Grilling 101: Know your Butt from your Brisket

It amazes me that so many professionals, in any field, never really get a good grip on the basics. I believe that to achieve competence at any level you must have a solid grasp of the fundamentals.  This knowledge foundation is what allows you to derive great technique. On the shoulders of Knowledge and Technique sits Art. That’s where Greatness lives no matter what you do. So to take some activity, vocation or endeavor to that level, ya’ got to do your homework. I saw on a Hell’s Kitchen episode, how these professional chefs, who wanted to run a major operation couldn’t even identify where the different cuts of beef came from. So to save face at the Labor Day grill, we’ll cover some basic beef knowledge. Even if you can’t grill, if you stand there and spout this off to the unsuspecting, you’ll sound like a genius.

First off, most of your beef will come from steers. Steers are male cattle castrated prior to maturity. These bovine eunuchs are then processed into four pieces, or quarters. There are two forequarters and two hindquarters. These are then processed into primal cuts. They are the chuck, brisket and shank, rib, short plate, short loin, sirloin, flank and round. These represent different areas of the animal and thus the cuts that come from these different primals differ in flavor and tenderness. They also favor different methods of preparation.

Beef Primals

Beef Primals-image from Wikipedia

The Chuck represents the animal’s shoulder region. It is flavorful, but tough. The cuts derived from this primal are cross rib pot roast, chuck short ribs, cube steak, stew meat and ground chuck.

The Brisket and Shank come from the forequarter below the Chuck. This area contains the animal’s breast (Brisket) and the foreshank. The ribs and breastbone are removed from the Brisket. Nonetheless, it remains a tough piece of meat but is well suited to simmering, braising or pickling (corned beef). The shanks are often used for stocks or consommés.

The Rib, not surprisingly, contains ribs 6-12 as well as a portion of backbone. This cut produces roast prime rib of beef. The prime here does not refer to grade; rather it reflects the fact that this cut contains the majority of the primal meat. If the eye muscle (center portion) is removed from the ribs then you get a boneless rib eye roast. This can be cut into rib eye steaks. The separated rib bones are beef barbecue ribs. The ends of the rib bones trimmed off this primal are the beef short ribs.

The Short Plate is directly below the Rib primal on the forequarter. This primal yields short ribs and skirt steak. These are flavorful but tough cuts. They are suitable for simmering, braising or marinating and grilling. Fajita meat is often marinated skirt steak. Some portions of the Short Plate may be used in ground beef.

Moving onto the hindquarter there is the Short Loin. It is the front of the back, if you will. The short loin contains 1 rib, the 13thand a portion of the backbone. Some of the most tender (and expensive) cuts come from this primal. The loin eye is a continuation of the rib eye muscle. This runs along the top of the T shaped backbone. If the loin eye meat is removed from the bone you get the boneless strip loin, from which boneless strip steaks are cut. Below the loin eye muscle on the other side of the backbone lies the tenderest cut of all, the beef tenderloin. Cutting the short loin cross ways with the bone in, from front to back, produces: club steak (no tenderloin), T-bones (small portion of tenderloin) and Porterhouse (large portion of tenderloin). The entire tenderloin contains the section in the short loin (short tenderloin) as well as a portion that extends into the next primal, the Sirloin (butt tenderloin). If the entire tenderloin is removed, it can be cut into chateaubriand, filet mignon and tournedos.

The Sirloin, into which the tenderloin extends, lies between the Short Loin and the Round. It contains hip and backbone. This primal produces bone-in or boneless roasts and steaks, which while flavorful are generally not as tender as those from the strip loin.

The Flank lies directly below the Loin primals. It is to the rear of the Short Plate. It is a boneless cut. This primal produces the flank steak or London broil. The meat may also be used in ground beef. There is a small cut from this area known as the hanging tenderloin which very tender and delicious.

The final primal is the Round. It contains the hind leg and can be quite large. It provides a variety of cuts including top round, outside round, bottom round, knuckle and shank. This primal also provides the Steamship Round cut.

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