Cuts of beef are obtained from a cow (female that has delivered a calf), a heifer (female that has not delivered a calf), a young steer (castrated male), or a bull (less than 2 years old). Each main beef cut is known as a primal cut, which consists of groups of muscles from the same area of the carcass. Primal cuts are also called wholesale cuts, because they are usually sold to meat markets to be cut into smaller beef cuts for sale to the consumer. An example of a primal cut is the short loin. Smaller cuts of beef are taken from the primal cuts and are known as subprimal cuts. An example of a subprimal cut is the tenderloin, which is cut from the short loin. The subprimal cuts of beef can yield still smaller cuts such as filet mignon steaks from the tenderloin. Many of the subprimal cuts of beef, and the smaller cuts obtained from them, are known as consumer cuts, retail cuts, or market ready cuts.
Beef cuts may consist of a single muscle, such as the tenderloin, while others may be a cross section of several muscles. A Porterhouse steak, for example, is a cross section of parts of the top loin and tenderloin muscles. Many cross section cuts include some bone.
Cuts of beef that are obtained from the center of the animal, such as the loin and rib area, are the most tender. This is because the muscles in the loin and rib areas are suspension muscles and do not move as much as the muscles in the front and rear portions of the animal, which are responsible for locomotion. Beef cuts obtained from locomotion muscles are lean, but much tougher than suspension muscles.
Various cuts of beef may differ in name between different countries and even in different regions of the same country, so it can be confusing. For example, in the United States, the rear section of the carcass is known as the round, but in Canada, the same section is called the hip.
Cuts of American beef are graded by government (USDA) standards and labeled with one of the following designations: Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, and Cutter/Canner. A number of factors are considered when beef is graded, such as the texture of the meat, the quantity of fat within the meat, and the proportion of bone in relation to the meat. Prime grades are available to restaurants and some food markets, while Choice, Select, and Standard cuts are commonly available in many food stores. Commercial, Utility and Cutter/Canner grades are most often processed for use in manufacturing a variety of canned and packaged meat products such as luncheon meat, sausages, and jerky.
As a guide for selecting beef, lean boneless cuts yield up to 4 servings per pound while beef cuts with some bone yield up to 3 servings per pound. Bony cuts yield no more than 1 ½ servings per pound. One serving of a rib roast is equal to half a rib, so if you will be serving 8 people, a 4 rib roast should be purchased. 16 ounces (one pound) of ground beef produces about 4 cooked 3-ounce servings, which is the serving size recommended for a healthy diet.
When thawing beef, it is easier to cut it before it is fully defrosted. After cutting, the beef should be refrigerated until it has fully thawed. Fresh raw beef that has not been frozen can be placed in the freezer for a few minutes to firm it up a bit, making slicing much easier. Beef that is not fully defrosted should not be cooked because the exterior of the beef may become overdone before the interior has had a chance to cook to the proper temperature.
Aged beef is a product that has been specially processed and stored to improve the flavor and texture of the meat. Typically, sides of beef or primal cuts are selected for aging, which involves placing the meat in refrigerated temperatures that average approximately 35ºF/1.66ºC for 4 to 6 weeks. In controlled refrigeration, moisture within the meat begins to evaporate while the enzymes within the flesh soften the connective tissues. Thus, the flavor of the meat is improved as the meat becomes increasingly tender. Due to the wide ranges of temperature and humidity that may be present in consumer level refrigerators, aging beef in this manner at home is not recommended.
When cooking beef, the USDA recommends that whole beef cuts be cooked to a safe internal temperature of not less than 145°F/62.77ºC. Traditional guidelines usually state that medium rare beef should be cooked to an internal temperature of no higher than 130°F/54.4ºC, but with increased concern over bacteria that may be present in the internal portions of beef, it may be risky to consume beef that has not cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 145°F/62.77ºC.