Beef Buyer's Guide: Choosing the Best Meat to Bring to Your Table

Nearly anyone can walk into a grocery store and buy beef—it happens day in and day out. But, few people know how to order the best, highest-quality cuts that fit exactly what they need and at the best price. 

Only a few people know what textures, colors, and smells to look for (or look out for). Not many people can say they know the flavor differences between grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Or the meaning behind different grades—prime, choice, and select beef. 

So, sure, anyone can buy beef. But it takes a well-seasoned grocery shopper to know how to bring the best beef home to your table. 

In this post, The Butcher Shoppe will give you a crash course on everything there is to know about beef and how to buy it. You’ll learn about—

If you want to buy beef like a 5-star chef and impress your local butcher, you’ll want to read this post. The Butcher Shoppe is like the full-service butcher counter at your local grocery store, only online. When you shop with us, you don’t have to leave your home to get the highest-quality cuts of beef and other types of meat.

Check out our extensive collection of meat products

The Eight Primal Cuts of Beef

Butchers organize beef into eight parts, called the primal cuts of beef. These are large sections of the animal, which then get divided into smaller pieces called subprimal cuts

These subprimal cuts are what butcher shops receive.

What you see packaged in the meat aisle or laid out behind the glass counter at your butcher shop are called portion cuts. Portion cuts are made from subprimal cuts. This is the type of cut that most shoppers encounter.

You might wonder why it's important to know what part of the cattle the portion you’ve purchased comes from. Well, if you care at all about the tenderness, flavor, fattiness, or other qualities, then the primal cut your portion comes from matters quite a bit. 

Not all parts of the cattle are made equal. In the next section, we’ll break down the eight primal cuts of beef, their subprimals, and the portions you can expect to see in your local butcher shop.

1. Chuck

The chuck cut comprises the cattle’s lower neck and shoulder muscles. Various steak portions and roasts come from the chuck meat. Chuck meat is fattier than other cuts of the animal and contains a strong, beef-forward flavor. 

This section of the cattle is made up of heavily-used muscles, so the meat tends to be tougher and contains more connective tissues. However, the preparation and cooking method goes a long way in making tender meat of these usually tougher cuts.

Chuck meat is inexpensive and primarily used for roasts, stewing, pot roasts, slow cooking, and braising. Certain portion cuts of the chuck are great for grilling too. 

Chuck Subprimal Cuts

  • Chuck Tender
  • Chuck Roll
  • Shoulder Clod
  • Square-Cut Chuck

Common Chuck Portion Cuts

  • Shoulder Steak (or Chuck Roast)
  • Denver Steak
  • English Roast
  • Flat Iron Steak
  • Bone Chuck-In Short Ribs
  • Mock Tender
  • Petit Tender
  • Top Blade Steak
  • Sierra Steak
  • Chuck Eye Steak
  • Chuck Arm Roast
  • Shoulder Tender Medallions

2. Rib

The rib subprimal sits directly behind the chuck section and, despite its name, only contains six of thirteen ribs. The other rib portions are located in the chuck short plate primals.

Rib cuts are well-marbled, fatty, tender, and full of flavor. The price tends to be higher because of these envious characteristics. Rib meat is best when slow-cooked, but grilled ribs are also delicious!

Ribeye is cut from the prime rib, which falls between the chuck (shoulder) and the loin. Ribeye steaks naturally have great marbling—very fatty and quite flavorful. If you’re looking to indulge your senses, order the ribeye.

Rib Subprimal Cuts

  • Ribeye Roll
  • Rib Subprimal

Common Rib Portion Cuts

3. Loin

The loin cut is positioned directly behind the rib cut. Loin cuts produce some of the most expensive cuts of beef due to the muscles in this region being much less developed (muscle meat tends to be tougher the more it is used and developed).

Cuts from the loin are usually never slow-cooked. Instead, loin cuts are best grilled or broiled. 

