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An A to Z guide to choosing, storing, preparing, and cooking fresh produce and recipe ingredients.

  • Common Cuts
    Brisket

    One of the tougher, leaner cuts (it comes from the breast, just behind the front leg, or foreshank), brisket is still flavorful with long, slow cooking. It makes excellent corned beef or pot roast. The two cuts found in the supermarket are the leaner flat or first cut and the thicker, more flavorful point cut, which includes a layer of fat.

    Best for: Braising and stewing.

     

    Chuck Roast

    This large, square shoulder portion of the steer is coarse grained and tends to have lots of connective tissue running through it. It is tough yet flavorful, making it an inexpensive choice for stews and pot roasts. In fact, it’s often labeled “pot roast.”

    Best for: Braising and stewing.

     

    Flank Steak

    A lean, less tender, but flavorful and inexpensive cut taken from the cow’s underbelly, flank steak is best served thinly sliced and is delicious in salads and sandwiches.

    Best for: Pan-frying, broiling, and grilling.

     

    Ground Beef

    For tender, juicy burgers and meat loaf, choose ground chuck. Twenty percent fat is ideal (it’s often labeled “80/20”). Ground meat made from a lean cut, like sirloin, tends to dry out and is therefore best for chili and meat sauces. Look for meat that’s bright red (browning indicates that the meat is not fresh).

    Best for: Pan-frying, roasting, broiling, and grilling.

     

    London Broil

    Large, boneless pieces from cuts such as flank steak, sirloin, and top round that are used for grilled, marinade-tenderized dishes. London broil is often labeled as such in stores. The cut has lots of flavor and medium tenderness.

    Best for: Roasting, grilling, and broiling.

     

    Rib-Eye

    Also called a Delmonico or club steak, this large, near rectangular cut from the end of the ribs is expensive and tender, with ample marbling. It is usually sold boneless. If the bone is left in, the cut is sold as a rib steak. Some specialty butchers dry-age rib-eyes. In this labor-intensive process (which adds to the cost), natural enzymes break down the beef, tenderiz-ing it and concentrating the flavors.

    Best for: Grilling, broiling, and pan-frying.

     

    Rib Roast

    The best cut for roasts, the rib roast includes the rib meat and the adjacent steaks. When sold with the rounded short ribs in, it’s called a standing rib roast. Cuts with the bones re-moved are much easier to slice. Rib roasts can be cut to various sizes, suitable for a family or a large dinner party.

    Best for: Roasting.

     

    Short Ribs

    Sold in rectangular, blocklike pieces that are 2 to 3 inches long, short ribs come from the loin, chuck, or mid-rib area. Thick layers of meat and fat give the ribs a rich taste, but they can be tough, so aren’t suitable for grilling. Instead, they benefit from long, slow covered cooking.

    Best for: Braising.

     

    Sirloin

    Cut from the back of the animal near the hip bone, sirloin is one of the tenderest beef cuts. It’s typically sold with the long, thin bone attached to a thick steak. Some specialty butchers dry-age sirloin. In this labor-intensive process (which adds to the cost), natural en-zymes break down the beef, tenderizing it and concentrating the flavors.

    Best for: Broiling or grilling.

     

    Skirt Steak

    Great for fajitas, this thin, flavorful cut has a loose texture that easily absorbs marinades and rubs. It typically comes as a long, narrow strip. If necessary, divide it into pieces to fit your pan.

    Best for: Pan-frying, broiling, and grilling

     

    Strip Steak

    Also known as New York strip, Kansas City strip, boneless club, and shell steak, this rich, tender selection comes from the loin and is the quintessential steakhouse cut. The tastiest pieces are well marbled, with needle-thin, bright white lines of fat running throughout. The lines of fat melt away with cooking, rendering the meat lush and juicy. Some specialty butchers dry-age strip steaks. In this labor-intensive process (which adds to the cost), natural enzymes break down the beef, tenderizing it and concentrating the flavors.

    Best for: Pan-frying, roasting, and grilling.

     

    Tri-Tip

    A triangular cut from the bottom of the sirloin, available as roasts or steaks, the tri-tip is a less expensive alternative to sirloin. It’s nearly as tender, though, and the flavor is excellent.

    Best for: Grilling, broiling, and roasting.

    How to Choose Beef
    Select beef that’s bright red with well-trimmed fat (no more than ½ inch) around the exterior. The tastiest cuts have the most marbling—the thin, barely visible veins of fat running through the protein that makes the meat more tender and flavorful. Avoid pieces that appear brown, which is a sign of age, or those with excessive fat around the exterior, which does not improve taste but increases cost.


