A Professional Butcher’s Guide to Buying Beef

Apr 26, 2024 - By Hayden Outdoors

Frank’s Butcher Shop was born from a simple idea – bring Wyoming-raised beef, cut straight from the personal butcher, fresh to your table. Founder and owner Billy Brenton named the shop for his dad, Frank. It’s a hard-working generational business. As Billy’s son Brice puts it, “All of our beef is born, raised, and processed in Wyoming.” Why Wyoming? Well, that’s an easy one. “There are more cattle than people here, so folks know a thing or two about raising cattle.” From learning the basics to brushing up on popular cuts of beef, the friendly team at Frank’s shared their guide to buying beef with us.

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Understanding Beef Grades

The Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines three retail levels of USDA-graded beef: prime, choice, and select. There are lower grades, including standard, commercial, utility, cutter, and canner, but like their names, those are mostly reserved for processed meat products. 

  • Prime: Prime beef comes from young, healthy beef cattle. It’s typically known for lots of marbling (evenly distributed fat). Venture into any high-end steakhouse and you’re sure to see prime cuts featured on the menu. 
  • Choice: Similar to prime, choice cuts are also very high quality but with less marbling.
  • Select: If you’re looking for a lower-fat option, select is a good choice. This grade of beef is good quality, uniform, and traditionally leaner than higher grades. It can also be very tender, but doesn’t have the same juicy flavor as prime and choice cuts. 


Selecting the Right Cut

There are 8 primal cuts of beef. Each can be broken down further into subprimal cuts. 

  • Chuck: Chuck comes from a cow’s shoulder. It is known for its flavor and versatility.  
    • Chuck Subprimal Cuts: chuck tender, chuck roll, shoulder clod, square-cut chuck
    • Chuck Portion Cuts: arm roast, arm steak, blade roast, blade steak, chuck eye roast, mock tender roast, mock tender steak, shoulder steak
  • Rib: If you don’t mind mess, ribs cooked the right way can be a total treat. 
    • Rib Subprimal Cuts: rib primal, primal cut
    • Rib Portion Cuts: back ribs, bone-in rib steak, cowboy steak, rib fingers, prime rib steak, short ribs, tomahawk steak
  • Loin: Probably some of the best prime cuts, loins are tender and flavorful. 
    • Loin Subprimal Cuts: short loin, strip loin, tenderloin
    • Loin Portion Cuts: chateaubriand tenderloin roast, New York strip, porterhouse, sirloin steak, t-bone, tenderloin steak (filet mignon), tenderloin tips, tenderloin tails
  • Round: Sourced from the buttocks/upper thigh, rounds often end up as ground beef. 
    • Round Subprimal Cuts: bottom round, eye of round, sirloin strip, top round
    • Round Portion Cuts: ball tip steak, beef steak, bottom round steak, rump steak, tip steak, Swiss steak, Western griller
  • Flank: This cut can become a tasty meal for many when prepared correctly.
    • Flank Subprimal Cuts: London Broil, ground beef
  • Short Plate: From underneath the ribs, it’s a good option for sautees or marbled short ribs. 
    • Plate Subprimal Cuts: flank-style short ribs, hanger steak, inside skirt steak, plate short ribs
  • Brisket: The brisket comes from the breast of the cow beneath the chuck. Cook it on low with your favorite sauce for a juicy meal. 
    • Brisket Subprimal Cuts: flat half, point half
  • Shank: Shank is the leg meat of the cattle. It is typically quite tough, best reserved for ground beef. 
    • Shank Subprimal Cut: shank cross-cut


Black angus cows in rural farm pasture - what to look for when buying beef


Assessing Marbling in Steak

While juicy, well-marbled cuts of beef might be what you crave, there are many who opt for leaner cuts, allowing them to still enjoy a succulent cut of steak without additional fat. If you want to explore some of the leaner cuts of beef, opt for pieces that come from the round and the flank. Treat yourself to a tenderloin – known for being very tender and lean, although you might need to dress up the flavor a little bit. 

Beef offers a variety of health benefits, including being a good source of vitamin B12 and iron, zinc and selenium. Choosing lean cuts of beef helps avoid saturated fats, which can raise blood cholesterol and increase the risk of heart disease. If you’re concerned about your heart health but still love a juicy steak, talk with your local butcher about the best choices for you. You can also trim obvious fat from cuts of meat by holding a tag of the fat and slicing downward at an angle (make sure to use a sharp knife!) while you pull it away from the red meat. Go slowly and work in smooth strokes. Don’t worry about removing all of the fat at the same time; you can slice away in strips if you need to. 

Beef hanging and aging at Frank’s Butcher Shop beef


Understanding Beef Aging

There are two ways to age beef – wet and dry aging. Wet aging involves storing the meat in airtight bags in a cooler for up to three weeks. This renders a traditional beef flavor. When dry aging beef, instead of packaging the meat, the animals are harvested and then the meat is stored uncovered in a large refrigeration room with controlled temperature (32° – 34°F) and humidity. This method results in a richer, more robust beef flavor. 

Whether or not meat is better aged or fresh is probably a matter of personal preference, but aging the meat does provide some benefits to the tastebuds:

  1. Less moisture. By dry aging beef, it loses up to 30% of its initial volume as it loses water content. This can result in more concentrated flavor. 
  2. More tenderized. As a piece of beef ages, enzymes that naturally occur in the meat start to break down fibers and connective tissues, which leads to a more tender slice of meat. 
  3. Changes in flavor. Enzymes, bacteria, and oxygen all work their magic during an aging process to enhance beef’s natural flavors. 

It is important to note that dry-aged beef is typically more expensive than other options. The process is both time consuming and it also results in moisture loss from the meat. That said, it is proven to give your choice cut of beef a richer, more intense flavor. 


Final Tips for Buying Beef

If you’re someone who is frequently in the market for quality cuts of beef, it’s important to develop a good relationship with a reputable butcher or meat supplier. These experts know their grades, cuts, optimum cook temperatures, rubs, spices, and more. Local farmers’ markets are another good place to source high-quality meat. Don’t be afraid to ask about the beef’s origin, harvesting practices, and aging processes. 

Don’t hesitate to try new cuts and cooking methods. Frank’s offers up a few key tips for cooking your steak, including taking your meat out of the refrigerator for 30 minutes prior to cooking and letting it rest after you pull it off the grill or out of the oven. If you like to buy beef in bulk, consider getting your own airtight storage system to help preserve flavor and freshness, and always clean your cooking surface well before and after you handle raw meat. 

With barbecue season just around the corner, now is a great time to source some quality beef, and brush up on your steak preparation skills.


Thanks to our partners at Frank’s Butcher Shop.