At the risk of offending the PETA Jigsaw Puzzle Team (the middle-Midwestern jigsaw champs of 1993!), a cow's like a puzzle. And when a skilled butcher takes that puzzle apart, the result is a ton of delicious meat, all of which has different texture and flavor.
But all that meat can be confusing, especially when you walk into the grocery store or a butcher shop and see it all together. Finding the cut that suits your needs can be tougher than a well-done top round. To get to the bottom of the big meat mystery, we paired up with the chef/butcher Matt Christianson at Urban Farmer in Portland, Oregon to watch him take a cow apart piece by piece as he identified what to look for in each cut and what to do with it. Print this out and put it next to the grill. Wait, actually, don't do that. It'll probably catch fire.
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Where it is on the cow: Basically all the shoulder right behind the neck What it is: Chuck's a value steak, but that doesn't mean it's not delicious when you get the right slab and prepare it properly. The chuck eye is like the rib eye's less well-to-do brother. The top blade's what you're getting with a flat-iron steak. Pot roast is all chuck. The rest goes into burgers. You're a hell of a diverse guy, Chuck! But be wary at the supermarket: Chuck's often generically labeled, so definitely look for the one without a ridiculous amount of fat on it… otherwise, you're grilling up something that belongs in a slow-cooker. What to do with it: Because it's a tougher cut, you need to pay special attention; if you keep it on the grill too long, chuck's gonna be tougher than a certain Texas Ranger. You can also braise it, but you'll definitely want to hit it with some tenderizer first. Or tie it up and roast it. If all else fails, a trip to a slow cooker will do.
Where it is on the cow: The lower breast What it is: One of the most universally loved cuts around the world, it's a mainstay in pho and extremely popular on the Korean BBQ menu. In Texas, it's pretty much the state animal, despite just being a part of an animal. When shopping for the perfect brisket, look for a nice layer of fat. Also, give it a poke: if it's super-stiff, it'll remain that way when you cook it. If it's soft, you're gonna have something that melts in your mouth. What to do with it: There are a billion ways to cook it, but in the interest of not being shot by the whole of Texas, the best way is to crack open a Lone Star, hit it with a rub and then slow-smoke it until it's basically falling apart and rocks a pink ring otherwise reserved for The Cat in the Hat Comes Back.
Where it is on the cow: Toward the rear, right above the flank and behind the short loin What it is: For a while, this hunk of bottom sirloin was typically used for burgers. Then, in the '50s, some dude in Cali decided that it would be better off as a grilled or smoked steak. He was right, and thus was born the Santa Maria steak. Now, the gigantic heart-shaped cut is everywhere, from specialty butchers to Costco, which sells a pre-marinated version die-hards swear by. If you can, try to find one with a moderate amount of fat: Given the size, they need to spend some time on the grill, which can dry them out if they’re too lean. What to do with it: Just grill it, slow and low. Then hit it with chimichurri or hot sauce.
Where it is on the cow: The same place it’s about to be in you: the belly, underneath the fat What it is: Most popularly used for the ultra-rare London broil and cut in chunks for stir-fry and carne asada, the flank's like the skirt's tougher brother, and typically requires either a super-slow or super-fast cook in order to become chewable. Because it’s a long cut, look for one with consistent girth (tee hee): getting one that’s fat on one end and skinny on the other means you’re likely going to overcook one end, undercook one end, or, tragically do both. What to do with it: Because cows apparently have washboard abs (sleeping standing up is great for the core, apparently), you're gonna need to marinate this sucker, then either braise it or broil the holy hell out of it. Either way, you need to keep an eye on it so it doesn't become so tough you dislocate your jaw.
Where it is on the cow: Right in the middle of the loin, in that magical place between the short loin, the sirloin, and the round What it is: This is the tenderest, leanest part of the cow. In steak form it’s the source of filet mignon. In roast form, it’s the source of muffled chatter about how much money your uncle makes after he serves it at his annual holiday dinner. If you’re that uncle, try to find one with a good network of fat rolling through it, and make sure it's firm as possible. We didn’t drive all the way over here on Christmas to eat squishy meat, Uncle Tim. What to do with it: You can roast a big'un and cut it into nice little bloody medallions, or blast steaks (preferably bacon-wrapped) in a broiler or on a grill to get the maximum flavor. Either way, don’t overdo it: the leanness can translate to dryness if it’s overcooked. Some broiled blue cheese or a splash of Bordelaise gussies it up. So does lobster tail. Come on, Tim. It’s Christmas!
