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When getting your beef from a local farmer or raising it yourself, you need to know when butchering a cow (technically a bovine and usually a steer or heifer) cuts of meat that are essential to make sure you’re getting the most from the animal and the cuts that will serve you and your family best.
This is part two of our raising grass fed beef and what you need to know about butchering. If you missed part one where we talked about What You Need to Know About Butcher Day, you definitely want to check it out. It’s all about what you need to know on butcher day and focuses on the cuts that you can only get on butcher day as well as how to instruct the butcher to handle them. This part of the series will focus on what you need to know for your cut and wrap order.
Listen in below to the full podcast, Episode #216 When Butchering a Cow the Best Cuts of Meat to Get of the Pioneering Today Podcast, where we don’t just inspire you, but give you the clear steps to create the homegrown garden, pantry, kitchen and life you want for your family and homestead.
As promised we’re getting into everything you need to know to tell your butcher to make sure that you are getting the most out of the animal as well as the cuts that you and your family are going to use. This may vary some and I’ll walk you through this, but I want to give you a good overview of all the different cuts. Then I will share with you the cuts that we get and those that are available. Also to be covered are those items that you must request to be given to you that is not part of the normal cut and wrap unless specifically requested. The butcher won’t ask you if you want them so it’s up to you to ask for them. Many people don’t necessarily want them nor will they use them but us homesteaders like to get the most out of the animals so we do use them.
Update: Technically a cow is a female bovine who has had a calf, a heifer is a female bovine under two years of age that hasn’t had any calves, and a steer is male bovine that has been castrated, a bull is a male bovine that can reproduce. Usually you’ll be getting a steer or heifer as your beef animal.
One of the things the butcher will ask you is what size package you want your hamburger in. Typically, it comes in one, one and a half, or two pounds. That of course depends on your family size and how much meat you usually use when cooking.
With our family of four we usually just do a one-pound package with our ground meat like hamburger and sausage. If I need two pounds in the event of a potluck, hosting a dinner, or batch cooking and doubling a recipe, then I’m able to just grab two packages out and know that that’s two pounds. For the majority of the time, especially when doing hamburgers, spaghetti, meatballs, or something like that, one pound is very sufficient for us.
The next decision you’ll need to make is how many steaks you’ll want per package. For our family of four, usually, I like to have two steaks per package. My daughter is still young while my son is starting to hit those teenage years and eating more, but even with that we usually are able to divide up the two steaks between the four of use. That gives us one meal with no leftovers. Again, this all depends on your family size.
As mentioned in episode 214 Raising Grass-Fed Beef – What You Need to Know on Butcher Day, you want the meat to be dry-aged for at least 14 days, preferably 21 days. But before that time period is up the butcher will want your cut and wrap order so that they can get it done as soon as possible, especially when it’s a busy season. They’ll put that order with your beef so that on the day that they actually cut and wrap everything, they already have the order information right there ready to go. So, just know that within the first couple of days of kill day, they want you to call in with your order. If you don’t call them, they’ll call you.
When looking at the cow, the USDA divides it into eight regions. These are referred to as the primal or main cuts. They are:
A few of them you may recognize such as the rib. And you’ve probably heard of chuck roast, flank steaks, and brisket, but we’re going to get into the nitty-gritty. The butcher looks at the main eight areas. If you’re a visual person I’ve included a link for a cuts chart in the resources section below.
These primal cuts get further divided into sub-primal cuts. These are cuts that are a cut of meat that is larger than a steak or roast but definitely smaller than half or quarter side of beef. From there they are they’re cut into individual size and portion cuts.
The most expensive cuts, which you’re not paying more for (as explained in episode 214) when you butcher or purchase a whole animal, you pay the same per pound for all the cuts), but the most expensive cuts are in the center – the loin and rib section. They are more tender than the outer sections.
If you think about it, the out section, legs, and neck which they move have more muscles and muscles mean firmer. Therefore usually they’re tougher. If you have them aged as I recommended, it does help tenderizes the firmer cuts of meat.
You pay the farmer per pound of the hanging weight, meaning that after the animal has been gutted. There is a separate fee that goes to the butcher. There’s a kill fee. If you do half the beef, then you pay half the kill fee, and so on. Then there’s a per pound cut and wrap. To give you an idea, our fee to the butcher was $0.65 per pound.
Now that we’ve covered what the primal cuts and sub-primal cuts are, we’ll get into the actual cuts of meat that are available to you. You have a lot of different cuts that you can get from the center, but usually, there are more cuts per area of meat than you’ll be able to get. This might be a bit confusing but a butcher will walk you through if you have questions when you’re doing your cut and wrap order.
