© Denzil Green
Beef terminology is confusing. You often have your work cut out for you trying to figure out what cut you actually just bought. The terminology can differ from area to area, from store to store, from butcher to butcher. And that’s before you try to sort out North American terminology versus the rest of the world.
While it’s natural that people in different locations develop different preferred words for things, the terminology for beef has left the realm of “live stock” and moved to “laughing stock.” Butchers have a good deal to answer for in this. They’ve had a marked tendency over the years to rename cuts in an attempt to refresh consumers’ interest. That tendency grew more marked during the 1970s in Canada, US and the UK, when under the failed Wage and Price Control policies in all three countries butchers simply renamed cuts to escape the price controls attached to the more well-known names. And since then, the marketers have taken over and gone into full flight.
Thing is, it all became jargon that only people in the trade understood. Many consumers were left behind, confused, intimated and embarrassed that they didn’t understand something as basic as cuts of Beef. But those were the good old days, when producers and retailers had so many beef buyers they didn’t really notice the ones who were confused. Sales were still good enough, with people who did buy sticking to the two or three cuts they knew and understood, and if sales slumped, well, there was always the good old taxpayer to bail them out.
The good old days turned sour in the last decade of the 20th century. A vague “red meat is bad for you feeling” permeated all the health news. People got sick from hamburger and died. The chicken farmers, no slouches they, were all over this and promoted white meat at a time when white wine was all the rage. The beef market fought back, and recovered a little, but they still didn’t “twig” that when potential buyers came to the Beef counter, they stood there confused. Then along came foot and mouth diseases, and then the biggest of all, mad cow. We deserted the Beef counter in droves, sales plummeted, and with the worst timing of all, taxpayers started grumbling about bail-outs to any businesses, including agricultural ones.
Beef producers and retailers needed us back at the beef counter, but in the meantime we had been buying chicken and fish, and man, were they ever easier to buy! The clear, standard terminology made it easier to know what to do with them. That made them more convenient for everyday meals.
Something had to be done about the confusion at the meat counter. Canada was first off the mark, where the renaming is already underway. A Rib Roast has become a Rib Oven Roast; a Top Round Roast has become an Inside Round Pot Roast. The goal of the renaming is be descriptive about where the cut comes from (and no cuts actually come from places on the cow named New York, Kansas City or Delmonico’s) and to let consumers know what to do with their purchase. The packaging also has suggested cooking directions stuck on them. Beef purchases have gone up by 14% in stores that have switched to the new nomenclature over stores that haven’t. Consumers have even begun buying cuts that they previously weren’t familiar with. Sales of pot roasts went up by 190% when people knew what to do with them.
A castrated bull is called a steer; a virgin cow is called a heifer.
Grass-fed versus corn-fed Beef
There’s no doubt that in nature, a cow’s natural diet would be grass. Traditionally, all cows were let graze for grass and other greens. In Britain and France, grass-fed is still the norm. In North America, farmers discovered that feeding cattle grain allowed the cows to be weight-ready for market earlier, and so corn-fed became the norm. Corn-fed cattle require doses of antibiotics to supply the nutritional elements that grass otherwise would, in order to help ward off infections and diseases. (This is not to say that grass-fed cattle might not receive the same types of doses as well.) And growing the corn itself to feed the cattle has an environmental impact on its own, grass-fed fans argue, with the pesticides and fertilisers required to grow the corn.
In the UK, corn-fed beef is more expensive, because it’s imported: the home-grown stuff is grass-fed. In North America, it’s the opposite: it’s the corn-fed beef that is cheaper.
Many people swear there are important differences between prime beef cuts from corn-fed beef, vs grass-fed beef; that corn-fed has more of a silken texture to it and more marbling, while grass-fed has more chew and a more complex range of flavours to it. Some say that grass-fed is superior in many ways (including politically and morally.) Others such as Chef Harold Dieterle of the critically-acclaimed Perilla restaurant in New York say that the claims of the grass-fed camp are “1,000 percent bogus.” 