T-Bone & Porterhouse
Where it is on the cow: The front end of the short loin, also known as the delicious part What they are: Two of the most prized cuts on the cow, they're being lumped together here because people usually have a tough time telling them apart. Simply put, porterhouse steaks contain a larger portion of tenderloin. T-bones have more strip steak and a much cooler name. Both are delicious. When choosing the right one for you, make sure the meat's bright red, the cut is thick, and there's a perimeter of fat that makes it look like a meaty Africa surrounded by an ocean of gristle. What to do with it:Give it a dry rub, then fire-grill that bad boy. You don't need to go nuts on the seasonings -- the meat speaks for itself. If you need sauce, go easy. Or better yet, hit it with garlic butter.
Where it is on the cow: Right in the ribs. Nowhere near the eye. Weirdo. What it is: Essentially, this is a steak that was destined to become prime rib before it got hacked off to be grilled. The eye refers to being cut from the center of the rib. As with prime rib, the layer of fat gives it an extra-awesome juiciness. Get it boneless, or be a total badass and get a tomahawk chop with the full rib sticking out. Just Make sure it's bright red, with white strips of fat running throughout. They’ll melt right in. What to do with it: Hit it with a nice dry rub and grill that sucker medium. This is also the meat used in the best cheesesteaks, so if you're going that route, be sure to thin slice it raw before tossing it on the griddle.
Where it is: Right along the front of the belly, underneath the rib What it is: A long, fatty cut from the diaphragm, this bad boy's usually what you're eating in a fajita or in a stir-fry. You'll also find it served up on a skillet. When selecting one, you can use the floppiness factor: shake it like a baby. The more it wiggles, the better off you're gonna be. Also, please don’t shake babies. What to do with it: Perhaps because cows are such strong singers, the diaphragm's pretty tough, so you'll want to marinate a skirt steak before you either toss it on a high-heat grill or braise it. Upon slicing it, make sure to cut against the grain to maximize juiciness. Oh, and before you do anything, remove the gross membrane. We probably should have mentioned that first.
Where it is on the cow: The short loin (middle of the back) What it is: Some call it the New York strip (because the dude behind Delmonico's Restaurant claimed to have popularized it). Some call it a club steak. Some people eat it in New York clubs, which is super-confusing. Basically, it's the thick side of a T-bone, and one of the most popular cuts in the world. The best ones are fairly firm with significant marbling. What to do with it: Like the T-bone and porterhouse, you don't need to do much here… just season it toss it on a hot grill (preferably using a reverse sear). Since it's boneless, though, you're gonna need to keep an eye on it to make sure it cooks evenly, as screwing up such a divine thing is cause to get punched in the mouth. Probably by the the ghost of Peter Delmonico.
Where it is on the cow: The rear leg What it is: Top round has minimal marbling and a distinct pinkness, which means it’s one of the the toughest cuts on the cow (bovines NEVER skip leg day at the gym). As a result, this stuff it super popular among jerky makers. It’s also great for stew. Which is to say, this isn’t a grilling cut. What to do with it: If you need to eat it in non chunk/dried form, it’s essential to keep it tender, so your best bet is braising it or slow-roasting it to keep the juices locked in before thin-slicing it. Otherwise, be prepared to chew it for a very long time.
Where it is on the cow: Basically the small of the back, but with no kanji tattoo (except maybe the USDA symbol) What it is: Also known as the chateaubriand, this is the cut right below the tenderloin. It's also referred to as the top butt. (Grow up.) Shopping for it requires discretion, so be sure to keep an eye on the words on the package -- if it just says "sirloin", it's probably not the good one. Find a "top sirloin,” and find one that's about 1-2in thick with a nice band of fat. Got it? Good. Heh. Top butt. What to do with it: Either roast it or grill it up as steaks, just be sure to trim the fat accordingly if you're roasting so it's not just a big, nasty glob. Then cover it in something like a mushroom marsala or a bourbon sauce for maximum umph.
Where it is on the cow: Between the rib and the loin, where it supports the diaphragm What is is: Hanger steak had a recent uptick in popularity, likely thanks to the emergence of food bloggers' obsessions and the fact that chefs love to advertise it: Because it’s relatively inexpensive, it’s showing up more and more as a steak option at mid-range restaurants that otherwise don’t do steak. It was long considered the "butcher’s cut," kind of a tender little pearl just chilling (or hanging) in the middle of the animal. It also represents a very tiny amount of the overall meat of a cow. Basically, it’s like a much more tender version of flank. What to do with it: Season it and grill it, fast. This is a thin cut and doesn’t need a ton of time on the coals. You can marinate if you like, but this one’s got a ton of flavor on its own. No wonder butchers kept it to themselves for so long.
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Andy Kryza is a senior editor at Thrillist who has never come across a puzzle he didn't want to eat. Follow him to internal paper cuts @apkryza.