Loin Subprimals

Common (and Famous) Loin Portion Cuts

4. Round

Round cuts are extremely lean and very tough. As a result, these cuts are often inexpensive. The round cut is made from the rear quarter and includes the buttocks and upper thigh meat.

The higher amount of toughness and leanness occur because the muscles in this primal cut are heavily used to help the cattle move and support its weight. These cuts are usually sold as whole roasts or used to make ground beef.

Round Subprimal Cuts

  • Bottom Round
  • Eye of Round
  • Sirloin Tip
  • Top Round

Common Round Portion Cuts

  • Rump Steak
  • Bottom Round Steak
  • Western Griller
  • Swiss Steak
  • Beef Center Cut Steak
  • Ball Tip Steak
  • Beef Tip Steak
  • Breakfast Steak
  • Knuckle Steak
  • Tip Steak
  • Family Steak
  • Top Round London Broil

5. Flank

The flank primal is a small cut of muscle from the sides. This section is part of the animal’s core muscles and is well-exercised. As a result, the flank primal is lean and trends toward the tougher side.  

This primal cut responds well to marinades that help tenderize it and enhance the flavor. You should cook portions from this primal on high heat on a grill or open flame. If cooked too long or too dry, this meat will dry out due to its leanness.

Because of its leanness, flank steak is often used for lean ground beef.  

Only One Flank Subprimal Cut—Flank Steak (or London Broil)

6. Short Plate

The short plate primal can be found underneath the rib primal on the abdomen. This meat is fatty and tends to be tougher than other cuts. It is often used for ground beef or marbled short ribs. 

Plate Subprimal Cuts

  • Hanger Steak
  • Inside Skirt Steak
  • Outside Skirt Steak
  • Plate Short Ribs
  • Flanken-Style Short Ribs

7. Brisket

If the short plate primal sits under the rib primal, the brisket primal sits beneath the chuck. This primal is comprised of the breast. When not prepared correctly, this meat is fatty and tough, but when slow-cooked at low temperature, this primal produces the juiciest barbeque meat of the whole animal. 

Brisket Subprimal Cuts

  • Brisket Flat Half
  • Brisket Point Half

8. Shank

Shank meat covers the legs of the cattle from the shoulders and hips down to the knees. Shank meat from the front legs is called the foreshank. Shank meat from the back legs is called the hindshank

Cuts from the shank are tough and lean because the muscles must constantly bear weight and are used for walking. The meat is inexpensive and often used to make ground beef. 

Only One Shank Subprimal Cut

  • Shank Cross-Cut

Forequarter and Hindquarter Beef Cuts

Butchers will also classify beef cuts based on whether they are in the animal's front or back half. 

Forequarter beef cuts can be found in the cattle's front half.

  • Shank 
  • Plate 
  • Brisket 
  • Rib 
  • Chuck

Hindquarter beef cuts can be found in the cattle's back half.

  • Flank
  • Round 
  • Loin

What to Look For Before Buying Beef

So, now that you’ve been introduced to the different cuts of beef and what they are used for, we’ll talk about the skills you’ll need while shopping to determine which beef is freshest, of the highest quality, and most useful, considering your needs—holiday party? Romantic dinner? Fajitas?

What Color Should Beef Be?

There are three colors you’ll encounter when shopping for beef—

  • Purplish/Burgundy
  • Bright Cherry Red
  • Brown

The color of beef you see on the shelf gives you some information about its freshness. Meat that hasn’t been exposed to oxygen retains its original color—a purplish/burgundy color. This color is due to the pigment myoglobin.

When cattle is butchered and its meat exposed to the open air, the myoglobin present in the meat reacts with oxygen and forms oxymyoglobin. This turns the meat a bright cherry red color. This is the color that most people associate with fresh meat.   

Over a few days, the oxymyoglobin in the beef reacts to the light and turns into metmyoglobin, which appears brownish-red in color. Though a brownish color indicates that the beef was not prepared yesterday, it doesn’t indicate that the meat has spoiled. 

