Chefs who are into sustainability have pioneered the “tip to tail” and “whole animal” movements, adding unfamiliar cuts of meat to their menus and finding ways to use entire fish, reducing waste. However, new cooks looking to rise in the ranks should start by mastering the cuts of meat all beginner chefs should know.
Steakhouse patrons and other meat-lovers may eventually come around to trying less familiar cuts. However, meat-eating diners—including those now using delivery and curbside pickup services—still expect the classics to be on the menu, even if experienced chefs have tired of them. Restaurant patrons don’t like to be told what they should like; they want to be served what they do like. In the meantime, chefs who are starting out cooking meat can expect orders for the most popular cuts.
The Muscle Makes the Meat
Culinary schools and other schools of kitchenwork will help new chefs understand that the quality of the cut and the best way to cook it depend on what part of the animal they’re cooking. Many chefs regard some of the most popular cuts as bland, boring, and lacking in flavor. Muscles that don’t get much use will be tender, but they’ll lack the richness of cuts that are marbled with fat or that contain a lot of connective tissue, which breaks down with long braising or stewing. Fat adds flavor, and so do the surrounding organs, which may lend a stronger flavor to cuts that abut them.
Tenderloin or filet mignon
This cut comes from the top back part of the cow. Many chefs have come to loathe it because they regard it as lacking flavor. It’s from a part of the cow that doesn’t get much use as a muscle, and tends to lack the marbling that provides more flavor to other cuts. However, it’s renowned for its tenderness.
New York Strip
This cut comes from the top part of the cow, approximately in the middle of the cow’s back in an area called the short loin. It’s cut from behind the ribs. It’s a boneless, in-between cut with more fat than the tenderloin.
Flavorful and fatty, the ribeye comes from the center of the rib steak. It can be served on or off the bone, and it tends to be juicy.
This is a steak that comes from the rib section of the cow and that’s cooked with the bone in. Sometimes called a standing rib steak, prime rib is usually roasted, whereas ribeye is cut from the standing rib roast and grilled. Prime rib is usually a large portion that includes the ribeye, while ribeye is the cut out of the best part of the standing rib roast.
Porterhouse or T-Bone
This steak is cut from the spine down toward the tenderloin and ribeye sections of the short loin, producing a two-sided steak. One side is tenderloin, and the other is strip. Cutting through the vertebra of the spine produces the T shape in the steak. The Porterhouse version is a cut that has more tenderloin, but it’s still very similar to the T-bone. It got its name from English pubs that served a dark ale called Porter.
Chuck steaks come from the shoulder and neck portion of the cow. This area is a hardworking set of muscles, so this meat can be tough. It has plenty of connective tissue, though, so that makes it good for pot roasts and stews. Chuck has plenty of fat, so when it’s ground, it makes for juicy burgers.
The lower front chest of the cow, brisket is another hardworking muscle. It’s thick, but it has a decent amount of fat. Best known for how it tenderizes when properly cooked, brisket owes its popularity to slow cooking—either smoking or barbeque. It’s also used for corned beef and pot roast.
Divided into top and bottom cuts, sirloin comes from the back part of the cow, behind the 13th rib to the hip, where the rear or “round” portion of the animal begins. Sirloin is good for grilling, and parts of the lower or bottom sirloin—called the tri-tip and flap—can be roasted, barbecued, or ground.
Hanger or Skirt
Chefs who have expanded into whole-animal cooking are now offering more lesser-known cuts, such as hanger or skirt steak. This is muscle that “hangs” from the cow’s diaphragm, and each cow has only one of them, so it can’t provide a lot of servings. It’s surrounded by organs, which give it a more robust flavor. Butchers used to keep this cut for themselves because of its flavor, which has a tinge of organ meat about it. It comes from an area on the cow called the plate, which sits just behind the brisket, more toward the cow’s middle. It has a thick section of connective tissues that must be trimmed. It’s thin, and it can become tough if overcooked. It’s very muscley, so it should be cut across the grain, or else chewing it will take a lot of jaw exercise.
Beef and veal shank, or the shins of the animal, are tough and must be braised long enough to break down sinews and fat. But when this happens, the meat absorbs the flavors of any vegetables, spices, and wine in which it’s cooked, and the marrow softens and becomes buttery. The marrow can be used to flavor gravies and soups or eaten on its own. Braised veal shanks and vegetables are the primary ingredients in osso buco, a staple stew of the Lombardy region of Italy. Pork and lamb necks are also finding their way onto menus, brined and braised, or incorporated into terrines.
New chefs learn various preparation and cooking techniques to get the most out of different cuts of meat. Grilling, roasting, brining, rubbing, and marinating all form part of the chef’s repertoire. Most restaurant kitchens also use specialized equipment such as commercial meat-cutting machines to slice cooked meats for sandwiches or commercial meat grinders to create specialty burgers and sausages. Aspiring chefs who master the basics can move on to create new dishes featuring a greater variety of meats.