Beef cattle are big animals; so big that it takes butchers years to learn to fully appreciate the unique characteristics and diverse qualities of each delicious part. A butcher I’m not, but as a cook and a shopper I’ve found it immensely satisfying to explore the world of lesser-known cuts. Branching out beyond the most popular is a great way to avoid waste and to get a great beef dinner without breaking the bank. And in the process of trying out new cuts, I’ve renewed my respect for the animals that give us this great food.Next time you’re in front of the meat case, take a good long look and ask your butcher what he or she thinks is special about any unfamiliar cuts. It could be the beginning of a very rewarding culinary adventure, and you’ll probably save a few bucks, too. Here’s a little background to get you started. Your local meat case may not have all of these cuts, but you can ask your butcher what’s good for your recipe or dinner plans.Skirt Steak
Lean tri-tip comes from the sirloin, a meaty area that’s located between the loin (midsection) and round (hindquarters) of the animal. Like other sirloin cuts it’s very flavorful and remains tender if not overcooked. A grill or screaming-hot cast-iron skillet on the stovetop will sear the outside and leave the interior a juicy medium-rare. Try Seared Tri-Tip Steaks with Garlic Bread, Tomato and Basil for this cut at its best.Sirloin Tip SteakThis steak isn’t as tender as some sirloin cuts but gets high marks for its deep beefy flavor. Be sure to marinate for tenderness, then grill it and slice thinly against the grain. You can also cut it into cubes (there’s satisfyingly little gristle or fat chunks to cut around) and use it in chilies, curries and other quick stews. We did the latter in Spicy Beef and Potato Curry with wonderfully flavorful results.Hanger Steak
Here’s a truly great steak with a unique flavor profile: It “hangs” between the rib cage and loin cage quite near the animal’s kidney, imparting to it a distinctively rich, gamey flavor. It’s a long, thin cut that looks a bit ragged around the edges, but it’s deliciously juicy when cooked right: seared to no more than medium rare and thinly sliced across the grain. Hanger’s bold flavor is ideal in highly seasoned dishes like Five-Spice Hanger Steak with Rice Noodles.Boneless Shoulder Roast/English RoastThe shoulder area (“chuck”) of the animal delivers some of the best value in beef. Despite its name, shoulder roast is usually too lean for roasting, but it does exceptionally well when braised as pot roast. Try it in a veggie-packed Mediterranean Pot Roast with Garden Vegetables. Chuck Eye Steak/Chuck FilletThere’s no way of denying it: This cut has some considerable veins of fat. But once you’ve made your way around those (use a sharp knife) you’re in for a really big reward: meltingly tender, fabulously rich meat with mouth-filling flavor. Marinating it and grilling it either as a steak or as kabobs is a superb idea, or try it in a quick sauté like Stir-Fried Beef with Hoisin and Asparagus. Flat Iron Steak
This shoulder cut wins friends fast: Good marbling and full beef flavor means it’s tender enough for grilling but also robust enough for long, slow braising or roasting. A line of sinew sometimes runs horizontally through the cut; it will melt during slow-cooking, but should be cut out by your butcher if you want to grill the steak. This cut is irresistible in Cedar-Grilled Flat Iron Steaks with Coffee Rub.Back RibsThese ribs come from the bones that you see in a standing rib-roast or rib-eye steak, and they share the same rich flavor and generous marbling of those cuts. As with most ribs, slow cooking is key to getting melt-in-your-mouth results. You can wrap them in foil and slow bake them, or try a simple, flavorful braise like Pepper-Pot Beef Ribs with Collards.Are you ready to get friendly with some unfamiliar cuts? Let us hear about your favorites.