Vacuum-sealed beef packaged directly after slaughter will appear purplish/burgundy. Butchers and grocery stores might use special packaging that allows some oxygen exposure, so the meat turns a bright red, which consumers find desirable.

Beef that’s exposed to oxygen will begin to shift from cherry-red to brown. Remember—this doesn’t mean the beef has gone bad. The processes for producing dry and wet-aged beef cause the meat to turn brown. Colour is not an indicator of spoiled meat.The smell is a much better indicator.  

What Does Bad Beef Smell Like?

You should always smell meat before cooking it and only keep raw beef in a fridge for three to five days. You’ll want to be sure it’s good to cook before slapping it on the grill. Bad beef starts to smell sour and acrid when it’s no longer good to use. Spoiled beef also contains aromas of ammonia. 

If you smell foul meat at the grocery store or butcher shop, it might be time to find a new place to buy your meat products. However, there are other ways to tell if your beef is rotten. 

Other Indicators That Your Beef has Spoiled

Check the texture of your beef—it shouldn’t be slimy or sticky. It also shouldn’t appear too dry or juiceless. While dry beef doesn't necessarily mean that it’s spoiled, it will affect the flavor and texture when cooked.

However, if your beef has a slimy surface and is sticky to the touch, the bacteria have already won. This meat is not safe to eat. 

Is the Beef Cut Neatly and Presented Well?

Though the presentation isn’t everything in life, it should be a top priority when buying meat products. You know when you look at something, and you can tell that there was a lack of care? This intuition is useful when purchasing beef and other meat products.

Look for smooth edges and evenly-sized portion cuts. Jagged edges and misshapen portion cuts are indicators that the butcher either didn’t care or didn’t know how to butcher and portion the meat properly.

As mentioned above, the color of the beef, though not necessarily an indicator of “spoiledness,” can definitely indicate its freshness. Butcher shops and grocery stores that care about their products aim to present beef with a slightly-oxidized, bright cherry red coloration because this is the image people generally associate with fresh beef.

If all the beef is brownish, slimy, rough-edged, and presented poorly, you’ll want to patronize another butcher shop or grocery store.

How is the Beef Packaged?

The packaging is also part of the presentation, so it's worth explaining how your beef should be packaged. The packaging can hint toward the quality of the beef product you are buying, too. 

Here are some tips to keep in mind—

  • Check for rips, tears, and holes if your beef is sealed with thin, easily-tearable plastic. You want to avoid purchasing beef stored in damaged or dirty packaging. The average grocery store packaging is specially designed to allow oxygen in so the beef can oxidize and turn the bright red color consumers expect.
  • The freshest packaged beef will be vacuum sealed in thicker plastic and appear dark purple/burgundy. You can find this kind of packaging in the meat aisles of your grocery store, or here from The Butcher Shoppe. 
  • If you buy freshly butchered meat, the butcher will probably wrap it in wax paper or a similar product right when you purchase it. In cases like this, it's best to use same-day or freeze.

Know the Difference: Grass-Fed vs. Grain Fed

Another point of confusion for consumers is the main differences between grass-fed and grain-fed beef. The obvious difference—one animal eating grass and the other eating grain—doesn’t help the consumer identify differences in taste and texture. 

Cattle, like people, are what they eat.

You'll want to know the taste, texture, and nutritional differences between grass-fed and grain-fed beef before making a purchase.  

Grass-Fed Beef vs. Grain-Fed Beef (and Grain-Finished, and others)

“Grass-fed” is a buzzword in the food industry. On a basic level, it means that the animal wasn’t fed the farm-standard diet of soy and corn that most livestock bred on industrial-scale farms receive—the grain-fed diet. 

Some beef products are labeled “grass-finished.” This means the animal was fed grain for some of its life but was switched to a grass-based diet for some time before its slaughter. 

However, it doesn’t tell you much about what kind of grass the animal ate. But, consumers can infer certain things about beef with the “grass-fed” label.

