Meat 101: The Basic Beef, Pork and Lamb Primal Cuts

Raw meat
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The meat counter can be an intimidating place for a lot of people. Maybe it's all the knives, cleavers and hooks back there. Or maybe it's because the butchers themselves are standing behind this massive counter and you literally have to look up at them.

Whatever it is, unless you grew up on a ranch, or have pursued formal (or informal) education on the topic, you might be moderately bewildered by the assortment of roasts, steaks and chops arrayed in the meat case.

A good butcher will be...MORE happy to answer questions, but they can't answer them if you don't ask. And I don't know what it's like for women, but for men, not knowing about meat is like not knowing about cars. I have no idea why. It's not like you have this innate knowledge that just comes to you from your chromosomes. It makes absolutely no sense. 

And yet a dude could be a neurosurgeon, astrophysicist, movie star, President of the United States, AND a Fortune 500 CEO, I mean, there is absolutely NO reason for him to have that specific knowledge, but I guarantee you he'd rather eat his own eyeballs than ask a butcher "what exactly IS a tri-tip?" any more than he'd ask a mechanic "so what does the radiator DO anyway?"

So what ends up happening is that you buy the same meat over and over, and cook it the same way you always cook it. Sad! 

Your pocketbook is on the line as well. If you really know the cuts of meat, you'll know when you're getting a good deal and when you're not. Which makes a big difference when you're paying upwards of $20 per pound for some cuts of meat.

The information below is just a start, but the links within each article will allow you to delve more deeply, as your curiosity warrants. Bottom-line: as you expand your knowledge, you'll know what to ask for at the butcher shop, and you'll know how to cook it when you get it home. I'm not saying your life will be complete, but it will certainly be improved.

Oh, and by the way...

Tri-tip is a triangular beef roast from the bottom sirloin, and it's great for smoking, low-temperature roasting or grilling over indirect heat.

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    Beef Primal Cuts
    Image source: Wikimedia Commons

    Beef is divided into large sections called primal cuts. These primals are then broken down further (or fabricated) into individual steaks and other retail cuts. The most tender cuts of beef, like the rib and tenderloin, are the ones furthest from the horn and the hoof. By contrast, the neck and leg muscles are worked the most, which makes them tougher. Here's an overview of the basic beef primal cuts.

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    Pork Primal Cuts
    Wikimedia Commons / Danilo Alfaro

    If anything, pork is even more bewildering than beef. Pork primal cuts have all kinds of peculiar names, like the Boston butt, which is nowhere near the butt, and the picnic shoulder, which you would never bring to a picnic. Read more about the pork primal cuts.

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    Lamb Primal Cuts
    Wikimedia Commons / Danilo Alfaro

    Unlike beef, which is divided into sides before being broken down into its basic primal cuts, and pork, which is butchered into its primal cuts straightaway, lamb is first divided into front and rear sections called the foresaddle and hindsaddle. From there it is then fabricated into the basic lamb primal cuts.