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What's Your Beef?

by Tarla Fallgatter

Not too many years ago you could go to the meat counter, recipe in hand, and ask your friendly butcher, "What's the best cut to use for beef stew?" or "How long should I cook a five-rib prime rib?" and he would know. In those days the butcher was a trusted friend, looked to for assistance in selecting a good steak, timing a roast of beef or just stretching a food dollar.

Times have changed. In the past four decades the trend in the meat industry has been toward pre-packaged meat sold in self-service cases. You need to know, as you approach today's meat counter, the best cut to use for beef stew. And if that's too expensive, you must already know the alternatives. An understanding of basic animal anatomy can help you select just the right cut of meat for any meal. It can give you a pretty good indication of how to cook it, it can make carving a simple task and it can save you much money for the rest of your meat-buying life.


The wild bulls that leap out from the painted walls of prehistoric caves in the South of France and Spain seem strangely familiar, with their widely curving horns, strong shoulders, thin withers, and lean, rangy bodies. Do they remind you of Texas Longhorns—descendants of these ancient cattle that adapted and readapted to the wild to survive in burning heat and bitter cold and to defend their young against predators? Cattle are the most powerful animals that humans have sought to exploit and dominate over the centuries. They have served as sources of meat, milk, hide, horn, labor and often religious awe from before the beginnings of civilization to the present day.

The wild ox is the ancestor of most of today's domestic cattle. Wild cattle were hunted and, as we can infer from cave paintings, venerated by humankind for many thousands of years. They were one of the last of the major species to be domesticated, most likely in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and northern India sometime between 6000 and 4000 B.C. The herding and exploitation of cattle for meat and milk and as work animals spread rapidly into Europe, the Far East and Africa, where breeding with native species resulted in the ancestors of modern cattle. The existence of wild cattle in Europe can be traced far back in history. In the first century B.C., Julius Caesar compared them to elephants in power and ferocity in his De Bello Gallico. Wild bulls were hunted by Charlemagne in the ninth century and were still found in the forests of eastern Poland as late as the seventeen century.

Cattle, especially bulls, have been a source of religious awe from Cro-Magnon times. Lithe, young cattle dancers are depicted vaulting over the horns of bulls on the walls of Minoan palaces, and Greek myth describes the Minotaur, half-man, half-bull, at the center of the labyrinth in Crete. And today's Spanish bullfight, with its elaborate rituals and costumes, and the running of the bulls in Pamplona, show humanity's long-standing fascination with this animal and its powers.

Cattle provided the draft animals for most of Europe from Roman times until relatively recently. Plows were pulled and wagons drawn by slow but powerful oxen, or castrated bulls. Cattle were killed and eaten only when their work as milk cows or draft animals was over, which made for chewy and stringy beef.

The English have always loved meat, especially the famous roast beef of Old England still featured today in many London restaurants. Beef eating in England began to take on almost legendary status in Elizabethan times; it was credited with creating the ruddy health of the English yeoman and the unflappable courage of the English soldier, or Beefeater.

American Beef

American colonists, like their English forebears, ate plenty of beef, although it was the pig, which thrived on American corn, which provided most of their meat. Colonists along the eastern seaboard brought mixed-purposed cattle breeds from England and the continent: Durhams and other English Shorthorns and Holsteins suitable for milk and meat and for service as draft animals. Later, eastern farmers imported pure meat breeds, such as the Scottish Black Angus and white-faced English Herefords, which have blocky bodies, thick and bulky loins, and a tendency to layer on intramuscular fat, making them rich and tender.

These breeds did much to improve the quality of meat from American herds, but it was the Texas Longhorn, derived from the Spanish cattle brought over by the conquistadors, whose abundance and availability fueled America's love of beef. These half-wild cattle, whose precursors were the original wild cattle of the Iberian Peninsula seen on prehistoric cave walls, thrived in the sparse pastures and desert scrubland of Texas and the Southwest. By the time of the Civil war, millions of the Longhorns roamed throughTexas.

The problem facing Texan and other western ranchers was how to get this huge surplus of meat to markets in the East. The answer lay in the system of railroads that developed during the war to supply the nation's war machines. In the stockyards of Chicago and Kansas City, the cattle were first fattened on corn and other agricultural products of the Midwest, then shipped to markets. With the advent of refrigerated freight cars, cattle could be slaughtered by meat packers at the railheads, and fresh and wholesome meat shipped to butchers throughout the country. Getting the cattle to the railroads from Texas, however, was another story—one that created the myth of the cowboy and the cattle drive so often depicted in movies.

