5 Fantastic Beef Cuts You’ve Never Eaten
A butcher weighs in on more sustainable choicesMeredith Leigh
September 25, 2019
The James Beard Foundation is guided by our mantra of “good food for goodTM,” which encompasses all aspects of the food system, from safe workplaces, to culinary innovation, to the environmental impact of the methods used to grow and catch our food. Below, farmer, butcher, and writer Meredith Leigh explores the movement of ethical meat, and shares a few tips for selecting and cooking cuts of beef that may be less popular than your go-to skirt steak or filet mignon, but can be just as delicious.
Beef gets a lot of heat in the dietary debate these days, and questions around how to eat it mindfully are some of the most pressing for conscientious eaters. A growing cohort of farmers, chefs, and consumers is championing “ethical meat,” or meat that is raised with respect for the planet, the animal, and community resilience, with transparency from farm to fork. For the home cook, learning to buy differently and eat less familiar cuts are key ways to support the effort towards better beef.
Artisan butchers are indispensable in sourcing, buying, and cooking more sustainable options. Kari Underly, a fifth-generation butcher from Chicago, is a leader among meat-cutters, and an expert in value-added beef butchery—in other words, getting more from the cow than filet mignon and ground beef. She is the CEO of Range Academy, a butchery training school approved by the Illinois Board of Higher Education to operate as a private vocational trade school. Through Range, Underly trains butchers to support the ethical meat movement. She took some time recently to share some lesser-known beef cuts that might just be game-changers in today’s kitchen.
Below, each cut is listed by several names, to give you options for ordering and sourcing from farmers or butchers.
Serratus ventralis / Denver / Underblade roast
This is rib meat, but it comes from the shoulder or chuck primal, where it remains surprisingly tender. This makes the Denver one of the most thrilling products of value-added butchery, packing rib-eye reminiscent flavor and tenderness into the price of a chuck steak. You’re likely to find it at your local butcher shop portioned into beef “Denver steaks” which you can pop right on the grill like some of your favorite rib cuts. However, Underly also recommends “buying the Denver whole, and grilling or smoking the entire portion, or par-freezing and slicing thin for bulgogi, kalbi, hibachi, or hot pot preparations.” This cut also makes a great substitute for beef brisket.
Splenius / Sierra cut / Chuck flat
This little secret neighbors the Denver cut, so it boasts great tenderness, although it has less intramuscular fat. The Sierra cut is a beautiful substitute for a flank steak. “There are only so many flank steaks you can sell,” Underly says. “It drives me crazy to go into restaurants that claim to be sustainable and see flank steak on the menu. There are only two per cow!” Using the Sierra cut like a flank steak is an example of how value-added butchery helps ease the potential waste created by demand for familiar, but rare muscles.
Sirloin cap / Culotte/ Picanha
“This is a delicacy in Latin cultures,” Underly notes, “and definitely don’t cut off the fat cap!” The sirloin cap is a superficial muscle, meaning it lives on the outside of the carcass and boasts a nice cover of subcutaneous fat (much like a pork chop). This fat takes on special flavor from the process of dry aging the beef carcass, and passes on that flavor, as well as moisture, to the meat. “This one only needs salt and pepper,“ Underly insists. She advises smoking the culotte or grilling it via indirect heat. “Be sure to slice perpendicular to the grain of the meat, and slice thin to serve,” she adds.
Gracilis / Top round cap
This cut typically ends up in ground beef, and as a result, many butchers will still sell it to you at ground-beef prices. Pretty good, considering you can prepare it just like a skirt steak. “Marinades work great here,” Underly says, “because the muscle has those deep grains in it where marinades can get in and get really happy.” She recommends a marinade of orange, lime, cumin, and garlic, followed by hot, dry cooking such as grilling or broiling.
Rectus femoris / Sirloin tip center / Center knuckle muscle
This is the most tender muscle in the round, which is the animal’s leg. Leg muscles don’t get a lot of glory, as they are typically lean, hard-working, and tough. This one is a hidden treat. “Don’t marinate or brine it, because it won’t hold up,” Underly says. She suggests grilling this muscle to medium-rare and pairing with a sauce—her favorite is a wine reduction with mushrooms. “Something deep and savory, to bring out the beef flavor,” Underly notes. This cut also makes a fabulous rare roast beef, which you can cool and then store cold, slicing thinly for sandwich meat.
If you don’t have a butcher near you, the closer you can get to the farm to source these cuts, the better. Getting familiar with rare cuts like these not only saves you money on high-quality food, but also limits waste and supports a meat supply chain that places sustainability, flavor, and community at the forefront of good food.
Meredith Leigh is a farmer, butcher, chef, and author of The Ethical Meat Handbook (2015) and Pure Charcuterie (2017). She writes and travels extensively with a focus on sustainable agriculture and resilient food systems. She lives in Asheville, NC.