How to buy and cook those beef cuts

Updated: May 20

When I left Iowa and the farm, I took two things with me: my college degree in English and a nascent set of cooking skills. My mother, who was a fantastic cook, had imbued in me a love of food and cooking that I had never really had the chance to explore. I mean, if someone always has a lovingly prepared meal ready for you, how would you ever grow in your skills? I guess that's why they make you leave home, so you can grow up and turn into what you are supposed to be.



So, now in my early 50's, I've been a chef and a butcher. The two skills are complimentary, especially as I became a chef first. I accrued a lot of knowledge about cooking methods, stock making and the importance of seasoning so that, when I became a butcher, I had unusual insights to share with my customers. Not only did I know where a cut came from, I knew how to prepare it, and why one would cook it in that specific style. And now, as a farmer, I've come full circle, back to the farm where my mom first instilled in me that love of food.


Beth recommended over a dinner of sirloin tip steak that I share in a blog post about a few cuts of beef which people often don't know quite what to do about - which will coincidently coincide with the pick up and delivery of our beef to our spring 2022 customers. It might have been the steak's innate chew that brought it up, but whatever the reason, here are my cooking tips for less well known cuts and for grass finished beef in general.


First, if you have a question about how to cook a cut of meat outside of the best known steaks (i.e. ribeye, new york and filet), if you can figure out whether it comes from the front or back half of the animal, you have an excellent clue as to how to cook it.


Add carrots, potatoes and onions and slow cook!

Any cut from the front half of a beef, for whatever reason, has a lot of connective tissue called collagen that will break down under moist, low heat cooking. Good examples of these cuts are chuck and shoulder roasts, brisket and short ribs. This means that these cuts are excellent braised slowly in moist heat (read pot roast) or smoked slowly under fairly low heat over a longer period of time. Because of this very same collagen, these parts tend to be chewy if cooked medium rare quickly over high heat, and downright un-chewable if cooked well done on a grill.


Most cuts from the back half of the animal, on the other hand, were left off the collagen gravy train. Examples are top round, outside round (sometimes referred to as bottom) and eye of round. Because they are extremely hard working muscles (think back legs) they tend to be very lean and depending on the cut, high in iron. The extra iron can give a livery flavor, especially if cooked well done, something not so great unless you love liver.



Lacking the collagen of the front end, these cuts really aren't great for pot roasts. I know, I know, a lot of moms use these cuts to make pot roast, but that doesn't make it right. If gravy is required to make it something you can swallow, there are better things to cook (see chuck roast above). The best way, then, to make these cuts tasty is to sear them and roast them quickly on high heat with a lot of seasoning (side note: big cuts need a lot of seasoning on the outside because seasonings, even salt, don't penetrate much past the surface, so the outside needs to be seasoned well enough for the whole piece) then serve them medium rare, sliced as thin as you can reasonably manage.


Why slice thin? The fibers of these muscles are long and strong and cutting across the fibers (thus making them shorter) makes them a lot less tough.

The best roast beef sandwich I ever had came out of a perfectly medium rare top round, served with creamy horseradish sauce and a side of au jus, mmmmmm good.


Other tips -


My favorite things for braising or stewing - oxtail and beef shank (pretty much in that order). These are cuts that might seem weird, but believe you me, people in the know value these cuts above ribeye and filet. Sear them and braise in a good strong beef stock and you will have a sticky, delicious mess to serve over some garlic mashed potatoes - all the collagen you could want for shiny hair and strong fingernails.


And to go with all these beef dishes? Don't ever refuse your beef bones if buying animals direct. The locker will save them for you, and you, can use them to create a secret ingredient that will knock the socks off dinner guests every time.


Take your beef bones and roast them with onions, carrots, celery and tomato paste. No light roast here, really brown everything. Then add a bottle of decent red wine, some bay leaves, thyme and parsley if you have it, cover with water and bring to a boil. Turn it down to a simmer and let it cook for at least 12 hours. Strain the stock, give the bones to all the neighborhood dogs, and return the stock to the pot. Bring it back to a boil, turn it down to a high simmer and reduce it by half.


When it is done, your demiglace, which is what you have made, will have an intense flavor, will set up like rubber and will keep in the fridge a long time. If you want to keep it a really long time, put it in small containers in the freezer and pull it out for use later. Add it to soups, sauces, glazes, gravies, mushrooms, anything that goes with the meat and you will not be unhappy.


And finally, since I mentioned it at the top, sirloin tip steak (or roast). What to do with this oddball cut? Clearly it can be cut into a steak, but is it good? Meh, too chewy for most people to really love it. So it must be a good roast, right? Again, meh. So what to do?


Well, the one thing that sirloin tip has going for it is flavor. I prefer it to that of filet by a mile, but the problem is that it has a lot of tendons that make it pretty chewy. In the end, the best place for this cut is as stir fry meat. Cut it up, taking out the obvious tendons and silver skin and then marinate before cooking. Marinating and the trimming makes it more tender and it has a natural great beefy flavor that makes a stir fry shine.


Last but not least, burgers. If you are cooking them on the grill, over salt them, as you will lose about half of the salt to the grill. You will get more compliments just by properly salting your burger than for any other thing that you might add.


Feel free to ask any questions you have and - Happy Cooking!

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