Beef Shank & Brisket Cuts

Beef Shank Cross Cut (“Osso Buco”)

         So when we discuss tender cuts vs. tough ones, I attempt to illustrate the difference in this common sense fashion:  the more a muscle – or cut that comes from that muscle – is used in activity by the animal, the less tender it will be in its natural, right out of the meat case form.   A dramatic example could be round cuts vs. tenderloin cuts. The round primal is essentially the hip of the animal, so it is easy to imagine that it consists of muscles the animal makes great use of in life; all that walking is sure to put a strain on them, creating density and toughness.  Conversely, the tenderloin is not a surface muscle.  Positioned more internally, it’s pretty much just hanging out, not being used so much and therefore staying nice and tender throughout the life of the animal. 

Enter the somewhat obscure beef shank.  Given the preceding illustration, it’s a pretty quick study to figure out that this is a beef cut not known for its natural tenderness.  Processed normally from the upper, meatier portion of the leg – above the knee – the beef shank is nothing more than a cross cut section, a ‘leg steak’ if you will.  As a butcher I figured out early on that the beef shank, by and large, is not in particularly high demand.. most likely due to its aforementioned lack of natural tenderness.  By the way, I use this expression ‘natural tenderness’ to make an important distinction; a given cut of meat may not start out tender in its natural – or raw – state, but any cut can be made tender with the right prepping and method of cooking.  This is very true also for the often passed over beef shank. 

But to be sure, beef shank and leg cuts from other animals too have experienced some revival in recent years and have become what you could almost call.. trendy!  Who knows the reason for this turnaround, but the increase in popularity has contributed to some predictable increase in price.  Not that they are sky-high, but many consider them to be a little too pricy for their traditional uses, such as in soups or stocks.  No, now their status is elevated to use in ‘gourmet’ dishes of various titles.  Funny, huh?  So I have classified them here as stewing beef because that is their culinary heritage, but I will tell you that many contemporary beef shank recipes may call, alternatively, for braising.  Either way, time is the key ingredient for achieving tenderness in this cut.  In addition to oven top stewing, the slow-cooking crock pot is an ideal method for bringing this otherwise tough cut to its full tenderness and potential.

meatshop101 Shoppers’ Tip:

When shopping for fresh cut beef shanks at your local supermarket meat shop, I recommend looking for pieces with a smaller round bone.  This is an indication of proximity to the center of the upper leg, from which the cross cuts are likely to have the most meat and less concentration of tough and hard-to-tenderize membranes that separate the network of muscles running through the leg.  The presence of a larger or misshaped bone indicates the other side of the cut may have even more of it, as the bone’s size increases nearer the joints.  Finally, beware of shingled or stacked cuts within a package, as it is regrettably common practice for meat cutters to layer these pieces in a package, each piece intended to cover or hide a large amount of bone in the piece below.


     Boneless Beef Brisket.

        The boneless beef brisket is simply an excellent cut of beef.  Its characteristic and defining qualities give it a unique place among all other cuts.  It is as if its coarse grain and texture were tailored to produce near perfect slices.  It is as if a script was written for this cut of beef that places it center stage atop the perfect sandwich, the dream Sunday lunch or on the smoker of a hidden Memphis barbecue joint.  It is a skill piece, meaning many can do it well, but skilled and practiced hands can take a beef brisket and produce something worthy of the rare title ‘masterpiece’!

Hailing from the breast area behind the first five ribs, the boneless beef brisket is a muscle often used by the animal, and for this reason, it does not start out with the impressive tenderness that can however be achieved with proper cooking.  No, it is a rather tough muscle in its right out the meatcase form.  Of course, it is age-old and common to find brisket portions that are ‘corned’, essentially marinated for a head start in tenderness, but for the sake of this discussion, we will keep our focus on the fresh (unflavored) brisket.  But like any other cut of beef that has a beginning disadvantage in terms of tenderness, the brisket can be made amazingly tender and possesses stunning natural flavor!

A whole brisket is quite large, and it is fairly unusual to see the entire piece displayed or even available in supermarket meat shops.  Instead, as you have likely noticed, the whole beef brisket is usually sold in halves and are normally recieved this way in meat markets.  Once split, the whole piece becomes a ‘flat cut’ half and a ‘point cut’ half.  What is the real difference?  Well, as the expression goes, I can show you better than I could tell you.  The image at left at the beginning of this brisket article, is more or less a flat cut brisket half.  It tends to have, as the name suggests, a fairly uniform and boxy shape.  In addition to this signature shape, its other defining quality is that it is leaner than the point cut half.  To be sure, both fresh halves normally begin with a fairly thick fat cover on the underside, but this is normal and even important that at least some of it remains on the meat during cooking to produce the most flavorful finished brisket.  But the point cut half (see image just above at right) contains a pocket of fat (referred to as the deckel) near the curved end.  If you don’t mind the extra fat, this is the very feature that makes the point cut half more desireable because the presence of this internal pocket of fat will impart immense flavor to the meat during the cooking process!

The boneless beef brisket is by no means restricted by cooking method.  There are truly a world of possibilities!  I have classified it here as primarily a pot roast or as meat for a wood smoker.  Along with the corned beef option, these are likely the most traditional and common methods of cooking.  Entry level brisketeers, if you will, can enjoy excellent and simple beef barbecue by slow cooking this cut in a crock pot and then adding your favorite barbecue sauce to the easily shredded final product.  Additionally, it can be oven roasted for thin slicing and making its way onto the sandwich of your dreams, ala New York deli style!

meatshop101 Shoppers’ Tip:

When looking over fresh (not corned or flavored) beef briskets in your butcher’s meat counter or specialty cuts case, if you have any doubt as to whether you are looking at a ‘flat’ or ‘point’ cut brisket, I recommend asking your butcher to be sure.  The difference is important!  Remember, the added fat of the deckel (see image above at right) in the point cut portion may scare some away, but for serious brisket folks, it is a crucially important feature.  To determine how much brisket you will need for your dinner or event, follow the portion rule of thumb that rarely disappoints:  1/2 lb. (or 8 oz.) boneless meat per person.  Of course, I always made a point of suggesting a bit extra to cover varying apetites.  And the brisket, because of its fat covering on either half, experiences some shrinking during cooking, so it is advisable also to account for this certainty.  If, for example, you plan to prepare your brisket to feed four people, I would recommend at least 3 lbs.  This includes a standard 1/2 lb. per person and an additional pound to account for varying apetites and shrinking that will occur during cooking, especially with dry heat methods such as the oven or on a smoker.  So when you decide to take the beef brisket plunge, enjoy this great and classic cut of beef, and I hope you’ll get back to me and let me know exactly how much perfection you achieved with your excellent beef brisket! 





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