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Taking on the Butcher

Posted on Wednesday, January 7, 2009 in Deep Dish

 Cooking for groups or making that special WOW meal for your hubby means pulling recipes, making a shopping list and heading to the grocery store. The butcher can be a bit intimidating when you see the recipe call for a top round and can’t find those exact words on a package of beef. What should I substitute top sirloin or maybe chuck? Well here are some notes that have helped me learn the way approach the man in the white coat.  


Before you head to the store:

1.      Know which meals you’re shopping for and how many people.

2.      Standard restaurant portion is 8 ounces, but that is why we are all obese so cut back to 4-5 ounces if that will be enough for your guests.

3.      Nothing gray or discolored should appear in your butcher’s case. But it’s hard to assess quality from behind glass. Beef should be bright red, though slightly darker if vacuum-packed.

4.      Don’t be afraid to ask a butcher for the freshest steaks, but if your in a specialty shop the butcher might look at you strange because they might specialize in aged beef. Aging beef allows beef to soften as the tissue breaks down. Wet aging and dry again are available, but you’ll pay for it.

5.      USDA grades: grades primarily deal with the amount of intramuscular fat in meat — the more marbling, the higher the grade.  Higher grades often have more fat and more calories than leaner meat. The three grades to look for are prime, choice or select, in that order.

6.      Posh Terminology: “Natural” simply means that no colorings, and generally no other additives, are used in meat. It says nothing about animal health or feeding. “Organic” indicates rigorous standards, but has more to do with the quality of animal feed than what that feed consists of. “Grass-fed” doesn’t indicate whether an animal was fed grass all the way to slaughter; many are finished on grain or corn. (”Grass finished” is more useful.) “Vegetarian-fed” simply indicates a farmer didn’t use feed containing animal protein or byproducts.

7.      Lean cuts include top loin, top sirloin, chuck shoulder, arm roasts, round steaks and roasts (round eye, top round, bottom round, round tip), and at least 90% lean ground beef.

*The Cooking Explanation:

The chuck, brisket, round and shank are the most exercised muscles and hence, the toughest.  A pot roast can be made from chuck via braising, (cooking the meat in a small amount of liquid for an extended period of time).  Chuck is also useful for stew meat, making stock, and ground beef.  Your average hamburger is mostly ground chuck. 

The brisket is home to corned and barbequed beef.  The classic corned beef and cabbage is made from boiling the meat.  Pot roast can also be done with brisket, again by braising.

The round includes the top round, bottom round, heel round, eye round, and rump roast.  Sometimes ground beef is made from the round as well. Although all round cuts are tough, the top round is the tenderest, relatively speaking.  Because of this, it can be roasted.  London broil comes from the top round and can also be grilled.  All of the others however, do best made into roasts with moist heat methods.  Notice that making a “roast” does not necessarily mean that the meat will be roasted.  At the risk of belaboring the point for clarification, roasts such as pot roasts from tough cuts, require braising.  Roasts made from more tender meat are made by actually roasting. 

The shank is definitely best when braised as in the classic dish osso buco.  It can also be used for stews and stocks. 

The short plate and flank contain meat of medium toughness.  The muscle fibers are relatively coarse but contain sufficient intramuscular fat to maintain tenderness.  The short plate gives us short ribs which are braised or boiled as in New England boiled beef.  Skirt steak, (from the short plate) and flank and hanger steaks, (from the flank), are delicious when grilled.  However, they must not be overcooked, benefit from being marinated, and should be cut against the grain for a softer texture.  Mexican fajitas are often made from marinated strips of flank steak.

The rib, short loin, and sirloin render the most delicate cuts of beef.  Broiling, grilling, sautéing and roasting reign supreme here.  Rib steaks, (also known as delmonico or prime rib), rib eye steaks, (without the bone), and rib roasts, naturally come from the rib.  The sirloin provides a variety of sirloin steaks differing on where in the sirloin they are cut from.  Sirloin can also be ground and mixed with ground chuck for primo hamburgers.

Finally, the crème de la crème of beef: the short loin.  Picture a porterhouse or T-bone steak.  The larger side is referred to by all the names at the top of the article:  top loin, strip, New York strip, shell steak, etc.  The smaller side is the tenderloin or filet mignon.  The porterhouse and the T-bone are the same except that the porterhouse is cut from the larger end of the short loin and thus provides more of the filet mignon.  Both the top loin and the tenderloin can be cut into individual steaks, or larger roasts.  In the case of the top loin, the steaks may or may not be attached to the bone.  The tenderloin is always boneless except when part of a porterhouse or T-bone steak.



  1. I love beef and I love to grill.If you want more recipes or if you want to take a look at the collection of tips I have for grilling you can visit

  2. I think you are thinking like sukrat, but I think you should cover the other side of the topic in the post too…

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