For the majority of my life, food has been my main focus. I’ve had the pleasure of working with some of the most talented chefs on Earth and have eaten at some of the world’s best restaurants. I have worked at just about every level of the restaurant world, felt the highs and lows of opening my own restaurant, and cooked literally every cut of meat that exists. Today, I spend my days working with the finest farmers around and have devoted my life to stewarding the food they provide.
My journey has solidified a perspective that I believe should be shared by more Americans: one cut of meat is not inherently better or worse than another. Rather, each simply has different characteristics and should be enjoyed accordingly. When you cook this way, I promise that you will find yourself loving cuts that you previously thought little of. For example, the Cook’s Illustrated Meat Book describes pork sirloin as “tough, dry and tasteless” and recommends against purchasing it. I personally find pork and lamb sirloin to be two of the unsung heroes of the meat world. We’ve even won awards cooking these so called “flavorless” cuts!
So how the hell can an awarded chef and butcher be at such odds with a prominent publication about the quality/utility of a cut of meat? The answer is simple: intent and expectation. You wouldn’t use a screwdriver to hammer a nail. Don’t expect a sirloin steak to cook or eat like a ribeye. Choosing the right piece of meat for an application is critically important to getting great results. To determine what to use, understand three things:
- What dish are you making, and what is the format of the meat? Do you want something that can be pulled or shredded, ground, roasted and sliced or something that can be cooked very quickly?
- What are your goals for the purchase? Are you looking for the most flavor-dense cut, the most impressive, the most tender cut, are you trying to be cost effective, or are you looking for something healthy? If you’re looking for health, do you want something lean or something with full fat for a keto diet?
- What characteristics should you be looking for? The characteristics of each cut will determine the cooking method that is best suited for the product. Lean and tender cuts should be cooked less than rich and tough cuts. Understanding the characteristics of each piece of meat can take years to understand so definitely ask us if you have questions. Remember: you can always cook something more if necessary but you can’t un-cook it. When in doubt, check it early.
For braised, shredded, or pulled dishes, you’ll want to use cuts that are weight-bearing muscles. These are cuts that get a good amount of work during life. For culinary uses, this means that the animals have built strong muscle links and have a good amount of connective tissue, which equates to tender, moist and unctuous meat after prolonged cooking. In addition, look for a cut that has good marbling if possible. These cuts include anything from the chuck section of beef, the middle shoulder AKA clod, cheeks of all variety, any variety of shanks, all varieties of ribs except baby back ribs, necks, pork shoulder (picnic or butt), bellies, brisket/breast of lamb, or “heel.” For poultry, look at legs, thighs, and wings of birds of flight.
Roasts for Slicing
It’s really important to consider your usage when choosing a roast. If you want the most flavor-dense and tender roast, you’re definitely going to pay for it. Think ribeye and strip. For an everyday meal, there are plenty of great cost-effective options available.
Cuts ideal for roasting should get some work during their life, but not as much as those used for braising and pulling. Fat content and marbling play a major role in tenderness and flavor and should be sought out. However, a number of lean cuts yield great results with prolonged slow roasting. Plus, these cuts are often pretty cost effective. My picks, from richer to leaner are:
- Rib roasts of all species
- Chuck eye roll
- Coppa in pork
- Lamb shoulder
- Loin of any species
- Denver roasts
- Heart of clod
- Sirloin cuts from any species
- Top, bottom, or eye of round, and sirloin tip
- Leg fillet of pork
Most of you aren’t going to the store to get cuts of meat to grind. However, I think that it’s important to discuss what goes into ground meat so that you get the best results. The most important factor in ground meat is fat content. We typically shoot for 80/20, but sometimes as low as 75/25. If you’re making fresh sausage, you want 70/30 or richer. Generally speaking, the leaner the meat, the less flavor that it will have. Additionally, lean ground beef should not be cooked to well done unless you love super crumbly, dry, flavorless meat. This is NOT eating like a boss. If you want lean ground beef, get it from someone you trust and eat it cooked to medium or less.
Generally speaking, chuck will be more flavorful than round and sirloin. At Farm Field Table, we use cuts from the entire animal and blend in the right quantity of fat as needed. We find this to be the best from a flavor and sustainability perspective. If you want the very best tasting ground meat, go for dry aged. The process removes water from the meat and allows time for enzymes to unlock more flavor molecules. It costs more but is worth it if you care about flavor.
The best cuts for steaks are those that get the least amount of work, which makes them inherently tender and suitable for very fast cooking. Look for cuts with great marbling. The obvious cuts are ribeye, Delmonico (chuck eye steak), strip, tenderloin of all varieties, pork or lamb rib chops, loin chops of all species, and all sirloin cuts. The cuts that some people are less familiar with are flat irons, teres major, merlot cut, the round steaks closest to the spine of the animal, pork shoulder steaks from the coppa, lamb shoulder steaks, clod steaks, Denver steaks, flank steak, skirt steak, and sirloin bavette.
Easy breezy, right? Just kidding. I wouldn’t expect you to have all of the answers right now, but I am committed to sharing my knowledge with you. We will continue to go further in depth in future blogs. If you have questions, email me or ask Frank at our Ferndale location. Don’t be afraid to experiment and have fun with new cuts!
P.S. If anyone knows the people in charge of the Cook’s Illustrated Meat book, please let them know that we have a bone to pick with them. Oh, and pass along an invitation to a multi-course sirloin dinner at my place :-)