Beef brisket comes from the chest area between the shoulders of the cow, which means it’s a working part of the animal and moves around quite a bit during its lifetime. It also has a large amount of fat which is marbled throughout and adds bags of flavour to the meat. It is usually sold boned and rolled as a full joint, and the high amount of fat and connective tissue means it needs to be slow-cooked to render it all down.
Traditionally, brisket is slow-roasted in the oven until the meat is falling apart and meltingly tender (it’s easy to think of it as the beef equivalent of pulled pork). In the US the cut has always been associated with pit-smoking and barbecue, which has spurred on brisket’s recent popularity. However, it is also the most popular cut for making corned beef and pastrami, and can also be turned into mince as the fat prevents it from drying out during cooking.
Quite often sold as braising steak, chuck comes from around the shoulders and is often sold pre-diced to be used in certain dishes. The shoulders are one of the hardest working parts of the animal, so chuck can be quite tough if not cooked correctly. However, this also makes it one of the most economical, widely available cuts out there.
Because it has a good fat and tissue content which needs to be broken down, chuck steak is usually used in stews, casseroles or pies, which are cooked for over an hour. The sauce takes on the flavours of the beef during cooking, while ensuring the meat doesn’t dry out during the cooking process.
Still regarded as the king of all steaks, fillet is a prime cut that tends to be associated with grand celebratory dishes, due in part to its high price. It comes from the lower middle of the cow’s back and does the least work of all the beef cuts, making it incredibly tender. It also contains very little fat, which means there’s no need to cook fillet for a long time to break down any collagen.
A fillet steak should be cooked over incredibly high heat as quickly as possible, to prevent the meat drying out. However, larger pieces of fillet are used to make dishes such as beef Wellington and chateaubriand, which are cooked in the oven for longer.
Also called hanger steak, onglet has only recently become known about in the UK but is now appearing on menus and in shops – before then it was often pocketed by the butcher. Taken from the cow’s lower belly, it has been enjoyed in France for years thanks to its intense meaty flavour and satisfyingly chewy texture. It’s possible that onglet wasn’t popular in the past as it can become very tough if not cooked correctly – it either needs to be served quite rare or slow-cooked for a long time. It takes on marinades very well and is particularly suited to barbecuing, as the smokiness complements the almost offal-like flavour of the cut. Serve it cut into slices across the grain to make it as tender as possible.
Rib-eye is fast becoming one of the most popular steaks around thanks to its incredibly rich, beefy flavour. It is cut from just above the ribs, an area which does little work and makes rib-eye exceptionally tender. There are also ribbons of fat found throughout the meat, adding plenty of flavour, and an ‘eye’ of fat in the centre, which needs to be rendered down during cooking. While every person has their own preferences on how rare or well-done they like their steak, with rib-eye it’s generally suggested to cook it until medium at the least, as this gives the fat time to render down and baste the meat.
Another classic steak cut, rump is at the opposite end of the spectrum to fillet. What it lacks for in tenderness, however, it more than makes up for in flavour. Cut from the backside of the cow, it’s a muscle that’s used quite a bit during the animal’s life, which means it’s tougher than other ‘prime’ steaks. However, it is still tender enough to be fried quickly and served rare (if desired). Rump steaks are also a good choice when making kebabs or skewers, as it takes on marinades very well and can hold its own against stronger flavours. It can also be sliced very thinly and used in stir-fries or Asian dishes, which require very fast and hot cooking.
One of the cheapest cuts of beef available, shin comes from (as you can probably guess) the foreleg of the cow. Until recently shin was usually sold as generic ‘stewing steak’, but chefs and butchers are now understanding how to make the most of the cut. It requires long, slow braising, as there are thick ribbons of tissue and gristle running throughout the meat, but once these break down the meat falls apart in the mouth. Shin is particularly well-suited to stews as it creates a wonderfully flavourful sauce if cooked in liquid. The meat almost melts into the liquid to become rich and sticky, with plenty of savoury beefiness.
Just above the leg is the silverside, so-called because of the thin, silvery tissue covering one side of the joint. It is often used to make salt beef or corned beef, roasted as a whole joint in the oven or sliced into minute steaks. It has very little marbling and overall is quite a lean cut. If roasting whole, silverside should be regularly basted or partly-submerged in liquid to prevent it drying out. It is sometimes sold with an added cap of fat tied around it, which keeps it moist and adds flavour.
Sitting somewhere between rump and fillet in terms of taste and texture, sirloin steak has the perfect balance of fat and tenderness. It comes from between the fillet and the rib, and is also sometimes sold as a rolled and boned joint, ready for roasting whole. Sirloin steaks should be cooked in a similar way to rib-eye, allowing the fat to melt into the meat and to prevent chewy gristle. If roasting the joint whole, make sure there is a nice thick cap of fat on top of the meat to prevent it drying out, and regular basting during the cooking process helps keep everything tender.
Skirt can be found near the onglet, by the lower belly and ribs, and shares many of the same characteristics. It is full of flavour but quite tough, so needs careful cooking. It is quite a thin steak covered in a tough membrane, which needs to be removed before cooking, and either needs to be cooked very quickly in a pan or very slowly in liquid. Skirt steaks are typically associated with Mexican dishes, as they can take on punchy marinade flavours such as lime and chilli and are suited to barbecuing. They are also used in Cornish pasties, as they make a fantastic gravy, but when served on their own skirt steaks should be sliced against the grain and cooked over as high a heat as possible.
T-bones are one of the few cuts of beef that are always served on the bone (which is shaped like a capital T, hence the name). On one side is a piece of sirloin and on the other is a smaller piece of fillet, which means there’s more variety, flavours and textures going on. The fillet will always stay slightly rarer than the sirloin, as they cook at different speeds in the pan, and often the steak is seared and then finished off in the oven to ensure even cooking.
The flavour of a T-bone steak is big and bold, gaining an extra boost from being cooked on the bone. This means it won’t get overpowered by sauces, which can often mask the flavour of the meat itself. Peppercorn, béarnaise or chimichurri complement the beefy taste perfectly.
Topside is quite similar to silverside and comes from the inner thigh of the cow. It is sold as a roasting joint and almost always has a layer of fat secured to it which will baste the meat while cooking. Because of the low fat content in the meat itself, topside can be roasted and served rare whilst remaining nice and tender. Known as an ‘easy to carve’ roast, topside is incredibly simple to cook and serve. It also doesn’t require low and slow cooking, so is perfect for a Sunday dinner when you haven’t got time to spend all day in the kitchen.