By Christie Vanover | Published July 3, 2019 | Last Updated July 11, 2022
I’ve spent hours with a meat scientist to learn how to break down different cuts of beef. This post walks you through the quarters, primals and subprimals.
Disclosure: Certified Angus Beef® brand sponsored this post. Opinions are my own.
Y’all know I’m a beef-lovin’, beef-grillin’, beef-eatin’ gal.
I actually have an MBA in beef. It’s not the kind of MBA you may be thinking of. It’s a Masters of Beef Advocacy. And I’m a Top of the Class grad. That’s how much I love beef.
And the beef I always cook with is Certified Angus Beef® brand.
Why Certified Angus Beef® brand
Back in 1978, a group of cattle ranchers found that when they dined at restaurants, the quality of the steaks wasn’t consistent. They decided to get together to create a set of quality standards for angus cattle. These standards include marbling, the size of the ribeye, carcass weight, fat quantity and appearance qualities.
When the cattle met those standards then, and only then, would they gain the honor of earning the Certified Angus Beef® brand label. That way, when the men went out to dinner, they knew if they found that label, their meal was guaranteed to be delicious.
While I can find Certified Angus Beef® brand at restaurants in Vegas, it’s a little challenging to find it at grocery stores, so I shop where the Vegas restaurant chefs shop, at Newport Meats. The quality is fantastic, but it’s not as easy to pick up a couple ribeyes for dinner.
Instead, like the chefs, I buy subprimal cuts of beef.
What Is a Subprimal Cut?
Before I talk about subprimal cuts, I should start from the beginning.
The cow is divided into four quarters. The two quarters in the front are called forequarters and the two in the back are called hindquarters.
Those quarters are divided up into 8 primal cuts: chuck, rib, loin, round, brisket, plate, flank and shank.
From there, the primals are broken down into subprimals. The chuck for instance includes the chuck roll, shoulder clod and square cut chuck. The rib is divided into a ribyeye roll and rib subprimal.
From each of these subprimal cuts, butchers create the cuts you’re familiar with at the grocery.
Butchering a Forequarter
As a brand ambassador for Certified Angus Beef® brand, I had the opportunity to attend their BBQ Summit. One of the sessions included breaking down a forequarter with meat scientist Diana Clark.
Diana has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in animal science. She invites chefs from around the world into her meat lab at the Certified Angus Beef® brand Culinary Center to learn more about the entire cow, the dozens of cuts of beef and their endless culinary possibilities.
I was joined by BBQ Hall-of-Famers Chris Lilly and Ray Lampe and other legends like Amy Mills, Anthony DiBernardo, Kent and Barrett Black, Malcom Reed and other pitmasters from across the country, including my buddies Dan Phelps at Learning to Smoke, Chris Grove at Nibble Me This and Mikey Kay from Man Meat BBQ.
We put on our smocks and gloves, walked into the bitter cold meat lab and gathered around six tables.
Lying on each table was the biggest hunk of beef I have ever had the privilege to butcher. It was the forequarter of the cow.
Diana had us start by separating the rib from the chuck. We grabbed a saw and worked our way through the rib bones. Malcom makes it look so easy.
Once we had the rib subprimal, we all enjoyed breaking it down into long-boned tomahawk steaks. This is a cut I know you’re familiar with. All you do is run your knife between the bones. Then, you shave or “french” the meat off of the end of the bones to get that clean look.
The rib subprimal produces prime rib, ribeye steaks, spinalis steaks and ribeye filets.
The rib primal also includes some ribs, which seems obvious. But not all of the ribs are in the rib primal. Think about a rib cage. There are bones in the front and bones in the back. The rib primal is the back of the cow, so this is where you’ll find the back ribs.
The front ribs are located in the belly of the cow in the plate primal. And just to confuse you a little more, there are also some ribs in the chuck primal.
When you think of short ribs, you probably think of the 2-3-inch rectangle pieces that come 3-4 to a pack. They braise up really nicely. Those ribs are usually cut from the chuck.
