Breaking Down Beef Subprimals
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:
It may be helpful for you to differentiate the “round” end of the top sirloin subprimal (the part of the muscle group that was situated closer to the leg) and the “loin end” of the top sirloin subprimal, which was the part of the muscle group situated closest to the strip loin.
The first muscle to separate is the top sirloin cap — or coulotte — and it is easy to identify because it has a thick coat of superficial (meaning it sits on the outside of the carcass) fat on it. You can pull it away from the other muscles in the subprimal with your hands to discern the natural seam in the meat, and then use a semi-flexible boning knife to make small cuts that allow you to follow the seam and remove the coulotte in one piece.
You can portion the coulotte in a couple of ways. First, you will notice that a large portion of it is mainly fat, so you’ll want to trim that off and set it aside (but don’t throw it out) to even out the cut. This will leave your coulotte looking very triangular.
Now, you can rub the whole coulotte with spices, garlic, and salt, and smoke or roast it, or you can cut it into steaks. To cut steaks, position the coulotte so that you can cut perpendicular to the natural grain of the muscle fibers. This is a fundamental rule in meat cutting — cut at a 90-degree angle to the muscle fibers to facilitate tenderness.
As you can see, this will have you cutting the coulotte at a slight angle. Cut steaks as thin or as thick as you like. I usually cut about 1 1⁄2- to 2-inch thickness. I like to use a cimeter, which is a large knife specific to meat cutting, but you may also use a regular chef’s knife to cut steaks.
Leave the fat on your coulotte steaks. Because of the coulotte’s position on the carcass, it takes on flavor during the aging process, and its fat provides incredible moisture and character to the cut. You can always remove the fat after cooking if you don’t care to eat it.
You will typically yield five to six steaks from a whole coulotte. These typically retail for $12 to $14 a pound. You can cook coulotte steaks using high, dry heat, just as you would cook a ribeye or New York strip.
Now that you’ve processed the top sirloin cap, it’s time to focus on the sirloin center and the “baseball muscle.” Flip the remaining muscles over on the cutting board, so that the side where the coulotte once sat is now facing down.
There is a small muscle that rides on the outside of the group called the “mouse muscle.” It isn’t very tender or substantial, so you’ll do best to remove it. You might recognize it by its sparse intramuscular fat or marbling compared to the larger muscles you have in front of you, and the coating of fascia or silverskin (this is connective tissue) on its surface. Just lift it up and cut carefully along the seams with your boning knife to pull it from the rest of the subprimal.
Don’t throw the mouse muscle away. Set it aside with the fat you trimmed off of the coulotte. We’re saving all this trim for ground beef!
Now that the mouse muscle is off, all you need to do is separate the top sirloin center from the baseball muscle, or side muscle. The baseball muscle is smaller, and more circular. It helps to look at the round end of the top sirloin subprimal so you can see it more clearly. Once you get a visual on it, look for the natural seam of connective tissue that separates it from the sirloin center muscle. Using your hands and your boning knife, roll it off of the sirloin center.
Again, you can roast this muscle whole, or you can cut it into top sirloin filet steaks. To portion steaks, cut 1 1⁄2- to 2-inch portions with a cimeter or chef’s knife. Sirloin steaks or roasts can retail from $9 to $13 per pound.
Next, you can portion the top sirloin center into one large roast, two smaller roasts, or top sirloin steaks. The two-finger method is one way to portion steaks to a uniform thickness.
Beef chuck eye roll subprimal
The chuck eye roll is a group of muscles that sits at the top of the shoulder just at the base of the neck. As more work has been done with these muscles, they have been differentiated from others in the chuck as some of the tastiest and most versatile muscles in the beef carcass. One of those muscles is the same as the loin muscle in the ribeye and strip loin, it just tends to be relatively tougher closer to the neck than it is in the rib and loin region.
Depending on the way your butcher cut the subprimal, you may have a piece of rib meat still attached to your chuck eye roll. This is the serratus muscle, the same muscle found in beef Denver steaks and beef short ribs. It is tender and well marbled for a chuck cut, so take some time to remove it. You’ll be able to differentiate it from the other muscles in the subprimal because its marbling will be more distinct, and it is the flattest contiguous muscle on the outside of the subprimal. As always, look for the natural seam of connective tissue between it and neighboring muscles, and pull it away with a combination of your hands and your boning knife.
The serratus muscle is a great quick-cooking cut, and its flat shape makes it well-suited for pan cooking or grilling. You can also use your cimeter or chef’s knife to portion it into thin strips for fajita meat or stir-fry beef. Denver cuts can sell for $9 to $12 per pound retail.
Once you’ve removed the serratus, it is time to deal with the chuck eye roll. Identify the neck end of the chuck eye roll (the wider part of the muscle group that was situated closer to the neck muscles) and the rib end (the part of the muscle group that was situated closer to the rib primal). The rib end will be more tender than the neck end, which is important for this next step.
From the rib end, you can cut about three chuck eye steaks — that is, you can portion just a few steaks from the chuck roll before the muscles change texture due to activity during the animal’s life. Use the two-finger method to cut no more than three steaks from the rib end of the chuck roll subprimal. Chuck eye steaks can run $9 to $11 retail.
What you’re left with is suitable for a boneless chuck roast or two, or you can cut boneless country-style ribs. To do this, use the two finger method, and act like you are cutting steaks, then turn the steaks on their faces and cut vertically through the lean to produce two cuts from each “steak.” These are great for slow cooking, and typically retail around $7 per pound.
The remaining chuck eye roll can be left whole for a large chuck roast, or you can seam out the four chuck eye roll muscles individually for marinating and grilling or broiling. Depending, these cuts retail from $7 to $11 per pound.
To seam out the individual muscles, turn the chuck eye roll on end and look for the four different muscles and the seams between them. Follow the natural seams to isolate each muscle.
A bit off the sides
Any fat trim or lean muscle you cut away in the process of portioning should be converted into ground beef. Use a meat grinder or high-grade food processor to portion a blend of 80 percent lean to 20 percent fat, and grind it. Use it as you would normally use ground beef, or package and freeze for later. Grinding beef at home also ensures you’re getting single-origin product, instead of product produced from the trim of many different animals, often originating from different countries. Single-origin ground meat feels safer to many consumers, because if any food safety issues occur, the product is more traceable.
You won’t be able to get away with this kind of home butchery without some kind of storage plan. For this project, we have taken roughly 27 pounds of meat purchased in subprimal form and added quite a bit of value, turning muscle groups into roasts, ground beef, steaks, and more. The absolute best way to keep the meat is in the freezer, and the absolute best way to package it for the freezer is with a vacuum sealer. I use one, and it allows me to package small to large portions of many types of food at home. Vacuum sealers reduce air in the packaging, slowing freezer burn and keeping foods fresher longer.
Label your packages with date and name of the cut, and then whisk them to the safety of your freezer. When bad weather rolls in or the paycheck is light, you’ll be worry free as you pull dinner for the family from the freezer, thanks to your new home butchery skills.
Over the past 17 years, Meredith Leigh has worked as a farmer, butcher, chef, teacher, non-profit executive director, and writer, all in pursuit of a sustainable food system. She is the author of “The Ethical Meat Handbook: A Complete Guide to Home Butchery, Charcuterie, and Cooking for the Conscious Omnivore” (www.Grit.com/store), and her forthcoming book, “Pure Charcuterie: The Craft & Poetry of Curing Meats at Home.” She is a presenter at Mother Earth News Fairs and lives in Asheville, North Carolina.
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