Beef chuck has been a challenge for butchers (and chefs) for a long time.
Beef chuck is a huge primal cut that comes mainly from the shoulder section of the steer, as well as parts of the neck, ribs, and the upper arm. The entire thing can weigh more than 100 pounds, and it makes up fully 30 percent of an entire side of beef.
A shoulder is a really complicated contraption, made up of a multitude of different muscles of various shapes and sizes.
These muscles are used for locomotion, and for supporting the weight of the animal. The more a muscle is exercised, the tougher it gets. So shoulder muscles are generally pretty tough.
Beef Chuck: Tough and Chewy, But Flavorful
These tough muscles are themselves held together at all sorts of funny angles by numerous bits of sinew and connective tissue, which are also tough and chewy, especially when cooked improperly.
Also, beef chuck is relatively fatty, which for many consumers can be a turn-off. On the other hand, cuts taken from the chuck are loaded with big, beefy flavor.
Still, cooking beef chuck takes time. These days (unlike, say, the 1950s and '60s), it's just not feasible to serve a piece of meat that needs to braise for two or three hours as a regular weeknight dinner.
So, beef chuck is not especially convenient for the consumer, nor especially profitable for the butcher. And yet, every side of beef has one, and it has to get used somehow.
Beef Chuck Roasts: The Classic Cuts
In the old days, butchers would basically run the whole square-cut beef chuck through the band saw to produce thick roasts — chuck blade roasts, chuck arm roasts, and the classic 7-bone chuck roast. Sometimes they'd be boneless, but either way, they were cheap, so they were considered "value cuts."
Quick point here. These so-called "roasts" can't actually be roasted. They'll turn out tough and chewy if you do. In this context, the word "roast" merely refers to the fact that it's a big, thick cut of meat. The best way to cook beef chuck is to braise it. Think classic beef pot roast (which, confusingly, is braised, not roasted.)
Anything that couldn't be sold as roasts (or steaks, which are just thinner versions of roasts) ended up as ground beef — which was generally 60 to 70 percent of the beef chuck. And ground beef doesn't fetch premium prices.
(Oh, did I mention that butchers like to make a profit? It's true. In fact, when they don't, they go out of business.)
Having to sell 70 percent of it as ground beef, and the rest of it as so-called "value cuts," is why beef chuck has not traditionally been profitable.
Going Beyond the Basic Beef Chuck Roast
As a result, butchers have been forced to get creative. The beef industry has spent a lot of money on research to identify specific muscles within the beef chuck that can be carved out and sold as steaks or roasts — ones that actually CAN be grilled or roasted. And because people are willing to pay a bit more for them, this helps increase butchers' profit margins on the beef chuck.
Good for them. And, maybe, good for you, too, because some of these newfangled cuts are actually pretty good. On the other hand, there's a few you'll probably want to stay away from.
Next, we'll talk about the two main subprimal that come from the beef chuck.