Cuts of meat: where your beef comes from
Scotch Beef has a great reputation, but there’s little point in swooning over the prime cuts and ignoring the rest. Here butcher Jonathan Honeyman teams up with chef John Webber for a guided tour of a side of beef.
The cut: It sits on the side of the shoulder blade and when sliced looks like a feather with the nerve like the quill. Cut like this it is good for casseroles. However, if the nerve is removed it gives two flat muscles that are very lean with a good flavour and firm texture. These are also good for daubes and casseroles but also for flash frying. Excellent value for money.
Cooking: Brilliant slow cooked in curries. Char grill very rare for a Thai salad.
The cut: This is the bovine equivalent of rack of lamb, located between the shoulder and middle back. It’s a good sized joint with a good proportion of inter-muscular fat which, when well conditioned, results in fantastic flavour and textures of beef. Undoubtedly a premium cut but worth every penny. When full trimmed back to the main muscle eye it gives one of the best steaks available: rib eye.
Alternatives: Wing rib.
Cooking: As a roast there is none better though it’s more difficult to cook than sirloin. Don’t undercook too much – if you like your beef rare go for wing rib. For the steaks simply grill or fry.
Leg of mutton cut
The cut: Sometimes known as thick rib or runner. Taken from the shoulder, it’s typically sliced for braising steak or cubed for casseroles and the like. Occasionally used as an economy flash-fry steak or to make beef olives. Can also be used as an economical roast when properly de-nerved, but because this is a lean cut it will require barding with fat.
Alternatives: Something from the hind quarter – topside or thick flank.
Cooking: Braise in red wine with shallots and parsnips.
The cut: From the breast area, the brisket is typically boned and rolled allowing it to be trimmed of any excess fat. It’s not best suited for quick cooking methods but responds well to slow cooking and is a very economical cut. Brisket is also a popular choice for making salt or pickled beef.
Alternatives: Silverside will react in a similar way to a long, slow braise, can be bought in the same manner and has a similar physical shape.
Cooking: A cheap source of good eating – five hours in a slow cooker and it is butter tender.
The cut: There are two fillets per animal (one on each side), located in the lumbar region beneath the back bone, on the opposite side of the bone to the sirloin.The fillet does very little work so is very tender and also very low in fat hence it has a delicate, light flavour and will benefit from good hanging. Almost no external fat is present so marbling through the meat is essential to avoid dryness.
Alternatives: There isn’t one, really, but you could try heart of rump.
Cooking: Best suited to quick cooking but a successful roast can be obtained using the head or thick centre section. This is by far the tenderest cut on the carcass but it is also the most subtle in flavour. This tenderness makes it ideal for serving underdone or even raw in a carpaccio or steak tartare. For steaks, pan fry them in olive oil with a little butter added half way through cooking. Don’t cook them any more than medium and avoid too strong a sauce.
Shin (‘nap’ or ‘hough’)
The cut: Shin has a high amount of nerve and connective tissue, but when correctly cooked results in a tender, hearty stew with that glutinous attribute we all long for in comfort food. This can be sold whole, sliced or cubed and occasionally sliced on the bone similar to osso bucco.
Alternatives: Any cut with a high amount of connective tissue.
Cooking: The cut to use for a good deep sauce. Try cooking in chicken stock with red wine and tomato to make knockout gravy and keep the meat to make a steak pie for the family.
The cut: This describes the lower middle of the animal’s back. It can be used on or off the bone as a roast but more often nowadays it’s seen as a premium steak. The sirloin is basically a single muscle with good marbling and a nice cover of fat on the outside. It benefits from good maturation which results in tenderness and developed flavour.
Alternatives: Rib eye or pope’s eye depending on budget.
Cooking: Sirloin is the best bet for an easy home roast beef and it’s great served cold. Char grill the steaks and lightly rub with a bruised garlic clove. For something a bit different try a smoke roast on a kettle barbecue.
Rump (or ‘pope’s eye’)
The cut: Located at the base of the spine where the back joins onto the leg. This cut is made up of a few muscles and is usually cut into thick steaks, though it can also be seam cut into individual muscles and then portioned. This is a full-flavored steak when properly matured and has more texture than the fillet. Cheapest of the ‘premium’ steaks.
Alternatives: Sirloin could be substituted in any recipe for pope’s eye.
Cooking: A great steak for the barbecue as you get good flavour from the meat and it will take a marinade well.
The cut: From the hind quarter, an economical roast of more than acceptable quality when prepared correctly from good meat. This is a lean cut with reasonable texture and flavour. Also good for braising, minute steaks, and for curing as in salt beef or bresola.
Alternatives: Any hind quarter cut such as point of rump.
Cooking: Topside is a lean meat that can dry out easily, so if it’s being roasted any over cooking or reheating can leave it appearing to be tough. It’s better as a pot roast with plenty of vegetables to make a full flavoured sauce.
The cut: Have your butcher trim well and joint ready to go. Oxtail will respond wonderfully to long slow cooking resulting in a gelatinous meat full of flavour that falls effortlessly off the bone. This is real comfort food and considering there’s only one per animal it’s good value too.
Alternatives: Is there an alternative? The next best bet is slow cooked shin.
Cooking: Try serving the meat off the bone for your less adventurous guest or get the butcher to bone and stuff the tail. Then braise whole and serve as a joint.
• Master butcher Jonathan Honeyman runs the Aberfoyle Butcher and John Webber, who has twice won a Michelin star, is best known as a chef at Nick Nairn Cook School. They have recently joined to form Umami Culinaire, a small specialist artisan food company which sells a range of goods prepared by Honeyman and Webber, including hand-made charcuterie, meat and deli products. These are available through the Aberfoyle Butcher.
• Quality Meat Scotland (www.qmscotland.co.uk) offers various guides to beef cuts and cooking for both professionals and public, including a series of video tutorials available on its website.