More than any other primal section, the chuck represents the widest array of possibilities, the greatest number of cuts, and the most puzzling organization. Like the round primal (and in contrast to the loin and rib), the chuck bears a tremendous amount of weight, but with the head and neck involved, the strenuous activity of these muscle groups do more work than any others in the body.
The result is lean muscles that spend a life stabilizing joints and mobilizing the steer. The chuck is home to a vast array of cuts, including Texas’s favorite (the brisket) and the best kept secrets. Because unraveling the complicated muscle groups involves an additional layer of labor, the butcher often takes home the prized, lesser-known treats this primal has to offer.
“Chuck” vs. “Chuck Primal”
The chuck primal refers to the forequarter of the steer, a classification used by butchers to make the initial divisions of the animal. By rule, this section begins at the fifth rib and contains everything on the front side of the dividing line.
However, the chuck itself is a subdivision of the larger primal. The chuck proper is a continuation of the spinal column and muscle groups of the rib as they move toward the front of the animal. This is where we’ll find chuck eye steaks, the equivalent of a ribeye, but across the dividing line. In the strictest terms, the very first rib steak cut on the rib end of the chuck section would the chuck eye or eye of chuck, with the rest of the muscle left as a chuck roast.
Just as the back ribs continue from the rib into the chuck, so too do the short ribs, creating the chuck rib plate. These ribs are meatier than their rib counterparts.
Chuck eye steaks are ideal for a hot pan with a compound butter.
Let’s Talk Brisket
The pectoral muscle is known as the brisket, a historically cheap muscle utterly riddled with fat and connective tissue, rendering it almost useless for conventional beef preparation. Because the fat and connective tissue requires low, slow cooking if using dry heat, it has become the staple of Texas barbecue, the test by which all Texas pitmasters are tested. When the connective tissue is allowed to render correctly, its structure (collagen) turns to a succulent liquid (gelatin). Ask a pitmaster about his first trials on brisket, and he or she will likely have a tale about presenting brisket to a crowd without allowing the collagen to render properly, and the awkward silence as guests bit into hard, inedible meat.
Prime brisket displaying the convoluted structure of muscle and fat.
Because of the skyrocketing popularity of smoked barbecue, the brisket market has both expanded and experienced a rise in price. We offer both a traditional American brisket and a Wagyu version. The intramuscular fat of the Wagyu brisket makes it especially forgiving over the long smoking process.
Outside of barbecue circles, Americans probably know brisket best as corned beef and pastrami (smoked corned beef), deli staples which are considered to have been developed in the Jewish immigrant community of New York, though the concurrent Irish community seems to have stolen some of the thunder in folklore. On St. Patrick’s Day, Irish-Americans often prepare boiled, spiced brisket (corned beef) with cabbage, potatoes, and carrots.
The remaining muscle groups of the shoulder (triceps and scapula) form a convoluted bunch that produce a wide range of steaks and roasts, including some of the most prized and least known. The underblade muscle of the shoulder is cut down into delicious Denver steaks, while the top blade produces flat iron steaks, considered by many to the tenderest cut on the animal after the filet mignon.
The rest of the shoulder is comprised of the shoulder clod (ranch steaks if cut down) and smaller muscles like the teres major and chuck tender, both prized for their relatively delicate structure and rarity within the animal.
Flat iron steak is a delicate treat, best served rare out of a piping hot cast iron pan.