Cattle barons, like the Scottish land shark Murdo Mackenzie and the aristocratic Marquis de Mores, as well as moneyed Easterners like Teddy Roosevelt, transformed cattle ranching in the last half of the nineteenth century. Their methods ranged from legal (hard work, tough bargaining, defending their property from rustlers) to illegal (theft, arson and murder). But as a result of their efforts and the many wars for dominance of the open range, they came to control huge amounts of land and millions of cattle. With the coming of barbed wire in the 1870s, they were able to fence the once-free range and build huge commercial empires, many of which remain prosperous today.

The cattle barons also gave us what we now think of as American beef. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, they introduced Herefords, Durham, Angus , and other meat breeds to the West. British breeds and the new hybrids produced the tender beef that Americans came to love: rich, well-marbled meat with a deep, beefy flavor.

With the great surplus of beef reaching the eastern markets, the hordes of immigrants that were flooding into America in the latter half of the nineteenth century had the opportunity to eat meat on a regular basis for the first time. In cities like New York and Chicago, restaurants specializing in beef—steakhouses—became the symbol of the good life for many working-class Americans.

Even more popular than steak, however, is that great icon of American food, the hamburger. The simple patty of ground beef served on a bun has become the symbol of America, with critics taking aim at it whenever they want to show what's wrong with our cooking (and our way of life). But hamburgers are famous for a good reason: they can be delicious if prepared with imagination, skillfully seasoned and carefully cooked.

Lean and Mean

We are no longer eating quite the same beef that the cattle ranchers provided up to the 1950s and 1960s. When health concerns caused a decline in beef sales, ranchers responded by raising leaner beef cattle, keeping them for less time in feedlots and breeding their herds with leaner European cattle such as Charolais, Limousin and Chianina, which have wide loins and provide bigger, leaner steaks and roasts than other breeds.

As a result, depending on the grade, today's beef has considerably less intramuscular fat than in previous times. The widely available grade select has on average only about two thirds the fat of the highest prime grade. Some of the leanest cuts of beef are among the tastiest and most tender. These are (beginning with the leanest) top round, sirloin tip, sirloin, top loin (New York strip) and beef tenderloin (fillet). All can be cooked as steaks or roasts.

We all want fatless meat, but we also want our steaks to be butter-tender, juicy and delicious. Both are not possible. If you want to lower the fat content of cooked meat, cut off most of the external fat. But for tender meat, look for and welcome marbling; just a little fat streaked throughout the meat keeps it juicy and tender.

An Anatomy Lesson

Before you purchase any piece of beef, you have to know what you are going to do with it. You certainly wouldn't want to buy an expensive butter-tender beef fillet to make a pot roast. The place on the steer from which the meat comes is the most important factor in determining how tender it will be and how it should be cooked.

Tenderness depends on the amount of work a particular muscle does. The areas along the back of the steer (the loin, ribs and rump) don't get as much exercise as the neck, shoulders, brisket and flanks. Tender steaks and roasts cut from the animal's back can be cooked quickly by dry-heat methods such as grilling, frying and roasting. Tougher cuts require the moist, low heat of braising and stewing to be cooked to perfection. The advantage of these tough cuts, however, is flavor: muscles that do more work have more of that rich beef taste. Think of filet mignon versus pot roast: the steak is tender, light and tasty; the braised meat intense, luscious and hearty. The trick is to know what part of the animal the meat comes from and to cook it in just the right way.

You don't have to become an expert in anatomy to understand the important cuts of beef. In fact, there are really only eight basic areas of the steer that you need to know about. Meat packers call these areas the primal cuts, which are either sold wholesale or broken down into sub-primal cuts and sold to markets and, increasingly, consumers. The three primal areas that make up the back are called the rib, short loin and sirloin. Steaks and roasts are cut from these areas. Meat from the sections along the back will have a fine, close-grained texture and usually a single eye of muscle.

Not all steaks are equal. Flavor and tenderness depend on the place on the animal from which the meat comes.

