Choosing the right cuts of beef

Diagram of cuts of beefHelpful drawing my mother gave me when I left home

Daunted by the vast array of cuts of beef on show when you go shopping?

Which one should you pick for your recipe? Will this cut fry well or is it better roasted? 

Asking the butcher for advice may not be possible, so let’s investigate where the different cuts of beef come from. 

When I left home my mother drew me a helpful diagram and gave me this pearl of wisdom…

“A cow uses its muscles for varying purposes. The more a muscle get used the tougher that piece of meat is likely to be and the longer it will take to cook. “

 I have scanned the drawing (above) so I could share it with you too. 

The most tender cuts cook quickly but tend to carry a premium price. Don’t let that put you off! With the right cooking methods even the cheapest cuts of beef shown in the diagram can end up as a tasty meal. 

The table below will explain what each area is known as (in the UK), and how it can be used.

Number

Name of cut

Cooking method

1

Neck

Stewing

2

Chuck steak

Braising or Pot Roast, Grind (mince)

3

Shoulder or Blade Bone

Braise or Slow Roast

4

Top and Back Ribs

Slow Roast

5

Brisket

Stewing, Pot Roast, Braise or Boil

6

Shin and leg

Stewing

7

Flank

Stewing

8

Top rump or Thick Flank

Roast, Pot Roast, Braise

9

Topside and Silverside

Fry or Braise

10

Tail

Stew or Braise


Roasting Cuts of Beef 

I’m guessing you don’t have a spit turning over an open fire to roast your beef joints on in the traditional manner? Me neither, thank goodness!

It is much easier to set your oven to a specific temperature and oven roast your beef. 

There are, however, some points to keep in mind to get the best result.

How many people are you feeding?

It is tempting to buy a small joint to save money, but do consider going bigger and serving any leftovers cold for another meal. A larger piece of beef will give more succulent, juicy meat as it is less likely to dry up during roasting.

Allow 1/2 to 3/4 pound per person if the beef is on the bone, 4-6 oz each if not, when buying your piece of beef. 

Leave the fat on!

If you want a flavourful joint of beef please leave the fat on while roasting it. The fat will self baste the meat and prevent it from drying up. You don’t have to serve or eat the fat once your meat is cooked, if you prefer not to. It will have done its job by then. 

What temperature?

 I like to preheat the oven before roasting my beef. That way the heat will sear the outside and keep those precious juices in. I then turn it down to a more moderate heat for the remaining time to reduce the chance of shrinking.

How long does roasting take?

The length of time a joint takes to roast depends on whether you prefer your beef rare, medium or well done. It is also important to think about the shape of the beef and how thick it is. Chunkier joints will need longer for the heat to penetrate to the middle. 

If there is a bone inside the joint it can help to conduct the heat and result in more evenly cooked meat.

The following table can be used as a rough guideline, but I always recommend using a meat thermometer to test before serving. 


Rare 10 minutes per pound or half kilo plus 10 minutes

Medium 15 minutes per pound or half kilo, plus 15 minutes

Well Done 20 minutes per pound or half kilo, plus 20 minutes


Accompaniments and leftovers

Hot roast beef is often served with a thin gravy, horseradish sauce or mustard, Yorkshire puddings, roast potatoes and parsnips along with other vegetables.

Any beef leftover can be served cold with pickles, chutneys or horseradish sauce and a salad. The meat can also be used in other recipes -  sliced in beef ragout or minced or diced in pasties.


Braising beef

Joint of beef being braisedA piece of beef being braised

Have you ever entered a home and savoured wonderful meaty aromas emanating from the kitchen? If so, the chances are that there is some beef (or other meat) being braised. 

This method is suitable for the front parts of the cow, as these worked harder during its lifetime. The long slow cooking in liquid helps to break down the tough fibres and helps the marbled fat in these areas to baste the meat from inside. 

Don’t let the time factor deter you from trying this wonderful way of cooking the cheaper cuts of beef. The oven takes on the heavy work and once you have done the prep it can be left to cook with little further intervention from you. 

The low oven temperature of around 140oC (275oF) allows the flavours to intensify and the meat to tenderise beautifully. 

Add in the fact that it is all cooked in one covered container and there is little clean up to do after the meal. 

Pot roasting

This method of cooking is similar to braising, however less liquid is used. The dish relies on the moisture from the bed of vegetables to create the steam that helps to cook the meat.

Again you would need a covered ovenproof container, big enough to take the cuts of beef you wish to cook in it. Pot roasting can also be accomplished in a slow cooker or crock pot.

The vegetables often used are carrots, onions, turnips, leeks and swede. These are laid in the base of the pot and sprinkled with water. Then the beef is placed on top and dotted with fat.

The cooking is then long and slow, tenderizing the cheaper cuts of meat to give a delicious, rich meal.



Stewing beef

Some cheaper cuts of beef are sold ready cut into pieces. The temptation here is to pick the packs containing the leanest meat with less visible fat. Stop! Remember that the fat helps to tenderise the meat if it is cooked at a lower temperature.

Stewed beef is cooked in liquid in a covered, ovenproof dish with additional ingredients to add flavour. Various vegetables, herbs and spices can be included. Often flour is added to thicken the liquid.

As with braising, long slow cooking will give the best results. I like to give my stews at least two hours and preferably three. 

Served with buttery baked potatoes or hunks of bread, a tasty stew makes a warming winter supper. 

Frying beef

As a treat you might like to consider frying a lovely juicy piece of steak, be it rump, sirloin, or even fillet if the budget stretches to it!

Good quality beef steaks tend to come from the areas shaded in on my mother's drawing at the top of the page. These areas of the cow are non weight-bearing and therefore the muscles are not worked as hard. This results in the most tender cuts which cook quickly. 

Rump comes from the area on the cow's back, to the left of area 9. Working left we then have the sirloin areas. Fillet, also known as tenderloin, is a small section that intersects these two areas.

When frying a steak I like to use butter for the best flavour, although you can use oil. I spoon the melted butter over the surface of the steak while it is cooking to keep it moist and ensure the top cooks as well as the bottom. 

Ensure the fat is hot before you put the meat in the pan, brown for a minute or two then turn the meat over. Once the meat has coloured you can turn the heat down a little so it can cook through without the outside burning. 

To test for doneness, press your finger against the steak. The firmer it feels the more well done it is. If you like it rare you will want it have some "give" to it. 

Ground beef or minced beef

Shepherds pie in dishCottage Pie

At the other end of the scale is minced or ground beef which can be made from any of the cuts of beef in the diagram. Chuck steak is often used as are scraps left as joints are tidied up by the butcher. 

Frying is often the first stage in cooking this economical meat product. It can then be formed into meatballs, meatloaves or burgers. Vegetables and liquid can be added and the dish can be popped in the oven to complete the cooking process. 

You will find a number of easy ground beef recipes on this site, such as Cottage Pie and Cornish Pasties.