Some general expectations consumers should have regarding the taste, texture, and nutritional composition of grass-fed beef when compared to grain-fed beef—

1. Grass-fed beef has less harmful fats, more good fats, and a lower overall fat composition than grain-fed beef. However, consumers need to be aware that the cut of beef also drastically affects its fat composition.
    • Grass-fed beef has less monounsaturated fats than grain-fed beef
    • Grass-fed beef has three times the amount of omega-3 fatty acids
    • Grass-fed beef has twice the amount of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) than grain-fed beef

    2. Grass-fed beef has more vitamins A and E than grain-fed beef.

    3. Grass-fed beef has a “gamier,” “earthier” taste and tends to be tougher than grain-fed beef. Note the final texture of meat has much to do with how it was prepared and cooked. 

      • Grass-fed beef has yellowish fat and is much less marbled than grain-fed beef
      • Grain-fed beef tends to have much more marbling, and the fat is whiter than grass-fed beef

      How Do You Choose the Right Grade Beef?

      Another point of confusion for shoppers is the beef grading system. Most people don’t know the difference between the grades they encounter on the shelves and what goes into Canada’s beef grading system.

      Canada has thirteen different grades of beef. However, 88% of all beef sold in Canada is graded A, AA, AAA, and Prime, which are the highest grades. 

      What Goes Into Grading Beef?

      The Canadian Beef Grading Agency (CBGA) looks at four characteristics to grade beef:

    1. Marbling
    2. Maturity
    3. Musculature
    4. Fat Cover
    5. Here are all 13 grades of Beef in Canada—

      Highest Grades:

      This category is for the best quality meats. 

      • Prime—even fat distribution, well-marbled
      • AAA—has a lesser amount of visible marbling
      • AA—has only the slightest amount of visible marbling
      • A—no visible marbling 

      Lower Grades:

      The “B” grades are for young cattle that are 30 months old or less and do not meet A or prime standards. The meat is often used for ground beef and other processed products. 

      • B1
      • B2
      • B3
      • B4

      The “D” grades are for mature cattle that do not meet “A” or prime standards—the beef is often used for ground meat and other processed products.

      • D1
      • D2
      • D3
      • D4

      The “E” grade is for young or mature bulls with pronounced masculinity features. Grade “E” beef is often only used for processed products. 

      • E

      Why Is There a Large Price Gap Between Different Cuts of Beef?

      The biggest factors influencing the price of beef are the market the meat is sold in, how far the beef product has traveled, and the qualities of the cattle itself. 

      • Buying a steak in a major urban center is more expensive than buying it in a rural area with many cattle farms. 
      • Consumers also have to consider the costs of packing and shipping the beef products, as well as the market competitiveness of the area—a steak from Japan will cost more on a small coastal island in Eastern Canada than it will on the West Coast.
      • Consumers must also consider how expensive it was to breed and raise the cattle. Grass-fed, free-range cattle might cost more to get them ready for slaughter than factory-bred, grain-fed cattle. 

      Even within the same animal, there are price differences based on the tenderness and fat content of the meat, as well as how much of the meat there is. Some of the most tender cuts come from small regions of the animal and are more expensive due to their scarcity compared to larger, tougher muscle groups.

      What Is the Difference Between Wagyu and Kobe Beef?

      Other buzzwords consumers shopping for beef encounter are “wagyu” and “Kobe.” Knowing what these terms mean when shopping for beef is important so you don’t get tricked into buying unauthentic beef products. 

      Wagyu beef simply means beef that comes from cattle from the island of Japan. Wagyu cattle are famous for having superior marbling to other types of beef. 90% of Wagyu beef comes from a unique breed of cattle— the Japanese Black cattle. 

      Recently, Japanese Black cattle have been exported to other areas of the world, including the US and Australia. The beef produced from these cattle is called “domestic wagyu.” They are bred and raised according to Japanese custom but do not come from Japan. 

      What about Kobe Beef?

      Unlike wagyu beef, which can be bred outside of Japan so long as the cattle are Japanese Black cattle, Kobe beef needs to come from a specific region of Japan under specifying breeding and living conditions.

