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Guide to Beef Roasts

If you’ve perused the grocery store meat counter lately, you know that the choice of beef roasts you encounter can be pretty overwhelming. It’s tough to know which cuts are best, which to choose for each recipe you’re contemplating, how to cook it, and how much is too much to pay for a certain cut. You might also be selecting a beef roast for a special occasion meal, like Christmas, so you want it to be extra special for your guests.

Choosing the right roast requires a little knowledge about the basic or “primal” cuts taken from each steer. Learning about the qualities of each cut should help you pick the right one for your meal, whether it’s Wednesday night’s dinner or a gala party for 25 of your closest friends.

Choosing a Cut

The cuts of beef you most often find at the supermarket or at a butcher shop come from five of the eight basic cuts made to the steer when it is butchered. They include:

Rib – The most tender and most expensive cut of beef, the rib roast is the one most often used for holiday meals. It comes from ribs 6-12 of the cow and a whole rib roast generally weighs about 15-17 pounds. However, butchers do cut them in smaller portions so it isn’t necessary to purchase the whole piece. Butchers might refer to these as the first cut (closer to the loin) and the second cut. The first is usually a bit more tender but both are excellent. The first cut will also cost a little more.

Short Loin – It is from this part of the cow that a beef tenderloin roast is made. You can purchase tenderloin in a long strip, referred to as a filet. As you might guess from its name, it is a very tender part of the steer though usually not as flavorful as the rib roast. However, the lack of bones/ribs in the tenderloin makes it very easy to slice and ideal for some recipes.

Sirloin – Similar to the short loin but not quite as tender, sirloin roasts can be commonly found in the grocery store meat case. They include varieties labeled “top sirloin roast” or “sirloin tri-tip roast”. These cuts are not nearly as expensive as the short loin but tend to be a little gristly, so it’s best to take a careful look before purchasing them in order to discover any veins of gristle that might make it difficult to eat.

Round – Quite a popular cut, roasts that contain the word “round” come from the steer’s hind quarters and leg. They vary in tenderness so sometimes selection is hit-or-miss with round roasts. However, they are easy to find and include varieties with names such as top round, bottom round, eye roast, or rump roast. They are generally quite affordable as well.

Chuck – The chuck roast comes from the steer’s front ribs and sometimes the shoulder blade area. Usually flavorful but often full of lots of connective tissue – creating lots of waste and areas that are tough to eat – the chuck roast is one of the least expensive on the market. For a best bet, look for the chuck-eye roast, which is the most tender cut from this portion of the steer.

Cooking the Roast
What kind of roast you buy often determines how you will cook it. Basically, beef roasts are dry roasted in the oven or braised, which refers to the method of pot roasting the beef in a small amount of liquid in a closed container for an extended period of time.

Roasts that respond best to braising are those that aren’t so tender, including chuck roasts and some round roasts. The braising serves to melt the collagen in the connective tissue which, in turn, makes the meat more tender. The other roasts – rib, sirloin, short rib – are best when dry roasted. Look for specific roasting times on the package or ask your butcher.