What Is the Beef Rib Primal Cut?

A Guide to Buying and Cooking the Beef Rib Primal Cut

Beef Rib Primal Cut

The Spruce / Lindsay Kreighbaum

The main muscle in the beef rib is the longissimus dorsi, or rib eye muscle, situated high on the back of the cow. Because this muscle doesn't get much exercise, it yields some of the tenderest meat. It also can develop excellent marbling, which imparts moisture and flavor to the meat.

The degree of marbling visible in the rib eye muscle specifically is one of the most important factors in grading beef. More marbling generally earns a higher grade.

The beef rib primal cut offers some of the most tender, flavorful and generally desirable steaks and roasts. The rib primal cuts are best for grilling, roasting, searing, or frying but not for slow cooking.

What Is the Beef Rib Primal Cut?

The beef rib primal comes from the beef forequarter, where it's separated from the beef chuck between the fifth and sixth ribs, and from the loin between the twelfth and thirteenth ribs. Thus the rib primal can include meat from the sixth through the 12th ribs (seven ribs in all).

The rib primal is separated from the beef plate primal by sawing across the ribs a few inches down from the pointy end of the rib eye muscle.

How far down depends on a few things. Technically, a full beef rib primal will have ribs that are up to 10 inches long toward the chuck end, and six inches long at the loin end. But what often happens is that the ribs are cut short, anywhere from two to four inches below the rib eye muscle.

Whether they're cut short or long, the remaining section of rib bones, all the way down to the sternum, is called the beef plate primal. That's where beef short ribs come from, and the distinction between them as being part of the rib primal or the plate primal can be somewhat arbitrary. But in short, the beef rib primal is what's left of the beef forequarter after the beef chuck and the beef plate are removed.

Because the meat from the rib primal is so tender, it is among the most expensive cuts of beef.

Primal cut vv Cowboy steak
 The Spruce / Joshua Seong

How to Cook Beef Rib Roasts and Steaks

For the most part, you'll find boneless rib eye steaks and roasts, which means the butcher has removed the ribs entirely. Once the ribs and outer muscles are removed, what's left is called a boneless rib eye roll, which itself can be further trimmed by removing the rib eye cap.

The rib eye cap can be stuffed, rolled and roasted, or it can be portioned into individual steaks. However, most of the time it's left attached to the rib eye.

The rib eye lip (sometimes called rib eye tail), consisting of the longissimus costarus and the serratus dorsalis, can also be removed or left on. It’s usually left on because there's not much you can do with it except grinding it.

After removing the backbone and associated cartilage, what remains is a roast-ready beef rib, which can be used for making classic bone-in prime rib roasts or sliced into individual bone-in rib eye steaks.

You tend to see a lot of bone-in rib eye roasts around the holiday season. There are a number of different iterations of this roast, depending on how it's trimmed and how much of the exterior fat layer is removed.

A great way to prepare the classic prime rib roast is to peel away the exterior fat layer, trim away the outer muscles, and then replace the layer of fat and tie it on with string. The rib bones and this outer fat contribute flavor and moisture, making this the ideal prime rib roast. It's not easy to find a rib roast prepared this way, but you may be able to order it from your butcher.

Bone-in rib eye steaks are pretty easy to find all year, especially at restaurants. Some steakhouses serve what's called a Cowboy Steak—essentially a bone-in rib eye with a long section of bare rib bone extending from it.

Beef Back Ribs

If you've ever had beef back ribs at your neighborhood BBQ joint, you've probably noticed that there was hardly any meat on them. And now you know why: Butchers want to leave as little meat on the ribs as possible because beef rib eye sells for a lot more per pound than beef back ribs.

Thus, meaty beef ribs are pretty much an oxymoron because you are really referring to the limited meat between the rib bones. Since beef ribs aren't a high-demand item, the meat between the ribs (called intercostal meat) often simply ends up being removed and used for making ground beef.

What Does Beef Primal Rib Taste Like?

The meat from the primal cut is very tender because of its high degree of marbling. These cuts are also rich and flavorful, with a distinctive, satisfying beefy taste.

Beef Primal Rib Cuts Recipes

From an elegant standing rib roast to a casual grilled rib eye steak, these cuts contribute to a complete and flavorful meal for any occasion.

Where to Buy Beef Primal Rib Cuts

Primal rib cuts are available in the meat section of the grocery, at local butcher shops, and in warehouse stores. Often, you will find boneless rib eye steaks and roasts, meaning the butcher has removed the ribs entirely. But bone-in roasts and steaks are common, too, and most grocery store butchers will debone them for you if you ask.

Storing Beef Primal Rib Cuts

Keep uncooked beef cuts in the refrigerator in butcher's paper or their original supermarket packaging (aka "modified atmosphere packaging" for the carbon dioxide content that preserves the meat.) You can freeze uncooked beef for up to a year, but make sure you seal the package in an airtight container or freezer paper and label it with the date. Cooked meats will last up to four days in the fridge.