How to Select and Prepare Beef

Use this cheat sheet to streamline your order the next time you’re at the meat counter.

By: Elizabeth Stark

Some tender cuts of beef need just a few minutes on a pan to approach culinary perfection, while others should be cooked slowly for hours to make a rich sauce or stew. The trick is knowing how to choose the right cut for the job.

1. Tenderloin
As the name suggests, beef tenderloin comes from the cow’s loin, and because it’s a muscle that doesn’t do much work, it’s remarkably tender.

  • While it’s sometimes sold as a roast, you’ll most often find it cut into steaks sold as filet mignon.
  • Tenderloin comprises part of the T-bone and porterhouse steak cuts.

The best ways to cook tenderloin are either roasting (if purchased as a roast) and grilling or broiling if purchased as a steak. Tenderloin is a relatively lean cut; be careful not to over cook it, as it will dry out quickly.

2. Brisket
This is a muscle that does a lot of work and can be tough since it contains a great deal of connective tissue. There is also a large amount of fat capping the top of the cut.

Because brisket is tough, it’s best to slow cook it and give it plenty of time to break down and soften. Braising brisket is the easiest way to get the meat fork tender. Throw it in a slow cooker for the same result. If you have access to a smoker, brisket is a perfect choice for this cooking method.

3. Rib-eye
The rib-eye steak can take many forms with many uses: If the bone is included, it’s a rib steak. If it’s cut away from the bone, it’s a rib-eye. The bone gives beef a stronger flavor, so this cut packs more flavor than a filet mignon, even if it’s a little less tender.

Because rib-eye steaks are so flavorful, they only need a little salt and pepper before you grill, broil or pan-fry them.

4. Ground Beef
The important thing to notice when selecting ground beef is the fat-to-lean beef ratio. This is usually communicated on the packaging by two numbers: beef first, fat content second. Don’t be afraid of fat! The higher the fat content in the ground beef, the juicier the end result will be.

  • Use ground chuck for dishes like hamburgers and chili.
  • Use ground round for dishes like tacos and stuffed peppers.
  • Use ground sirloin for dishes like meatballs and meatloaf when other ingredients are added.

5. Round
The round is commonly sold as rump roasts, round roasts, eye of round and round steaks. You’ll also find it already cubed as stew meat.

Although it’s often sold as roasts, it’s a lean cut that dries out easily, so this is a cut for slow cooking in a stew or braise.

Choosing Your Beef
Once you know what you’re making and the right cut for the job, choosing should be a breeze. Here are some tips to know and look out for:

Grass Fed vs. Grain Fed
Most cows are raised on grass at first and transferred to grain or corn later. Grass-fed beef, however, has spent its entire life on a pasture.

  • Grass-fed beef is generally leaner, and proponents claim it is more flavorful.
  • Grain-fed beef is fattier, which also means it's more moist and juicy.

Dry-aged vs. Regular
Dry aging generally means the steaks have been hung in a climate-controlled case, allowing moisture to evaporate. This creates a more concentrated taste and allows enzymes to break down the tissues creating complex, rich flavors. Dry-aged beef is tender and delicious, but the process is time consuming, so keep in mind that it comes at a premium.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Grading
Grades reflect the degree to which the meat is marbled and the maturity of the animal, and are meant to give an idea of how tender the beef is.

  • USDA Prime is the highest grade and only a tiny percentage of meat receives this grade.
  • USDA Choice is the next grade down and represents most of the meat found at the grocery store.
  • USDA Select is below Choice and is generally leaner and tougher than the higher grades.

When possible, it’s best to buy from a reputable butcher who should be able to answer any questions about where the beef came from, how it was raised and how fresh it is.

Elizabeth’s work can be found with her husband, Brian’s, on their blog, Brooklyn Supper a story of a family eating with the seasons in Virginia and Brooklyn. They believe strongly that good, local food and wholesome meals should be for everyone.



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