally while your pan preheats. Have your oven set to 400 degrees. I like to sear my filets on all sides, as in the top and bottom, as well as rolled in the pan too to really seal all the juices in. Once seared, place the entire pan in the oven, for about 7-8 minutes depending on your ideal temperature. I prefer my filet medium rare, so I'd pull the pan out closer to the 7 minute mark. Return the pan to the stove top, and over medium low heat, add a large pad of butter, and a sprig of rosemary. Using a pan-safe spoon, baste the steak repeatedly with the melting rosemary butter for an additional minute or 2. This will add a ton of flavor, and that much needed fat mouth feel on such a tender cut. If you are still watching along with the video, the butcher will now split the loin away from the strip loin, and cut out several other smaller but interestingly useful steaks that are different from your every day classics. The tri-tip steak is a delicious cut for smoking, but can also be eaten right from the grill, which is interesting in itself because most steaks are one or the other, low and slow, or quick. The largest portion of this primal, and also the largest steaks I offer, are sirloin steaks. I mentioned this cut earlier because the sirloin does make an appearance in the hind quarter and the loin primal. Coming from the heart, and center of the loin, is the strip steak. Strip steaks have more names than perhaps any other cut. NY strips, delmonico, or Kansas City steak, they are all the same, a strip loin. Much like other "fancy" words, some restaurants actually mark up the cost of your plate simply by throwing those map locations on their menu. It doesn't mean the beef way raised in these places, or anything at all other than who fights for credit for serving this cut first or in the best restaurant first. Maybe I should just start marketing New Boston Strips- up charge $5 a pound. Really though, its all in the wording, nothing more. Keep this steak super simple, season with salt, pepper, some garlic if you wish, and grill to your ideal temperature. Show off your grilling skills with beautiful hashmarks with a 90 degree turn on the same side, and you're all set to impress even the snobbiest meat snobs. If the strip is left on the bone, and cut down through the spine, it will then be a t-bone steak, calling out of course, the shape of the bone itself, as opposed to the straight shape of the rib bone. The t-bone is a great steak too, but also gets a bit more exciting and interesting the closer to the middle of the animal it gets, as the tenderloin gets thicker. You then have a porterhouse. As much as I didn't throw all my votes to the filet, I do enjoy it off the porterhouse because it's on the bone, and it adds a lot of depth to the small portion of tenderloin. yum yum! This is what the loin quarter looks like completely broken down into these identifying cuts or individual steaks.