In general, the best and most expensive steaks come from the short loin located in the middle of the back, which gets very little exercise. A characteristic T-shaped bone separates the tenderloin, or fillet, muscle from the larger top loin (called strip or New York). Bone-in steaks from the short loin with only a bit of tenderloin attached are called T-bones, while those with a greater proportion are referred to as porterhouse.

The chuck (shoulder), brisket/foreshank, flank, and plate areas from the shoulder and sides of the steer yield tougher cuts, ideal for stews, pot roasts and other braises. They are also the main sources of ground beef. The texture of the meat is more coarsely grained and the cuts usually have several muscles interwoven with connective tissue, which needs slow heat to become tenderized or dissolved. Although they start out tough, these flavorful cuts can become silky smooth and fork-tender when properly cooked.

Meat that makes up the round (leg), along with some areas of the chuck and flank, are in-between in terms of tenderness. While not as tender as the short loin and rib, they have a good, meaty flavor and can be cooked by dry-heat methods. The texture and flavor of these slightly tougher cuts can be vastly improved by marinating; top round, often sold as London broil, is a good example. Rump roast is especially delicious with a dry marinade and slow roasting to medium rare. Round steaks and bottom round can be a bit dry and tough and are best braised.


Although most nutritional data are based on a three-ounce cooked boneless serving, this may be too small for most people, especially the more hearty trenchermen. Usually four or more ounces per serving is a better bet—it is always preferable to have a little too much than too little!


Aging beef by keeping it unwrapped under refrigeration (below 36ºF but above freezing) for extended periods of time increases its tenderness because natural enzymes are released, which soften the connective tissue in the muscles. Not only is dry-aged beef tender, but a great deal of moisture evaporates (there may be as much as a 20 percent weight loss), concentrating the flavor. The meat mellows, and the rich, beefy taste is accentuated.

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when all good butchers aged their beef, sometimes for as long as six weeks. Today most butchers no longer have the room or the wherewithal to provide dry-aged beef for their customers, although some fine steak houses and prime rib restaurants dry-age their own meat or purchase it from specialty meat purveyors in New York or Chicago.

Aging is suitable only for the highest grades of beef (prime or choice) that will be cooked by dry heat.

Some butchers store their beef at 36ºF in its original vacuum pack for two weeks. This form of aging will help to tenderize the meat by the same enzymatic processes involved in dry-aging. But because wet-aging involves no loss of moisture through evaporation, the flavors do not become concentrated as they do with dry-aging.

Most meat we purchase these days is not deliberately aged. It will most likely be four to ten days old, depending on how fast the shop turns over its inventory. However, don't confuse old meat with aged meat. Old meat, sometimes marked down in supermarket cases, simply means meat that is getting near the end of its shelf life, which the butcher wants to get rid of. If you buy this meat, be careful. Plan to use it the same day, and discard or return it if it is sticky and has any "off" odors.

Kobe Beef

A few ranchers are producing very heavily marbled beef from the Japanese Wagu breed (also called Kobe beef). In Japan, some growers feed their pampered steers bottles of beer and massage them daily, something American ranchers don't do. This fabled beef is very expensive but exquisitely tender. If can be found in some Japanese groceries and in super-premium butcher shops in Los Angeles and New York (Balducci's in Manhattan, for example).

Argentine Beef

One the food trends mentioned in the January 1999 Food & Wine is Argentinean beef, loved by many "hot" restaurants, such as Ciudad in Los Angeles, Rattlesnake Club in Detroit and Chimichurri in New York City. Why Argentine beef? First, it has less cholesterol and fat than American beef; a four-ounce portion of USDA choice beef tenderloin has 10.8 grams of saturated fat, 80 milligrams of cholesterol and 328 calories, compared with 2.5 grams of saturated fat, 70 milligrams of cholesterol and 140 calories for the same cut of Argentine beef. Second, Argentine cattle are fed on protein-rich grasses, rather than the high-carbohydrate grains given to American cattle; they are not penned up in feedlots their last weeks of life, as are American cattle, nor are they fed the growth hormones or antibiotics given to American cattle. Finally, Argentine beef is extremely tender and has a delicious beefy flavor.

However, Argentine cattle tend to be somewhat smaller than American cattle, and the cuts from the animals are a bit smaller and less uniform. Cuts of Argentine beef sold in the United States are boneless, designed primarily for steaks, such as rib-eye (the most popular cut in Argentina), sirloin, New York strip and filet mignon.

