Beef labels can be confusing. The name of the cut can vary from one market—and region—to the next. But if you understand where the “primal cuts” come from on a steer, you’ll be better able to decipher supermarket labels, determine how tender and flavorful a steak might be, and decide how to cook a particular cut.
Wholesalers break down steer carcasses into nine sections, or primal cuts, as shown in the illustration above (the tenderloin is part of the sirloin). These cuts are then broken down further into the retail cuts found at your supermarket (for more tips on how to cook each of these retail cuts, see our downloadable steak chart).
The most tender steaks come from the cow’s back—in primal cut terminology, from the rib, short loin, and sirloin—because these muscles do less work. These cuts are great for grilling or searing. Steaks from the more heavily exercised chuck, plate, and flank primal cuts are tougher but have more beefy oomph. When you cook these steaks to medium rare or medium and slice them thinly across the grain, they’re great for the grill and easy on your wallet, too. Cuts from the brisket, shank, and round are the toughest and leanest of the lot; they’re best left for braising or roasting.