    Decoding the Label
    Natural/All-Natural: Don’t read too much into this wording: The USDA requires only that meat bearing this label was minimally processed and doesn’t contain artificial flavorings or colors or preservatives. The animals may still have been given hormones or antibiotics.

    Raised Without Antibiotics, No Hormones Administered: Antibiotics and hormones are commonly administered throughout cattle’s lives to prevent disease and promote growth. “Raised Without Antibiotics” labels and their variations (“No Antibiotics Added,” etc.), which claim exception to this practice, are not verified by the USDA. If you want to be sure your meat is free of exposure to these drugs, look for a “USDA Organic” label (see below).

    Grass-Fed: In theory, this means the animal was fed on pasture grasses and hay—a good thing. (Aficionados swear that grass-fed beef has superior flavor and texture.) However, only cuts with a label bearing the “USDA Process Verified” or “American Grassfed” seal are guaranteed to be the real thing.

    USDA Organic: Beef with this designation has passed these tests: Everything the cow consumed was 100 percent organic. It was not fed hormones, antibiotics, or animal by-products. And it was given access to pasture.

    Certified Humane: In this monitored program, cattle have to be fed a nutritious diet (not necessarily organic) and raised with sufficient space to perform “natural behaviors.” The use of hormones and antibiotics (except for sick animals) is prohibited. Look for the “Certified Humane Raised & Handled” logo.

    Free-Range: Although this label implies that the cattle roamed free and had access to a varied diet (which adds to the meat’s flavor and improves the animal’s well-being), verification of the claim is not required. (The USDA only certifies free-range poultry.) If you want a guarantee that your animal had ample time to roam free, look for a “free range” label in conjunction with one that states it is “Certified Humane Raised & Handled,” “Animal Welfare Approved,” or “Food Alliance Certified.” Issued by independent monitoring organizations, these labels are much better indicators of the humane treatment of animals. (To find certified products in your area, go to the individual organizations’ websites.

    Pastured/Pasture-Raised: What this should mean: The animal roamed freely and grazed on pastureland for its entire life. What it really means: Possibly very little, since there is no time requirement for this certification and the steer may have been on pastureland for just a few months.

    Animal-welfare approved: Issued by a division of the well-regarded Animal Welfare Institute, an independent nonprofit, this stamp indicates that the animal was raised outdoors on a pasture or a range and the farmer followed the most rigorous animal-welfare standards. Farmers voluntarily apply to receive this certification.


    USDA Grades
    There are eight grades of beef, but only the three highest show up in supermarkets. Because grading is voluntary (though USDA inspection is mandatory), much of the beef sold at retail is ungraded.

    USDA Prime has the highest level of marbling, which makes it the most tender and flavorful meat on the market but also the highest in fat. Only 2 to 3 percent of beef is awarded this prestigious grade, and it’s found mostly at high-end steakhouses and in some specialty stores.

    USDA Choice has less marbling than prime but is still considered high-quality and reliably juicy. This grade is widely available.

    USDA Select has little marbling, which means it’s lower in fat but somewhat tougher and less tasty than choice and thus less expensive. This grade is also widely available.

  • How to Store Beef
    Keep beef refrigerated at all times in the original packaging, and wrap it in a plastic bag to prevent any liquids from contaminating other foods. Use or freeze steaks within 5 days of purchase, ground beef within 2 days. In the freezer, steaks and roasts keep for up to 12 months, ground beef for up to 4 months. Fully cooked leftovers keep for up to 4 days refrigerated in airtight containers; they can be frozen for up to 3 months.

  • Cooking Temperatures
    The safest, most accurate way to figure out when a steak is cooked is to check the internal temperature with an instant-read thermometer. For best results, insert it into the side of the steak, reaching as close to the center as possible without touching bone (if there is one). This chart lists temperatures recommended by the Real Simple test kitchen (and that are considered safe by many professional kitchens) for steaks cooked to juicy perfection.

     

                                 USDA           Real Simple

     

    Rare:                     NA                115° F

    Medium-rare:       145° F          130° F

    Medium:                160° F          140° F

    Medium-well:        NA                150° F

    Well-done:            170° F          155° F

    Ground beef:        160° F          160° F

    —Melinda Page 

    Real Simple Beef Recipes:

    See all Beef recipes »

  • How To: Freeze and Quick-Thaw Meat

    Buying meat in bulk can save you money and time (in the form of last-minute supermarket trips). Keep it fresher longer—this video shows how.

     

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