To make things a little more confusing, sometimes the same cut can have different names. The short loin is a great example of this. The T-bone and porterhouse steak are both from the short loin and actually are the same steak. But here’s the difference: The porterhouse is a bigger version of the T-bone. Most people are familiar with a T-bone steak because it has that bone that looks like a T which divides the meat. One one side you have the filet while the other side has a strip steak.
A strip steak has a lot of different names too such as NY strip, KC strip, and hotel steak. So you can have different variations of the name, but they mean the same thing.
The tender cuts from the center are usually a:
We no longer get the T-bone steak because we all want the super tender side and none of us want the tougher side. Instead, we get the rib steak which is our favorite because the flavor and texture are just amazing. We also get the New York steak for our family size. Can’t beat the flavor and texture either.
Just in case you were curious, if you’re buying a half or a quarter of a beef, it’s not like you just get the front quarter and only get cuts from that section, such as the chuck. They take all the eight different areas and then divide them up evenly between two or four.
There are 8 primal cuts on beef and then your subprimal cuts for individual cuts of steak, roasts, etc.
Chuck is the meat that comes from the shoulder and can sometimes be considered tough but super flavorful. Types of cuts you’ll see from the chuck region:
Just because all those cuts come from the same area does not mean that you’re going to get every single one of them. In fact, most times you can’t get every single one because some cuts take specific areas of the meat to get one type of cut, while another type of cut could also include that area. It just depends on what you want as to how the butcher is going to cut up the area.
I’ll give you an example. We love pot roast because they are the most tender and have the most flavor, cook with the most consistently melt in your mouth flavor and texture. We don’t really like flat iron steaks, top blade steaks, or any steaks from the chuck region because they’re going to be tougher. They’re not as tender so we don’t want them. I definitely do like to get stew meat to put in stews, or make barbecued beef (it works very well).
So I’ll get stew meat and pot roasts from the chuck area and anything that is left I have them grind into hamburger.
Next up is the brisket, which is the breast of the animal, be it a steer or a cow. Most of the time it’ll be a steer because it gives more meat per animal because steers grow larger and faster than a cow. A two-year-old steer is going to outweigh a two-year-old cow by a lot. They’re more advantageous for the farmers because they’re more cost-effective. We breed our own and two years in a row our calves have been heifers (unbred cow). It’s not worth it to try to take that heifer to market and to auction and sell and then try to buy a steer. So we do butcher our cows and have never noticed a difference in flavor.
The brisket area has a lot of fat in it but can be kind of tough. This part normally gets tenderized: barbecue brisket, corned beef, pastrami are all examples of the main uses for this cut of meat. We don’t usually get the brisket and have it ground up into hamburger instead. We use a lot of burger because it’s so versatile.
The third area is the shank. This is the animal’s forearm, which falls in front of the brisket. Usually, this is considered the toughest cut of meat.
This is the area that soup bones come from, which you definitely want to get. The meat is actually really good on a soup bone and you’ll be surprised at the amount of meat that is on the bone. It’s not just a bone.
I make broth with it which cooks the meat. Once that’s done, I remove the bone from the broth, let it cool a bit so that I can take the meat off the bone. Then I’ll take the meat and put it back in the broth and make soup with it.
Any extra meat that I don’t get as soup bones, I have ground up into hamburger.
Ribs are next up. I think we’re all pretty familiar with the rib section on an animal, cow’s ribs and backbone. There are 13 pairs of ribs, but it’s the last section – 6 through 12 – that is in the primal section of the ribs. The others are in what we consider the chuck section.
Within the ribs, there is a lot of marbling which gives it great flavor. They’re one of my favorite things. Barbecued ribs…oh you guys, that’s one of my favorites! Need a barbecue sauce recipe? Try this Homemade Barbecue Sauce or my Sweet and Smoky Barbecue Sauce.
The types of cuts available from the ribs section:
That marbling not only gives phenomenal flavor, but we know that it also helps give us great tender cuts.
Now, the back rib cut is the big thing of ribs that you’re used to seeing. I don’t get the ribeye roasts because I want the ribeye steaks, which can have the bone or be boneless.
The plate section is the other source of short ribs and is found near the abdomen. It’s a little bit fattier. The meat is usually used for:
Have I mentioned I really like ribs? So I definitely request ribs. We also order the carne asada cut (aka skirt steak) because we love a good Carne Asada.
