The butchery section is lined with endless cuts of meat from beef, lamb, pork, and chicken. Some are more familiar to us, like sirloin steak, lamb shank, ham hock, and chicken breast, and it’s easy to pick out a cut depending on the dish you’re creating. However, some cuts can be completely foreign.
Picking cuts of meat often depends on what you’re using it for. For something like a stew or a dish in a slow cooker, a cheaper, tougher cut can be used, as the slow cooking process breaks down the fibres and fat and tenderises the meat. For frying, a quick cooking method and a high heat is common, so the more expensive and less fatty cuts are better.
The toughest cuts of meat are from the muscles of the animal that have worked the hardest. These will be from the legs, as the animal will have walked around the field a lot, and the neck, which is constantly moving as the animal grazes.
This guide outlines which cuts are best for which types of dishes, and is based on British cuts. It is not always true that the more expensive cuts provide nicer meat. Often, cheaper cuts can be more flavoursome and more tender if you use the correct cooking methods. So favourite this page and use it for reference next time you want to know what to buy for the Sunday roast!
Cuts of beef are divided into upper and lower, depending on the part of the animal they are from. Upper cuts include rib, sirloin, and chuck, whilst the lower cuts are brisket, plate, flank, and shank.
Stewing steak comes from the neck of the cow. This is a tough cut, which works well in stews as the long cooking process breaks down the tough fibres of the meat. Chuck steak is from the chuck, which is around the shoulder area, and is commonly known as braising steak. It’s used as ground beef, as well as for braising and slow cooking. The rib, or prime rib, is (as the name suggests) from the fore rib of the cow. Rib eye steak is sliced from the rib, often with the bone removed. Sirloin is from the area next to the rib, the upper middle, and are the ‘top butcher’s cut’. It’s an expensive cut, but tender and good for frying. (There’s an old legend that says King James I like the loin of beef so much he knighted it, so it became Sir Loin, but something tells me this isn’t true.) Tenderloin, or fillet steak, is cut from between the sirloin and the rump. Because of its thick, oblong shape, it’s good for beef wellington or chateaubriand. Rump steak is next along, and is a lean and moderately tough cut. It has little fat marbling so it dries out if roasted or grilled, so moist-heat cooking methods, like braising, are best. Topside and silverside cuts are from the hind of the cow, are lean cuts, with no bones. Best served in thin slices, this is good for pot-roasting and serving for the Sunday roast.
Brisket is from the lower chest, above the front leg, and is a tough cut, as the muscle supports the weight of the cow. It needs a long, slow cooking method. Other cheap cuts from the lower part of the animal include the skirt, from the underside of the cow, shin, a highly worked muscle from the lower leg, and flank, a long and flat cut from the abdomen and buttocks.
Veal is meat from calves, whereas beef is from older cattle. It is more expensive but lower in fat.
Mutton dressed as lamb, as the old adage goes. A sheep in its first year is a lamb, and provides lamb meat, a hogget is the name given to a young sheep older than a year (and much of lamb sold in the UK is actually hogget), and mutton is the meat of an adult sheep, which often has the strongest flavour.
This is a guide to lamb cuts. Scrag end is a tough, fatty, and inexpensive cut that requires slow cooking methods to break down the fat. The middle neck is relatively inexpensive and rising in popularity. It has a layer of fat running through it that can be broken down through braising or stewing methods.
Best end is around the ribs of the animal. This is where racks of lamb are cut from. This is the most flavoursome and most expensive cut, however lamb cutlets, a single rib, can be a cheaper alternative.
Whilst not technically a cut, the Crown of Lamb is an impressive creation, made from tying two trimmed racks together and stuffing with herbs and spices. The Guard of Honour is two racks side by side, with bones interlocking at the top.