Argentineans generally prefer their steaks smaller and more well done than do Americans, so to keep them tender the new chefs suggest cooking Argentine steaks at lower temperatures.


Several years back, some ranchers began raising a cross between beef cattle and buffalo that they called beefalo. This meat is leaner than beef and has some of the wonderful qualities of buffalo. Unfortunately, it's not broadly distributed, but it is worth a try if you can find some. Farm-raised buffalo is also available in many markets. It has a dense texture and a delicious, slightly gamy flavor. Cook it as you would lean beef.


Dry or Moist Heat?

Heat affects tenderness in two opposing ways, depending on whether it is dry or moist. Moist heat, in the form of heated liquid or steam, converts the tough collagen in the meat to gelatin over a period of time. This is what makes your tough pot roast tender when it is braised or stewed. The softening process starts to occur at 160ºF. Even though it is softened, however, the meat will become dry if cooked above this temperature unless it has sufficient intramuscular fat (marbling) to replace the lost moisture. That is why a fattier cut like chuck makes a more juicy pot roast than the leaner bottom round.

In dry-heat cooking, the exterior is browned by the caramelization of the inherent sugars in the meat and by a series of complex chemical reactions. As the moisture on the meat's surface begins to evaporate, the juices concentrate and mix with any seasonings to form an appetizing brown crust. This provides the luscious and intense "meaty" flavor we find so irresistible in a grilled steak.

When meat is cooked by moist heat, however, it develops a different flavor profile than it does when cooked by dry heat. You can combine the two methods and brown the meat first to contribute some of the flavors to the broth. As the meat cooks slowly in the broth, it absorbs the flavors from the liquid so that it becomes tender and delicious, with a robust sauce.

There is one indispensable tool for the modern meat cook: the digital instant-ready thermometer. It is difficult to be a successful meat cook without one.

Here is a delicious way to cook steaks by the dry heat method:

Filet Steaks with Green Peppercorn Sauce

6 six-ounce filet steaks

2 Tbsp. cracked peppercorns

1-2 Tbsp. oil

1/4C port wine

1/2C beef stock

1C heavy cream or manufacturer's cream

1 Tbsp. green peppercorns, rinsed and dried

1 Tbsp. fresh oregano, finely chopped

salt to taste

Press the cracked peppercorns into both sides of the steaks and set aside. Preheat the oven to 450ºF. Heat one or two sauté pans (large enough to hold the steaks) until hot, add the oil and heat until hot. Sear the steaks 1-2 minutes on each side until golden, transfer to a metal pan and place in the hot oven for 7-8 minutes or until the desired temperature is reached (see above). Meanwhile, add the wine to the sauté pan and reduce to 2 Tbsp., add the stock and reduce the mixture to 1/3C. Add the cream and bring to a boil. Reduce until 2/3C remains. Stir in the peppercorns, fresh oregano and salt to taste.

Transfer the steaks to heated plates and pour any accumulated juices from the pan into the prepared sauce. Return to a simmer. Spoon the sauce over the steaks and serve immediately.

Makes: 6 servings.


Fresh beef can be stored for three to four days in the refrigerator; ground beef should be used within two days. Well-wrapped beef will keep frozen for three to six months.

Cooked beef should be kept whole, if possible, loosely wrapped in plastic wrap. Meat cooked in liquid can be left in the sauce and reheated when needed. Cooked meat should be eaten within four or five days, or frozen as soon as it's cooked and cooled, for up to two or three months.


If you would like to order or find out more about Argentine beef, contact Silvina DiBella of the Argentine Meat Company Ltd., located at 3345 Newport Blvd., Suite #214, Newport Beach, CA 92663, telephone number (949) 675-8593. If you can't wait to taste this awesome beef, visit Ciudad at 445 S. Figueroa Street in Los Angeles (telephone: [213] 486-5171) and order their terrific Argentine rib-eye stuffed with jalapeños and whole garlic cloves, which is all the rage!

Tarla Fallgatter is a well-known Orange County caterer, chef, teacher, restaurant consultant and kitchen tool manufacturer. She trained at Paris' Cordon Bleu, La Varenne, and Ecole Lenotre cooking schools, and was the first foreign woman to cook in the kitchens of Maxim's. She has traveled to over 60 countries throughout the world, "sampling" the local cuisine. She markets her "Tarla" all-copper rolling pin in fine cookware shops.


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