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When a cow is slaughtered, it is typically butchered into a number of basic cuts of beef which are also known as primal cuts. Different nations have their own versions of primal cuts, and the nasic cuts of beef are also subdivided very differently in various countries, depending on prevailing national tastes. Knowing about the basic cuts of beef can help you choose the best meat for a particular task, whether you're making stew or planning on grilling tender steaks for visitors. If you aren't sure what a cut of meat is, ask what primal cut it came from to learn more about it.
If you look at a cow from the side, the basic American cuts of beef, working clockwise from the front shoulder, are: chuck, rib, loin, round, flank, plate, shank, and brisket. Many of these names are used in other countries, while others use the British system, which divides the primal cuts a bit more thoroughly into: neck and clod, chuck and blade, fore rib, sirloin, rump, silverside, topside, thick flank, flank, brisket, thin rib, and thick rib. Each of the basic cuts of beef is very different, behaving differently when cooked and requiring different treatments for maximum flavor and tenderness.
The chuck is the front shoulder, and it is a very lean, muscular primal cut. Chuck is well suited to grinding for hamburgers, as is round beef, and it benefits from long, wet, low-heat cooking methods like stewing and slow roasting. These slow cooking methods dissolve the connective tissue in the beef, making it very tender. The rib, as you might imagine, comes from the ribs of the animal, and it benefits from roasting and barbecuing, yielding flavorful, reasonably tender meat.
The loin is among the most prized of the basic cuts of beef. Some butchers break it up into the short loin and the tenderloin, and some common cuts from the loin include t-bone and porterhouse steaks. These steaks tend to be very tender, and they can be seared in a pan or barbecued for tender, flavorful, moist meat. The round or rump is the rear of the cow, another very muscular cut which requires stewing and long braising for the best results.
The basic cuts of beef along the bottom half of the cow all tend to be lean and stringier than the top cuts, because of the muscular development involved. The flank comes from the area directly below the loin, while the plate produces things like skirt and hanger steak, which are known for requiring long, slow cooking. Meat from the plate can also be extremely flavorful, for patient cooks. The brisket is from the lower front shoulder, while the shanks connect the body of the cow to the legs, tending to be very muscular.