Basic Beef, Pork, and Lamb Primal Cuts

Raw meat
Andrew Unangst / Getty Images

The meat counter can be an intimidating place. Maybe it's all the knives, cleavers, and hooks. Or maybe it's because the butchers themselves are standing behind this massive counter and you literally have to look up at them.

Unless you grew up on a ranch or have studied the topic, the assortment of roasts, steaks, and chops arrayed in the meat case can be disconcerting to the average shopper.

Besides knowing the difference in cuts of meats, you need an understanding of the associated cost. If you already know the cuts of meat, you'll have an idea of when you're getting a good deal and when you're not—which makes a big difference when you're paying upwards of $20 per pound for some cuts of meat.

Good butchers will be happy to answer questions, but they can't answer them if you don't ask.

As you expand your knowledge, you'll know what to ask for at the butcher shop, and you'll know how to cook it when you get it home. 

  • 01 of 03

    Beef Primal Cuts

    Illustration of the cuts of beef on a cow

    The Spruce / Hugo Lin

    Beef is divided into large sections called primal cuts. The most tender cuts of beef, like the rib and tenderloin, are the ones furthest from the horn and the hoof. By contrast, the neck and leg muscles are worked the most, which makes them tougher. These are the four basic beef primal cuts which are then broken down further (or fabricated) into subprimals or "food-service cuts."

    • The chuck primal and rib primal are located in the forequarters with subprimals of plate, brisket, and shank.
    • The round primal and loin primal are in the hindquarters with subprimals of short loin, sirloin, tenderloin, flank, and round.

    In turn, these subprimals are then sliced and chopped into individual steaks, roasts, and other retail cuts.

  • 02 of 03

    Pork Primal Cuts

    Illustrated diagram of the cuts of pork

    The Spruce / Hugo Lin

    If anything, pork is even more bewildering than beef. Pork primal cuts have all kinds of peculiar names, like the Boston butt, which is nowhere near the butt, and the picnic shoulder, which you would never bring to a picnic. Pork has four primals.

    • The pork shoulder primal has subprimals of shoulder blade, shoulder picnic, jowl, foot, and hock
    • The pork leg primal includes the leg butt portion, leg shank portion, ham, hock, and foot.
    • The pork loin primal includes the loin rib end, loin center, and sirloin.
    • The pork belly primal has no subprimal.
  • 03 of 03

    Lamb Primals

    Chart of Major Lamb Cuts

    The Spruce / Hugo Lin 

    Unlike beef, which is divided into sides before being broken down into its basic primal cuts, and pork, which is butchered into its primal cuts straight away, lamb is first divided into front and rear sections called the foresaddle and hindsaddle. From there it is then fabricated into the four basic lamb primal cuts.

    • The foresaddle includes the rack primal and chuck primal which are broken down into subprimals of shoulder, rib, breast, neck, and foreshanks.
    • The hindsaddle includes the leg primal and loin primal which are further broken down into the sirloin, flank, leg of lamb, and hindshanks subprimals.