Loin is the most tender part of the lamb. These lean cuts are best roasted or fried. Some places sell ‘lamb Noisettes’, cuts from the boneless loin, trimmed, and rolled, and are an expensive cut. Lamb chops are cut from the bone of the loin, and are best fried or grilled. Between the loin and the leg is the chump, or rump cut, and this is best for small roasting joints. The leg of lamb is the cut people are most familiar with. It is meaty with little fat, and is a popular cut for Sunday roast! The shank is the muscular bottom part of the leg, and best cooked slowly, to break down the connective tissue in the fat. Shoulder of lamb is ideal for slow roasting. If left on the bone it makes a good joint for large groups. It is not as lean or as tender as leg, but still a flavoursome cut. Lamb breast, from the underside, is fatty and tough and often used for lamb mince.
In Judaism and Islam, pork consumption is forbidden. However, this hasn’t stopped it from being the most commonly consumed meat worldwide.
Pork is roughly divided into four sections; shoulder, loin, belly, and leg, however all parts, from nose to tail, can be used. The head includes cheeks, tongue, ears, snout, and neck. These are very cheap cuts and are mostly used for dishes like stocks or soups but if you’re braver than I am, the ears can be fried and eaten separately (no thanks). Meat from the neck is muscular and is used for sausages.
Spare ribs are from the upper part of the shoulder. They have a lot of fat and marbling, which means they have a sweet, juicy taste. The best cooking methods for these include slow cooking or grilled on a BBQ as racks of ribs. Shoulder of pork also comes from around this area, including the blade area behind the spare rib roast, and can be rolled and sold as a roasting joint, or cured as ‘collar bacon’.
Loin provides high quality but more expensive meat. It can be cured as back bacon (best cooked under the grill and served between two thick slices of bread!), or divided up into loin roasting joint, which would be an ideal, easy Sunday roast. Pork chops are also cut from this part of the animal and can be oven baked. Pork tenderloin is an almost fat-free cut. Lardons, lard, pork rinds, and crackling comes from the fat and skin on the pig’s back.
The back leg is technically the only part that can be cured and sold as ham. Three common cuts are rump (upper portion), centre, and shank. Leg of pork is an underrated cut, it can be a good cut for a dinner party as it can provide a lot of meat.
Gammon, bacon, and ham, are different, although the terms are used interchangeably. Gammon and bacon are cured in similar ways but required further cooking before it can be eaten. Ham is preserved though curing and is ready to eat. Some sliced ham, if it’s labelled as reformed ham, has been through ‘mechanical re-forming’ (always buy the expensive sliced ham, friends).
Hand and spring is from the upper foreleg, often sold as a joint with bones included. Braising this cut ensures the meats softens and tenderises, or buy chunks to use in stews.
Belly pork comes from the underside of the pig. It is a fattier meat and is used for steaks or in stir-fries, sold as a roasting joint, or cut for streaky bacon (equally as nice in a bacon butty). The hock is the pig’s leg, and consists mostly of skin, tendons, and ligaments, therefore it requires long, slow cooking methods to tenderise the meat. Stewing or braising are two suitable cooking methods. Trotters are the pig’s feet, a cheat cut that saw popularity rise in the late 2000s, and are used in making stock, thickening gravy, as well as served as a normal cut of meat.
Chicken cuts are probably the ones most people are familiar with, and it’s very easy to joint a chicken at home (that is, separating the whole chicken into its separate cuts). Chicken is a tender meat with little fat marbling, and popular cooking methods include baking, grilling, and frying.
Chicken breast is the most popular, it is a meaty and boneless cut often sold with the skin removed, but the most expensive. The chicken tenderloin are small cuts from the breast and sold as ‘mini-fillets’. Chicken thigh is a cheaper cut, the meat on the thigh is darker and more flavoursome. The drumsticks are on the bone, and also a darker meat. If cooked in a dish like coq au vin, the meat will tenderise and fall off the bone. Whole chicken leg is the drumstick and thigh. Chicken wings are a white meat cut and are popular in America as a side dish, but provide little meat. Chicken giblets include the heart, liver, and neck, and as most commonly used in making stock.