The Skinny on... Beef

Holy cow! There’s so much to know about beef. Here’s your best reference guide yet.
Skinny On BeefThe Skinny On

No doubt about it, we love our beef. And no wonder: it’s tasty, nutritious, and so very versatile, from the grill to the braising pot. But the choices can be a bit overwhelming, so let’s cut to the chase and go after exactly what we need to know. In this guide, we’re not focused as much on cooking beef as we are on choosing it at the store. So here’s what you need to know to get some beef on the table for dinner and yet honor our healthy choices and lifestyles.

Who knew one animal, the humble cow, could give us so many different cuts, so many different ways to get a tasty meal on the table?

But lot of choices do come with some drawbacks. Choosing the right bits for you can be confusing as you stand at the meat counter and stare at all those cuts. Let’s straighten out our choices and learn a little about one of our favorite foods.

Fat facts

Every cut of beef for your table should be trimmed of extraneous fat. Three ounces of cooked, untrimmed brisket comes out to 9 PointsPlus values; the same amount of cooked, trimmed brisket, 4 PointsPlus values.

Trim by cutting off all external, visible fat before roasting, grilling, or any other cooking method. Also remove any large, internal pockets of fat, like the fatty line inside a strip steak or big chunks inside a chuck roast.

But don’t worry about the small bits of marbling between the meat’s planes. These should be left intact for better taste and proper cooking.

Don’t want to go to this trouble? Ask your supermarket’s butcher to trim a cut for you.

How to choose

Is this to be a quick dinner or do you have all afternoon to cook (or perhaps a slow cooker to do the cooking for you)? That answer will determine the cut of beef you’ll buy. So let’s start with this most important breakdown:

Basic Beef Cuts
Quick-cookers
  • Top round
  • London broil
  • Sirloin
  • Strip steak
  • Tenderloin
  • Filet mignon
  • Rib-eye steak
  • Delmonico steak
  • T-bone steak
  • Porterhouse steak
  • Flank steak
  • Skirt steak
  • Hanger steak
Long-cookers
  • Rump roast
  • Brisket
  • Bottom round
  • Rib roast
  • Short ribs
  • Chuck roast
  • Beef shanks
  • Oxtails

Two notes about these two categories.

  • First, you’ll notice that our quick-cookers range from those that take a few minutes (like filets mignons) to those that can take 15 minutes or more (like a Porterhouse steak).
  • Second, our long-cookers include mostly cuts best for braising or stewing, although a rib roast is only ever roasted and a brisket can be braised, slow-roasted, smoked, barbecued, or even brined for corned beef.

The most important tool for cooking beef

Now that you know something about the various cuts, it’s important to know the only way beef is done: by temperature, not time.

There are many factors that determine how long a cut needs to cook, including the animal’s stress level in life, the amount of internal marbling in the cut, and the constancy of the cooking temperature.

Insert the thermometer's probe on a slight angle into the center of the cut without the probe’s touching bone or any large bits of cartilage. Hold it there for a few seconds until the temperature stabilizes. While there are vast differences between one chef’s medium-rare (at, say, 125°F) and another’s (at 140°F), there are really only three internal temperatures that matter in the long run.

The 3 Most Important Temperature Readings
  • 120°F. This is the point at which the proteins have begun to coagulate and the meat changes from raw to rare.
  • 145°F. This is point the USDA has declared as safe for most beef. At this point, most of the juice has been squeezed between the tightening planes of the meat’s fibers. In fact, all of the fat has melted into juice. The beef is about "medium."
  • 150°F and above. At the point, any fat has been squeezed out of the beef’s fibers and collagen — the dominant protein in the meat — has begun to melt. Long-stewing cuts with lots of collagen should be taken to this temperature (and well beyond) to assure they’re still juicy. They lack much fat and so need collagen melt to stay tender. However, strip steaks and leaner cuts have little collagen and so will be tough as leather at this temperature.

Ground Beef

Although we’ve identified the most important cuts, we have to say a few words about the type of beef most of us buy most often: ground beef. It’s almost always sold by the amount of residual fat, usually listed as a percentage. Here are our choices:

3 oz. cooked ground beef PointsPlus values
80% or 85% lean ground beef 5
90% lean ground beef 4
95% lean ground beef 3

Let’s face it: most of what’s sold in the supermarket is made from trimmings and hunks that don’t fit into our ready categories of beef. If you’re not interested in trimmings, ask the butcher to grind a cut of beef for you to order. Have him or her trim off all exterior fat before grinding. Choose cuts like top round, bottom round, or sirloin. For the most luxurious burger ever, even consider tenderloin!

And keep that instant-read meat thermometer handy. Because of certain pathogens and pests in ground beef, the USDA recommends cooking it to 160°F.

Know the lingo

Once you’ve got the basics down, you can start to discover more ways to classify and understand the beef you’re buying. Here are some words you may see on the packaging:

  • Grass-fed: The cows ate grass at sometime in their lives. (The cows were probably fed corn at the end of their lives.)
  • Grass-finished: The cows ate grass their entire lives.
  • Organic: In the US, the cows passed certain legal strictures, including no hormones, no antibiotics, and a pesticide-free diet.
  • Prime: The first of the USDA categories for grading beef — the meat is the most highly marbled from your cows, and thus the most highly prized, often snagged by restaurants.
  • Choice: The second USDA category, indicating slightly less marbling from a still-young cow.
  • Select: The third USDA category of quality, usually indicating even leaner cuts but also sometimes with a more aged, livery tang.
  • Standard, Commercial, Utility, and Cutter: The four bottom USDA grades, indicating the cow’s more advanced age, firmness, color, and inferior marbling.

One last thought

Always shop at a supermarket with a butcher on site. You can ask questions, have meat ground, and get him or her to tie a cut for you with butcher's twine so it will hold its shape as it cooks.

In other words, use the butcher as your personal sous-chef and consultant. If the person behind the counter seems surly or uninformed, take your business elsewhere!

Spend your money wisely — and enjoy the best beef you can comfortably afford.

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