When you think of those gargantuan plate ribs (AKA dino bones), those come from the plate primal – straight from the belly. They are super rich and decadent and cook well with a 5-6-hour smoke.
Do you know your beef ribs? Learn more about the different cuts and how to cook them.
The plate primal also includes skirt steak, hanger steak and the navel. The navel is rare to find, but when you do, it makes excellent beef bacon and pastrami.
While we were busy butchering, the Certified Angus Beef® brand chefs were busy preparing an amazing lunch with the cuts we were creating. As a snackitizer, they served us grilled skirt steak in the meat lab followed by this tender plate of chuck flap that was smoked, sous vide and grilled.
Next up, was the coveted brisket, which comes from the chest. I’m not going to go into this cut in this post. There are plenty of posts on my site that explain how to trim and smoke a brisket.
It was really amazing to see this cadre of pitmasters trim up a brisket. Each had a little bit different technique. Dr. BBQ here is a pro. I can’t even imagine how many he’s trimmed up in throughout his career.
The last primal in the forequarter is the chuck. In my opinion, this is a fantastic primal. It has a rich flavor and can be cooked in a range of ways.
The chuck primal also includes the chuck tender, shoulder clod and square cut chuck, all of which can be cut into steaks or roasts.
Butchering the Hindquarter
The hindquarter of the cow includes the loin, round and flank. On day 2 of the BBQ Summit, Diana already had one broken down for us.
The loin includes the short loin and the sirloin. Personally, I struggled figuring out this primal, because the names are similar, but Diana was patient with me, and helped me understand the break down.
The short loin contains the strip loin and the tenderloin. If you keep them together, and slice them into steaks, you’ll get the porterhouse or T-bone. The difference between these two steaks is that the porterhouse includes a larger portion of filet. The picture below is a porterhouse. You can see the large filet on the left and the strip on the right.
You can also separate the short loin into the tenderloin and strip loin. The tenderloin is where filet mignon comes from, and the strip loin is where New York strip steaks come from.
Are you hanging with me?
The other part of the loin is the sirloin. This is broken into the top sirloin and the bottom sirloin. In the top sirloin, you’ll find the sirloin cap, which is used to make picanha – a popular cut in Brazilian churrasco.
The bottom sirloin includes a cut that dominates the west coast – the tri-tip. It’s a large triangle-shaped cut that can be cooked whole to medium rare. It eats like a lean steak that takes on flavor and smoke really well.
The round comes from the rump of the cow and yields beef that isn’t as tender as the other cuts, but it shouldn’t be discarded. My favorite cut in the round primal is the eye of round. It’s my go-to beef cut for smoking jerky.
Common cuts in the round also include top and bottom round roasts and steaks. And of course, the rump roast. I don’t have a lot of experience with these cuts yet, but trust me my exploration of beef is nowhere near over.
Following the hindquarter demo, our teams were asked to select a cut to prepare a dish in just over an hour. I was so honored to be part of Team 6 with Jonathan and Justin Fox and Nick Melvin of Fox Bros. BBQ and Travis and Emma Heim from Heim BBQ.
Nick is a pure bad ass. He immediately grabbed the leg, which is the shank primal, and had the idea to create a pozole. We also snatched up the ball tip, which comes from the loin primal.
I usually use the shank to create osso buco. At the market, you’ll find the shank sliced into rounds with the bone in the center. I like it smoked and then braised. The meat becomes very tender and the marrow in the bone adds a richness to the dish like no other cut.
We didn’t have access to a bandsaw, so we cooked the leg whole. We hit it with some smoke on the grill and boiled it in the pozole broth with herbs and veg. Then Nick dropped it into the fryer to cook the meat all the way through.
The meat was shaved off and mixed with the broth along with the smoked and grilled ball tip.
I honestly don’t know how he created such a deep, rich broth in 90 minutes. It was one of the best bites ever.
When butchering a cow, you will be left with some excess trimmings. These can all be ground up for sausage or ground beef, but that’s a story for another day.
For more details on every cut, visit the Certified Angus Beef® brand cuts of beef guide.