      Kobe beef is considered to be the highest quality wagyu. Only about 3,000 to 4,000 cattle receive Kobe status every year. To be considered Kobe beef, there are seven requirements the cattle must meet—

      1. The animal must be a steer (bullock) or a virgin
      2. The animal cannot exceed more than 470 kg
      3. BMS rating (marbling rating) of six or higher out of twelve
      4. Meat quality of four or higher out of five
      5. Must have been born in Hyogo Prefecture (Tajima-Gyu born)
      6. Fed on a farm in Hyogo Prefecture
      7. Processed in Hyogo Prefecture

      True Kobe beef is extremely expensive and rare because of the stringent qualifications. 

      What Are the Best Cheap Steak Cuts?

      But you don’t need to buy Kobe beef to enjoy a nice steak. In fact, there are many delicious, tender cuts of meat that you can find for cheap! You simply need to know what to ask your butcher. 

      Here are some of the best-tasting, low-cost portions of beef you may find at any butcher shop. 

      Chuck Eye Steak

      Chuck-eye steaks are portioned out of the chuck primal. Though a flavorful portion of beef, the chuck-eye steak is not as tender as its close neighbor, the rib-eye steak, and often goes overlooked (and underpriced). With the right preparation methods and a slow and low cooking approach, this usually tougher cut of meat can be just as tender as the juiciest rib-eye steaks.  

      Tri-Tip Steak

      The tri-tip steak is a triangular cut portioned out of the sirloin subprimal. This inexpensive cut tends to be lean and tender but still has a strong beef flavor. Because of its relative thinness—about three centimeters—you should cook the tri-tip quickly with high heat. Pan searing, grilling, and broiling are great ways to cook a tri-tip steak. 

      Flat Iron Steak

      This is another cut from the chuck, or shoulder. The flat iron steak has been popular over the past few years because it is a flavorful, tender, and cheap alternative to the tenderloin. The flat iron steak is usually well-marbled and has a rich, buttery flavor. 

      This portion is more muscular. As a result, it should not be cooked past medium. Shoot for medium rare to prevent the steak from being too tough.

      Merlot Steak

      The merlot steak comes from the round primal of beef. This region contains many powerful muscles that help the animal bear weight and move. As a result, meat from this region tends to be leaner and tougher but full of powerful beef flavors. 

      The merlot steak should be cooked quickly at high heat and have a cool pink inside. It will become chewy and tough if this steak is cooked too long.  

      Denver Steak

      The Denver steak is another rare portion cut of beef that comes from the shoulder or chuck primal. Usually, meat from the shoulder is tough because this region is quite muscular and developed (which amounts to leaner, tougher meat). 

      However, the Denver steak is cut from a muscle that doesn’t get as much movement and use, so it is more tender than the surrounding meat. This meat can be grilled or broiled and is best when marinated and seared (either at the beginning or the end of the cooking process). 

      Petit Tender Steak

      Another hidden gem from the chuck primal! The petit tender is hard to find in many butcher shops because it is a more complicated cut of beef. Usually, you’ll need to ask your butcher for it directly, unless you shop at The Butcher Shoppe!

      This beefy and lean cut of meat is full of flavor but will become tough and dry if cooked for too long—Cook at higher temperatures for a shorter amount of time for the best results. 

      Know Your Butcher! Who You Buy Beef From Determines Much of the Quality

      Ultimately, the best meat resource will be your butcher. The most experienced butchers will help you find the best cuts of meat, whether cooking a romantic dinner for two or making chili for ten! 

      If you want to experience all the benefits of your local country butcher without leaving your house, you must check out The Butcher Shoppe! All our meats are hand-cut, expertly prepared and packaged, and delivered directly to your door! 

      Take our online quiz to discover the steak portion best for your next party, get-together, or romantic encounter. If you already know what steaks you want, head over to our hand-cut steaks page and experience our local butcher shop right from your own kitchen counter.

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