To call a spade a space, aging is the controlled start of the natural decomposition process of the meat. Beef is aged to tenderize it and develop flavour. During aging, enzymes naturally present in the meat break down some muscle fibre. Many authorities say that most of the benefits of aging occur in the first week or week and a half and that after that, the increase in benefit slows dramatically. It’s not entirely clear that we should take this at face value, as real Beef aficionados and really high-end butchers seem to age for up to 6 weeks, and it’s pretty obvious that the week and a half figure coincidentally gets the meat to the store faster for faster sale. But never mind: read on, and you’ll see that you’re lucky if you even ever get the week and a half aging.
The meat is hung without packaging or covering in chillers at a controlled temperature range of 32 – 34 F (0 to 1 C.) The humidity is also strictly controlled. Too much moisture would obviously simply cause the meat to spoil; too little would dry the meat out and encourage excess “shrinkage.” The shrinkage is the meat losing moisture as it ages. As the moisture evaporates, it concentrates the juices in the Beef improving the flavour. All of this sounds good to us as a consumer, but to a seller this is bad, especially as shrinkage can be anywhere from 5 to 20% of the weight, which of course leaves less water in the meat to tip the scales when it comes to pricing.
Dry-aged meat is dense, taut and dark-rose coloured. You can tell it’s been dry aged if it almost bounces a little when you slap a piece of it onto a cutting board.
Most dry aging these days is done by high-end butchers, and reserved for the best cuts that will command a premium price to help compensate for both the lost weight and the storage costs. In an interesting development, though, Sainsbury’s in the UK, under Jamie Oliver’s urging, reintroduced dry-aged Beef in 2003 to its meat counters.
British steak fans seem more likely than Americans to want to ensure that their beef has been dry-aged. “It can be argued that only the very best dry-aged (where the beef is hung in a cool room to develop flavour) USDA corn-fed steaks have a decent flavour. The cheaper versions have all the depth of a muddy puddle.” 
To wet age Beef, the meat is vacuum sealed in packaging called Cryovac®. The vacuum seal means that humidity control is not needed, which means that the meat can be shipped right away, under refrigerated conditions of 32 – 34 F (0 to 1 C), letting the aging take place during shipping. Cryovaced Beef and lamb from New Zealand is now routinely shipped to North America, having wet aged 55 to 60 days. As it was never frozen, it can still be sold as fresh. This is one obvious advantage for sellers.
The second big advantage is that because that meat is in a vacuum sealed bag, it’s going to be pretty hard for much evaporation to take place which would result in shrinkage (or concentration of flavour, for that matter.) Shrinkage losses with cryovaced Beef are a minimal 1 to 2%. The moisture that does run off, which is called “purge”, is drained away when the bag is opened. The bag gives off a bit of an off-smell when it’s first cut open, but that quickly goes away.
Wet-aged meat will be a brighter red than dry-aged meat. When you slap it onto a cutting board, it will impact like a wet sponge, and probably splatter a little. Barbeque enthusiasts hate the high moisture content in wet aged Beef, as they say their steaks essentially just steam on the grill, instead of barbequing. But chances are that any Beef you buy nowadays from a regular store is wet aged. Even if the store’s butcher seems to be cutting pieces from large hunks or sides of Beef, chances are those large hunks were Cryovaced, and the only aging they saw was inside a wet plastic bag for the amount of time it took the truck to drive to the store.
Despite the term “wet aging”, no water is actually added to the bag before sealing.
Butchers aren’t paid any more than we are, so they have to stretch their grocery dollars, too. Since meat is their business, it makes sense to pay attention to what they buy for themselves, which isn’t always necessarily the same thing as what the store wants them to recommend to you over the counter.
Among a butcher’s top three choices are Porterhouse Steak, Top Sirloin Steak and Hanger Steak.
French Beef (like Scottish Beef) is mostly fed on grass (North American Beef is grain fed.) In general, French Beef will be tougher than North American meat and with less marbling, and less juicy when cooked. The French breed their cattle to produce both meat and milk. The French only age their Beef 3 to 5 days.
The Future of Beef
Producers and retailers are now looking for ways to increase sales on the tougher cuts, as those cuts show the most room for price growth. Just two tough sections alone, the Round and the Chuck, make up 53% of the cow by weight, so you can understand why they’d want to see price growth on cuts from these areas. Ending labelling confusion at the meat counter would be an important first step in this.
