Breaking Down Beef Subprimals

Save money and expand your culinary skills by learning how to butcher two great beef subprimals: the beef chuck roll and beef top sirloin.


| January/February 2018


Home butchery is a popular topic these days. The trendiness of do-it-yourself meat has cooks across the country broadening their creativity and increasing the diversity of meat cuts they eat. But you don’t have to be a die-hard foodie to appreciate the benefits that butchery can bring you, and you don’t have to know how to butcher an entire cow. With some increased knife skills and knowledge, you can save money and put meat up for the family by simply working with manageable muscle groups and breaking them into individual portions.

My work focuses on supply chain sustainability in the niche meat sector, and my book, The Ethical Meat Handbook, makes the case for home cooks and restaurant chefs skilling up in whole animal butchery and cooking in order to spread out the cost of processing (the highest cost in small-scale meat production). The larger the portion farmers are able to sell, the more money they can make off of each animal, which allows them to stay in business and to focus on responsible soil health and animal husbandry. If the customer takes responsibility for processing, he or she not only contributes to the success of a small-farm business — and a more sustainable overall supply chain — but also gets a better price per pound and more food to eat.

Start with the subprimal

So where do you start, especially if you live alone, can’t afford a half-cow, or you’re not equipped or interested in breaking down an entire animal? Let me introduce you to the “subprimal.” This is a term for muscle groups in the animal that are isolated from the whole. Whenever an animal is slaughtered, its carcass is typically halved, and in the case of beef, quartered. From there, it is broken into primal cuts, which are the next largest groups (examples of primals are round, chuck, rib, and sirloin). After that, the carcass is separated into subprimals, which are muscle groups from within primal cuts. They can be purchased bone-in or boneless from local butcher shops or direct from farmers. If the farmer doesn’t have to pay the slaughterhouse to piece subprimals down into retail cuts, or if a butcher shop doesn’t have to expend labor doing that either, home cooks can purchase subprimals for a lower price per pound of meat, and do the work themselves to cut individual roasts, steaks, or other portions.

Here, I’ll cover butchery of two beef subprimals that offer several portioning options for the home cook: the beef chuck roll and the beef top sirloin. I recently purchased both of these subprimals for an average price of $8.99 per pound (I’m in Asheville, North Carolina). Total cost of meat for this project was just under $250. As you will see, I have well over $400 worth of meat portioned and stored for my family by the time I’m finished with them.



When processing your subprimal, the meat will be easier to handle at refrigerator temperature. It’s also better to let the meat remain out after cutting if you plan to eat it right away. It should be rested to room temperature or as close as possible before cooking. Any meat you are putting up for the future needs to be vacuum sealed and frozen.

Beef top sirloin subprimal

The top sirloin subprimal comes from the sirloin primal, which is comprised of all the muscles from the top of the hip to the top of the back leg. The top sirloin subprimal includes the muscles closest to the loin subprimal (the source of a New York strip steak). As you might imagine, these muscles have a nice balance of flavor and tenderness, rank high in versatility, and don’t pack the price punch that the rib or loin cuts typically do. Process the top sirloin as follows:







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