The loin area contains what are typically the most expensive cuts if purchasing in a store. It’s located at the top, directly behind the ribs. Since these muscles here aren’t heavily used, the meat is very tender.
The loin section is broken down into two subsections: the short loin and the sirloin. Popular cuts from the short loin are:
The sirloin area is thought to be a little less tender than the short loin, but it has more flavor. Some common cuts are:
Area number 7 is the round. This is your lean and inexpensive cuts typically by then hind end and at the hind legs so can sometimes be tough but not usually super tough. Again, with the leg and shoulder areas, you’ll see ground beef from them. Some of the cuts that you get from this area:
I’ve tried cooking rump roast in a slow cooker but I can never get that son of a gun to ever get super tender and good so I don’t even bother. We have all made into hamburger. That’s just personal preference though. If you know how to cook a melt in your mouth, delicious, boneless rump roast, please do share it with me because maybe I’m missing out on something.
The last area is the flank. It’s located below the loin and has no bones. It’s lean, flavorful, but tough. It used to be pretty inexpensive but people now want more lean meat. Probably not us homesteaders though since we all like our lard and tallow. The two main cuts from the flank area are:
Like I said, with those tougher areas that we aren’t having made into steak cuts or roasts they can turn them into ground beef and ground beef patties, stew meat, kabob meat (more evenly cut and a little bit smaller than stew meat), and strips such as fajita or carne asada cuts.
Those are your eight areas and how they’re broken down into different cuts.
If you can’t find a local farmer you can contact your local butcher. Oftentimes they will sell meat independently too, but they should also be able to point you in the direction of some local farmers.
Now we’re going to talk about the cuts that aren’t normal that haven’t been covered yet that you might not be familiar with. First up, are the marrow and/or femur bones. This is the big leg of the cow and not what your soup bones come from. Oftentimes people assume that’s what the soup bones are but as we talked about earlier, the soup bones have meat on them.
But when you ask for the marrow or femur bone there will be no meat attached to them. They will be just bones. You can request that the butcher cut them up into three-inch pieces.
The reason you want this is that it makes beautiful broth because the bones have been cut open so you have all that marrow from that large leg bone. Because of all that marrow,you’ll get a gel like no tomorrow. It’s gorgeous and you’ll love it.
Another way that you can use them is by roasting them. My son and husband love the marrow from roasted bones. It’s like a delicacy. A lot of other nations and cultures love bone marrow and will use them this way too.
Be sure to ask the butcher to chop them up for you though. You want to make sure you can access and get the most marrow out of the bones as possible.
The other thing that you may or may want to get, totally up to you, is the tallow. Tallow is the fat from a cow. When it’s pig fat, it’s called lard. With beef, it’s called tallow. Some people think that tallow is a lot smellier and it’s a lot harder.
Unlike lard, tallow is not something that you’ll want to use to make your pie crusts and things like that.
Now, you can definitely use tallow for frying and cooking, but what most people like to use tallow for is for salves, balms, and soap making.
You’ll need to render it down just like you would lard. Back in the pioneer days, they also used the fat as their candles. Now, a lot of people feel tallow is smellier than lard and so they don’t like to use it for candles because of the smell. It’s very nourishing to the skin so it’s great to use in your soaps, balms, salves, and ointments.
If you’re interested in making soak and learning how to make your own homemade herbal balms and salves, and even candles then you are going to want to check out my Homemade Soap, Bath & Body System. It walks you through making your own homemade soap, making your own candles, and making your different whipped body butters, salves, balms, and ointments.
There are a couple of different ways you can ask for the tallow to be given to you. Some people ask for the fat to be ground up because the smaller the pieces the easier it is to melt evenly when rendering it down to get the impurities out. I actually prefer mine to be in chunks and then I’ll chop it up into cube form. When it’s ground-up there’s more meat in the fat. When I ask for it in strips I don’t get as much meat on it. I don’t want the meat on it because that’s what I’m trying to get out. I want pure fat.
If you don’t ask for them, you won’t get the femur bones nor the tallow. So definitely as for them if you want them.
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I hope you enjoyed learning when butchering a cow cuts of meat you need to know to get the most from your beef!
Melissa K. Norris inspires people's faith and pioneer roots with her books, podcast, and blog. Melissa lives with her husband and two children in their own little house in the big woods in the foothills of the North Cascade Mountains. When she's not wrangling chickens and cattle, you can find her stuffing Mason jars with homegrown food and playing with flour and sugar in the kitchen.