Confession time: give me a pork chop or a chicken wing, and I’m confident in how to cook it. When it comes to beef cuts, that confidence wavers.

Sure, I can cook a burger, brown taco meat or pull together a Mississippi Mud Roast in the crockpot. But I’d like to be more adventurous in my beef selections, particularly when cattle farmers are experts in their craft.

Thanks to improved animal genetics, optimized nutrition, low-stress handling and sustainable land-use practices, U.S. farmers now raise 25% more beef with 17% fewer emissions per pound compared to 1990. 

I want to honor their hard work by cooking beef my family will enjoy. But with so many unique cuts from a 1,200-pound animal, it’s hard to know where to start.

Enter Nick Lenters, owner of Old Station Craft Meats in Waukee. He simplifies choices for customers by offering only higher graded, all-certified Angus sourced from Iowa farms. A recent visit to his butcher shop gave me a lot to chew on.

For a beefier flavor, consider chuck or round cuts 

Chuck comes from the neck and shoulder area of a cow, and round can be found in the rear legs. These areas are well known for producing roasts. Because these muscles are more active as cows do cow things—like grazing and meandering the farm—they are tougher. Nick recommends cooking these cuts “low and slow” to yield the best results for a rich flavor with a pleasing texture.  

For more tender meat, consider middle cuts

Middle meats include favorites like filet mignon. These cuts are known for their rich marbling and soft texture. Because the muscles in this area are used less, they yield more delicate meat and can typically be cooked quickly at higher heat, making them ideal for grilling or pan-searing.

Tenderloin is also a middle meat that is considered “heart healthy” by the American Heart Association and USDA. Along with “round” meat, these cuts of beef are proven to improve cardiovascular health and help maintain muscle mass.

Beef cuts gaining in popularity: Picanha and Denver steak 

Nick describes Picanha as a "party pleaser," ideal for serving smaller crowds and allowing for different levels of doneness across the same piece. (It certainly impressed judges as the winning dish at the Iowa Farm Bureau Cookout Contest in 2021.) This cut, popular in Brazil, comes from the sirloin top butt and is surrounded in a layer of fat.

Nick particularly enjoys Picanha finished on the grill after being cooked sous vide. This technique involves submerging vacuum-sealed bags of meat into a circulating hot water bath to achieve a completely even cook. "It's like a hot tub for your meat," Nick joked.

The Denver steak has only been a recognized cut for about 15 years after the Beef Checkoff funded research to provide more meat options at affordable prices for consumers. (And at its inception, it was estimated it could add more value back into family farms.) This steak is cut between the ribs and backbone, an area typically reserved for ground beef. Its unique attributes—including its leanness and exceptional marbling— have quickly made it a favorite.

No matter the cut, it’s best to let it rest

For the best texture and juiciness, Nick advises cooking meats "to temperature, not to time."

Factors like the size of the meat cut and hot spots on the grill can vary cooking times, making internal temperature a more reliable measure for achieving the desired doneness. Additionally, it's crucial to consider resting time.

"I usually pull a steak off the grill at 120 degrees for medium rare," says Nick. "After you take it off the grill to rest, the internal temperature will still rise 5 to 10 degrees."

Resting allows the temperature to stabilize and enables the juices to redistribute throughout the meat, enhancing its flavor and overall eating experience.

In exploring the diversity of beef cuts, I've gained a better understanding that there’s a perfect cut for every taste and occasion.

While I’m far from an expert, I deeply appreciate the tips and knowledge Nick shared. With summer approaching, I’m eagerly compiling my list of new cuts to try that will allow me to honor the incredible amount of hard work that goes into bringing high-quality meats from the farm to the meat counter and to my family’s dining table.

Learn more about author Caitlyn Lamm here.

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