Unlike pork, where the shoulder is called a shoulder, when we refer to the shoulder region of a beef carcass we call it the chuck.
The beef chuck shoulder clod is made up of five distinct muscles, but typically only three of them are used for making roasts and steaks:
- Top blade
- Shoulder center
- Shoulder tender
The other two, sometimes referred to as the "clod lifter meat" and the "nose," come under the category of so-called "accessory muscles," which means they're not good for much of anything other than ground beef or stew meat.
The top blade, shoulder center and shoulder tender can be prepared and cooked in different ways.
The top blade (or infraspinatus) muscle is actually quite a tender piece of meat. The only problem is that it has a long seam of tough connective tissue running all the way through it.
Sometimes you'll see something called blade steaks, which are made by simply slicing sections straight across the top blade muscle. You'll see that line of sinew running right through the steaks in the photo above. This makes blade steaks fine for braising but not ideal for grilling.
Another way of fabricating the top blade is to make it into flat iron steaks.
To do this, a butcher needs to slice lengthwise along the entire length of the top blade, removing the meat above that center strip, then flip it over and do the same for the bottom side. These sections are then sliced into individual flat iron steaks. They're actually pretty tender, and because they've had that tough seam of gristle removed, you can cook them on the grill.
The middle part, which has that tough connective strip through it, is usually used for making ground chuck.
The shoulder center (or triceps brachii) is also called the shoulder heart or shoulder arm. It's a very large muscle, separated by a thick piece of connective sinew. To remove that, the shoulder center needs to be divided into two sections.
The larger of these two sections, called the long head, can more or less be squared off and sliced across the grain into steaks or roasts. These days you might see them described as ranch steaks, which is the beef industry's way of making them sound appealing, but in the old days they were called shoulder steaks, shoulder center steaks, or arm steaks.
Shoulder steaks are often run through a mechanical tenderizer called a meat cuber (sometimes called a swissing machine) to make cube steak or swiss steak. (This can also be accomplished manually using a tenderizing mallet.)
The swissing machine is designed to tenderize very tough cuts of meat, so this should give you an idea that ranch steaks are not going to be tender (although they do have nice beef flavor). If you do grill them, do it quickly so that they don't overcook.
The shoulder center is also used for making stir fry or fajita meat, or something called "breakfast steaks," which is probably the kind of thing you might expect to be served at fine steakhouses such as Denny's.
The smaller, more pointy piece of the shoulder center is called the lateral head (or shoulder top). It's sometimes sold as a "shoulder center roast," or cubed and used for kabobs or stew meat. As always, beware of roasting any "roast" which can also be sold as stew meat.
The shoulder tender (or teres major) is a small but very tender little muscle. The whole thing weighs no more than 8 to 12 ounces after trimming away the fat, silverskin and other extraneous tissue. Because it's tender, it can be roasted whole, butterflied and cooked on the grill, or sliced into medallions. You'll sometimes see these called petite shoulder tenders or petite tender medallions.