Lower fat has become a mania, and cattle-farmers have put their cows on diets. This produces meat with less marbling, which will dry out more easily during cooking. You need to take this into account when cooking Beef, especially when using cooking times from older recipes which presumed fuller marbling. You can’t do much to make up for the flavouring that was lost with the more generous marbling.
The main areas shown on Beef charts are called primal cuts.
Primal cuts are not sold to consumers; they are sold whole to retailers.
Note that North American terminology is very different from that used in Australia, Britain, Ireland, New Zealand, etc. For instance, in North America, “rump” is a very tough cut with almost no marbling done from the Primal area called the “Round”, so North American steak fans would wrinkle their noses at something called a “Rump” steak. In Britain, however, the Rump area is a primal area all its own and comes from a completely different area of the cow, taking in what North Americans would call “Sirloin”, “Tenderloin”, “Top Sirloin”, and “Bottom Sirloin”, with none of the round at all, and very good marbling. So, if you are in North America and are using a British recipe calling for a “rump” steak to be lightly grilled, don’t just reach for a North American rump steak or you will be chewing for days.
Choose one of the following for a full-size chart:
North American Primal Cuts
- Less tender areas: Neck, Shanks, Chuck, Brisket, Flank, Round
- More tender areas: Rib, Short Loin, Sirloin
Beef is normally more of a purple colour. It only turns rosy red when it comes into contact with oxygen. Now, turns out, that rosy red colour is the colour that we consumers have come to associate with “safe to eat.” So, retailers oblige us by packaging our fresh Beef in plastic wrap which is actually specially selected to let air through to the meat, to keep the surface of the meat that rosy red colour. That’s why home economists have been saying to us all along, don’t freeze your meat in that home packaging: instant freezer burn.
Should you happen to see Beef on which the dates are good, but the meat is a bit more purply, that simply means it’s been packaged with proper plastic wrap, and because of that will probably actually be fresher than the rosy red stuff. When you expose purply colour Beef to the air, it should turn red in about 15 minutes. (The purply colour comes from a pigment called myoglobin; when exposed to oxygen, it turns into oxymyoglobin and becomes the red colour.) Vacuum packed meats will remain the purply colour.
A sign of spoiled beef is meat that doesn’t turn red when exposed to air after 15 minutes, smells sour, and feels sticky when you touch it. But never second-guess yourself: if you’re not 101% sure, throw it out.
Medium Rare 145 F (63 C)
Medium 160 F (71 C)
Well Done 170 F (77 C)
Ground Beef 160 F (71 C)
Refrigerate fresh Beef in its store packaging. Use within 3 to 4 days, otherwise freeze. If you intend to use it within two weeks, you can just toss it in the freezer in the store packaging. Otherwise, you have to package it in proper freezer packaging, as store packaging will dry out the Beef in the freezer.
Most authorities say that you can freeze Beef for up to 3 months, but many people’s mothers froze it for up to a year (or longer, Lord knows), and we lived.
Until the 1700s, the same cattle that were used to pull ploughs were also used as Beef cattle. These cows were small and their meat was tougher, and there was less meat on them as they were “designed” for muscle and bone to give them strength for working.
A man from Leicestershire, England, Robert Blakewell, was amongst the first to work on improving breeds of cattle for Beef production alone.
Literature & Lore
“Methinks sometimes I have no more wit than a Christian or an ordinary man has: but I am a great eater of beef and I believe that does harm to my wit.” — Sir Andrew in Twelfth Night, Act I, Scene 3. Shakespeare (26 April 1564 – 23 April 1616).
“Give them great meals of beef and iron and steel, they will eat like wolves and fight like devils.” — William Shakespeare (26 April 1564 – 23 April 1616. Henry V, Act III, Scene 7.)
 Hesser, Amanda. Recipe Redux: Rib Roast of Beef, 1966. New York Times. 26 January 2011.
 Parker Bowles, Tom. Holy cow! How to choose the perfect steak. London: Daily Mail. 14 September 2009.
Jordan, Harry. Meat Harry. Renfrew, Ontario, Canada: General Store Publishing House. 2003.