Beef chuck is a large primal cut that used to be a jumble of tough connective tissue, bones, and meat, some of which was used for roasts, and the rest went into the grinder. Today, however, this primal hodgepodge is yielding some subprimal pieces that are gaining an appreciative following among avid carnivores and chefs alike. If you like meat, perhaps you will enjoy discovering these pieces too.
What Is Beef Chuck?
Beef chuck used to come from the meat purveyor as a big primal cut known as square-cut beef chuck, encompassing the upper part of the ribs, the shoulder, and the neck. Typically, about half of the beef chuck would be made into roasts, and the rest was ground for hamburgers or sold as stew meat. Nowadays, butchers and chefs have a lot more options for how to order and fabricate beef chuck. And many home cooks are also starting to scout out these subprimal cuts.
How to Cook Beef Chuck
How to best cook beef chuck has a great deal to do with how the primal cut is fabricated and exactly which subprime you are using. In meat cutting, the word "fabricate" means to cut a large primal cut into smaller subprimal cuts or to cut subprimes into individual steaks, roasts, chops, stir-fry slices, ground beef, and so on. Generally speaking, however, beef chuck usually requires a long, slow cooking method—braising, stewing, or crock pot—to soften it up and release its flavor.
What Does Beef Chuck Taste Like?
Beef chuck tastes like beef. The big difference between the various cuts of the chuck is the amount of flavor and texture each one has. And these factors also determine what is the best use for each cut.
Beef Chuck vs. Filet Mignon
Beef chuck and filet mignon are a great comparison because, though they come from the same animal and are located close to one another, consuming them is quite different, and they are often used in distinctly different ways. Filet mignon is soft and buttery, whereas beef chuck is firm and chewy. Due to its minimal fat, filet mignon must not be cooked beyond medium-rare, or it will dry out and lose its flavor. Beef chuck, on the other hand, generally requires long, slow cooking to soften up and release its flavor. Filet mignon is quite tender but has a mild flavor, while beef chuck, coming from the much-used shoulder muscles, is full of flavor, it is sometimes a bit tough. Finally, filet mignon is quite expensive, whereas beef chuck is one of the most economical cuts there is.
When speaking about varieties of beef chuck, the big distinction is the actual cut of the piece. One of the most common ways of fabricating a beef chuck is by separating it into two major boneless subprimal cuts: the chuck roll and the chuck shoulder clod.
The chuck roll is a large (approximately 20 pounds) boneless subprimal piece made up of the long section of meat between the ribs and the backbone. A skilled butcher can remove the ribs and backbone in one piece, and this piece of meat can then be divided in half. The section that overlays the ribs is usually used for ground beef, and what is left, after being trimmed and squared up, is called the chuck roll.
The chuck roll actually has some tender muscles in it, including a few inches of the longissimus dorsi, which make excellent grilling steaks. In fact, this is the same muscle from which we get rib-eye steaks. But because there are quite a few tough muscles in the chuck roll too, one of the most common techniques is to separate the top section called the chuck eye (which contains the tender longissimus dorsi muscle) from the bottom section known as the chuck under the blade, which can be sliced thin for a stir-fry.
The chuck shoulder clod is basically a big lump of muscle on the top side of the animal, which forms its outer shoulder bulge. Like the chuck roll, the shoulder clod also usually weighs about 20 pounds.
Separating the shoulder clod from the beef chuck requires cutting around and extracting the upper arm bone called the humerus, and then carefully cutting the muscle away from the shoulder blade bone.
The shoulder clod is a group of five muscles that can be separated and fabricated into steaks and roasts. The advantage of separating these muscles is that it allows the connective tissue between them to be removed, which is one of the reasons why beef chuck can be so chewy if it's not cooked properly. But, even with the connective tissue removed, most of the muscles from the shoulder clod are still a bit tough.
Finally, there's another muscle on the outside of the shoulder blade, just forward of the shoulder clod, called the supraspinatus, commonly known as the chuck tender, which is typically used for pot roast.
Beef Chuck Recipes
Whichever cut of beef chuck you are using, you will find it is a delicious (and underrated) part of the animal, as well as an economical one. Moreover, it is extremely versatile. Most cuts simply require a long, slow cooking time to soften up and release their flavor.
Where to Buy Beef Chuck
Many of these subprimal cuts are not regularly stocked even in serious butcher shops, but rather ground up for hamburgers or cubed for stew meat. If you want to try some of these cuts at home, make friends with a butcher who fabricates subprimal cuts, and ask him or her to put a certain piece aside for you. You might even want to invest in an entire chuck roll or shoulder clod and keep the different cuts in separate airtight packages in the freezer, with each package clearly indicated so you know what it is and how to use it.
Storing Beef Chuck
Various cuts of beef chuck store quite well in the freezer for up to a year, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and stored in airtight plastic bags to avoid freezer burn. In fact, some of the tougher cuts could even benefit from being frozen and defrosted, which can help soften the fiber of the muscle. If you purchase a large quantity of meat, portion them into steaks or roasts, and pack four to six portions to a bag to avoid having to defrost more than you need to use.