- Level of Difficulty
Beef is often considered a premium protein due to relative costs to pork and chicken. Beef is a versatile protein, although not quite as versatile as chicken. Beef is typically the hardest of the common proteins to cook due to the many numbers of cuts, the many numbers of cooking methods that can be used, and the amount of attention required to cook a cut of beef to perfection.
We’re going to talk about the basics of beef and what you need to know to ensure that you are using your foundational knowledge to produce the very best beef dishes you can. Cooking beef isn’t exactly hard, but without using the proper cooking methods you will have a larger tendency to over-cook, under-cook, have it turn out tough, and generally not making the best out of all cuts.
The Primal Cuts
Primal cuts are the first parts that the cow is broken up into. Think of a car, and taking out the engine would be considered a primal. It’s a base cut. These primal cuts are then broken down further into the subprimal cuts you find in the grocery store. We’ll describe each primal and the preferred cooking method associated with each.
- Short Loin
The Chuck, Brisket, Shank, Plate and Rib are tougher pieces of beef from the front-quarter. They tend to have the most muscle definition that creates the toughness. The protein contained within these cuts are generally very well developed. Many of these pieces are generally used for ground beef, stocks and for smoking. Others, such as the ribs, have found their way into the top in popularity due to their low-cost and amazing results.
You generally want to cook the cuts from these primals using a moist-heat cooking method or combination cooking. They generally lend themselves to generous simmering times, braising and marinating. The end product is very tender, flavorful and is pretty cheap to make.The rib primal is the only exception to the moist-heat cooking method, and it is here you find the rib-eye and prime rib roasts which are prized for their excellent marbling and excellent tenderness.
The Short Loin, Sirloin, Hip, and Flank generally contain the nicer cuts of beef located in the hind-quarter. The prized tenderloin extends through the short loin and sirloin which combined is called the Long Loin. This is where you’ll find your NY strip loins, tenderloin cuts (Which is further broken up into the Chateaubriand, Filet Mignon, and Tournedos), porterhouse, and t-bone.
The sirloin will be where you’ll find flavorful roasts, such as the top sirloin butt, and tender steaks. The hip is where you’ll find the cheaper roasts, such as the inside round, eye of round and outside rounds. The outside round is best when braised, while the inside produces the best roast.
The general rule for hind-quarter is most of them can be used with a dry-heat method as much of the meat you’ll find from the hind-quarter is of high quality and coming from the loin, hip and flank.
When in doubt, it is always recommended that you judge a cut by its appearance. A cut with nearly zero fat marbling will generally require a moist-heat cooking method to ensure tenderness. A cut with a lot of fat marbling, such as a rib eye steak, will do very nicely grilled or pan-fried.
Grading Beef (USA & Canada)
Beef grading takes into account five factors:
- The animal’s age
- The color of the meat
- The conformation of the muscling
- The fat color
- The sex of the animal
For beef, the intramuscular fat (Or marbling) is also taken into account. Much of the grading today is done through the use of digital camera scanning of cuts which detects the marbling, color, and size.
The standards for beef grading in Canada is much higher and stricter than that of the US. This image shows the various cuts, and how they gain those grades.
All beef should be aged a minimum of 14 days. Any more than that produces very little benefit. Meats which are not aged are called “green meats”. They will be very tough and flavorless when cooked.
Degrees of Doneness
Cooking a steak, roast or any other cut of beef requires the knowledge of the proper doneness. In the industry, this is called the “color”.
There are 6 types of rarity corresponding to the image on the left
- Blue Rare
- Medium Rare
- Medium Well
- Well Done
You can determine the doneness of steak by touching or squeezing it, by sight, by color, and by time. A blue rare steak will usually take about 30 seconds on each side, will remain cold in the middle, and be firm as the protein has just begun to coagulate and tighten. A rare steak will be very spongy and have almost no resistance, and be warm in the middle. No juice will be visible at this stage.
Medium rare you’ll begin to see visual changes to the steak. Blood will start to come out of the steak, and when pressed there will be some resistance. A medium color will see the blood starting to pool on top of the steak, is will be slightly firm and springy. The center will be a rosy pink.
When a steak is at medium well, you will have very little pink in the middle, the steak will be firm and springy. A well-done steak has no redness within it, and it’s quite firm and springs back quickly when pressed.
It’s important to remember when you have finished cooking a steak to let it rest for a good minute or so to allow the juices the naturally come out of the steak. By doing so, some of the juices coming out will seep back in, giving more flavor.
You can also use the palm of your hand to determine doneness. Although rarely used by professionals, they are taught this skill while in school so they begin to familiarize themselves with how a steak should feel at each level of doneness.
Let’s watch Gordon Ramsay as he pan-fries a steak where he’ll show you how to judge doneness by using the palm method.