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Easy Guide To The Cuts Of Beef

Updated on February 26, 2010

You're in the supermarket, staring at the meat counter, completely mystified. Is top round the same as top sirloin? Why does brisket look like flank steak that looks like London broil? Should you splurge on a porterhouse or go for the T-bone? And just who the heck is Chuck Steak? Any relation to Chuck Roast or Boneless Chuck? Argh! Who knew buying beef could be so bewildering?

It is confusing! There are so many cuts of beef, it's difficult for the consumer to know what to do. Worse, the names can be aggravatingly similar. For example, top-round steak and round steak are different cuts that require different methods of cooking. (Round steak is tougher, it needs to be braised or stir-fried. The more tender top round can be marinated and broiled.) And then there's the problem of too many names for the same cut of meat, such as chuck shoulder roast, aka boneless chuck roast, aka pot roast.

 Buying beef in a supermarket is a bit of a crapshoot. In the long ago past, there was a butcher who cut the meat himself and could tell his customers what to do with each part. Today's supermarket meat manager gets pre-cut meat and may know little about it.

So what's a conscientious consumer to do? Figure out how you want to cook your meat, then find a cut to match it. That way, you won't pick chuck if you only have time to grill, and your choice won't be sirloin if you're thinking of slow-cooking something in the crockpot.

The beef industry agrees. In fact, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association is trying to convince supermarkets to reorganize their meat counters not by cut, but by cooking method. For example, meats good for grilling or broiling could be grouped in one section, while those that need long, slow stewing would be in another.

A few chains are test-marketing this concept, but widespread acceptance is a long way off. In the meantime, consumers can get to the meat of the matter by remembering some simple rules:

Chuck's a tough guy, tough but flavorful. This means chuck blade roast, boneless chuck roast, chuck eye roast, chuck shoulder or anything else with "chuck" in the name is best for cooking slowly in liquid (like a pot roast or stew) or grinding. So-called chuck steaks are just thick slices cut from chuck roasts. Grill them like a top-quality steak and they will be very, very chewy. A better idea is to marinate them for 6 to 24 hours and then grill, but don't expect miracles.

Loin means tender. Cuts with "loin" in the name, like tenderloin, top loin and top sirloin, are the most tender and don't need long cooking times. They can be broiled, grilled, sauteed or roasted. (Although they aren't called loin, the very tender T-bone, porterhouse and New York strip steaks are also loin cuts.)

Round is the leanest. Round cuts, like top-round steak, round steak and bottom-round roast, have little fat but are generally tough. The roasts need slow braising, but the steaks are a good choice for stir-frying, as long as they're thinly sliced. Top round, with enough marinating, could be grilled.

London broil is the name of a recipe, not a cut of meat. Traditionally, it means flank steak that's marinated, broiled and then thinly sliced, but other large steaks, such as sirloin tip and top round, also can be prepared as London broil.

Choosing a steak is a confusing name game. Can't decide if you like porterhouse or T-bone better? It's a matter of size. Porterhouse is just a larger version of a T-bone steak. If you like strip steak, beware that it has half a dozen names: New York strip, Kansas City strip, club steak, shell steak, strip loin and top loin.

Marinating, it's the secret to good, cheap steaks. Less tender cuts, like flank, top round, sirloin and shoulder steak need to be soaked for 6 to 24 hours in a marinade that includes an acidic liquid, one that can tenderize the meat, such as wine, yogurt, vinegar, papaya or other citrus juices. Don't marinate for longer than 24 hours, however, or the surface of the meat will become mushy. For tender steaks, marinate for as little as 15 minutes or up to 2 hours.

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