Back in April, I was invited to be a guest at the Certified Angus Beef Culinary Center in Wooster, Ohio, along with a group of noted barbecue pitmasters from around the country. They called it the “Barbecue Summit”. I called it Beef Camp.
We toured a cattle farm, stuffed our own custom-blend sausages, and paired up in teams to cook an elaborate beef-centric feast. But the best part was when Diana Clark, a Meat Scientist for Certified Angus Beef, took us into the “Meat Lab”—a cold, clean butchering facility—and led us through the process of breaking down six forequarters of beef, each clocking in at around 200 pounds.
Most barbecue cooks get their briskets and ribs vacuum-sealed from a wholesaler, so it was illuminating to learn the contours of the cow and where all the pieces and parts come from. What interested me most was what was left behind after we had carved away the prized ribeyes, briskets, and strip steaks.
Diana Clark is adept with bone saw and knife, and with a grill and smoker, too. So, I asked for her recommendations for some of the lesser-known cuts that should have a place on our backyard grills, smokers, or barbecue pits.
FOR THE GRILL
Top Sirloin Cap
“One of my go-to’s is top sirloin cap,” Clark says. “It’s one of the most tender and flavorful cuts from the sirloin.” Also known as coulotte or picanha, it’s the traditional cut that is roasted on skewers and carved tableside at Brazilian steakhouses.
While some butchers sell pre-cut coulotte steaks, you can also buy a whole top sirloin cap and cut your own steaks from it. “They look like mini New York strip steaks,” Clark notes. “And they puff up as they cook.”
In recent years, a lot of backyard cooks have discovered skirt steaks, the long, thin strips of beef that run along the ribs in the plate section of the cow. They’re particularly popular for fajitas and tacos, and that demand has driven the price up.
“Skirt steaks are tremendous,” Clark says. “Full of a lot of flavor.” But if you can’t find skirt—or don’t want to pay a premium for it—a great alternative is the sirloin flap. Also known as a bavette steak, it’s similar in appearance to skirt. “But it’s thicker, with so much marbling in it. It’s my favorite thin steak.”
Whether you’re cooking skirt or sirloin flap, you’ll definitely want to use a marinade. “We do a bourbon marinade here usually,” Clark says. After letting them soak several hours and patting them dry, “you can just put salt and pepper on them and the marbling speaks for itself. Cook till 125 degrees, a medium degree of doneness.”
“The key when you slice it,” Clark adds, “is that you are slicing against the grain.” That grain runs short ways across the steak, so the best approach is to cut the finished steak into six-inches pieces then rotate each piece 90 degrees and slice it with a sharp knife, holding the blade at a 45 degree angle and cutting perpendicular to the meat’s grain. The result are thin, tender folds of steak bursting with beefy flavor.
FOR THE SMOKER
The real difference between grilling and barbecuing is not smoke but temperature. Barbecuing lets us to take cuts that would be tough and stringy if cooked quickly and use the magic of heat and time to transform them into something delightful.
Thanks to the decade-long vogue of Central Texas-style barbecue, when most backyard pitmasters cook beef they usually pick brisket. But there are plenty of other cuts worthy of the pit.
For smoking, Clark is quick to recommend chuck roll. “That’s always available at every single retail store,” she says. “That is your traditional mom-and-pop roast.” It’s usually slow cooked in the oven as a chuck roast, but on the smoker or a barbecue pit it can be transformed into something sublime.
First, coat the surface with a thin smear of yellow mustard then sprinkle generously with a 50/50 blend of salt and pepper. Then, put it on your pit or smoker for 4 to 6 hours. “I like to set it at 200 degrees,” Clark says. “Do it low initially. After that you can bump it a little bit. You can easily go to 250 but I wouldn’t go above that.
“Double wrap it in aluminum foil or butcher paper. Put it in the oven and let it sit low at 200 degrees overnight. The next morning you will wake up to some of the best smoked meat you’ll ever have.”
Shopping tip: At your local butcher counter, ask for a five-pound chuck roast. “There’s another roast from the chuck,” Clark notes, “but that’s usually labeled as arm roast. That’s a bit leaner of a cut so it wouldn’t perform as well.”
Sirloin Tip Roast
The sirloin tip is another easy-to-find roast that is great for barbecuing. Though leaner than chuck roll, it can be used in a similar way. “It’s more of a shredded beef application and not a sliced beef item,” Clark says. After a few hours of smoking, you can wrap in and finish in the oven or in the crock pot.
“It’s great just warmed back up,” she adds “Take some beef broth and beer and mix those together on the stove with that shredded beef—it warms back up beautifully.”
Chuck Short Rib
In recent years, restaurant pitmasters have been wowing guests with massive beef ribs, which can weigh two pounds of more and feed two or three hungry diners. But that style of ribs can be hard to pull off at home.
“The hardest part with beef ribs is that a lot of retailers don’t carry your plate short ribs,” Clark says—the cut used by famed barbecue joints like Louie Mueller in Taylor, Texas. “But you can have great success with chuck short ribs.”
These come from further up the cow—from the chuck, or the front shoulder area—and most butchers prepare them for stove-top or oven braising. “Most of the time a retailer is going to break it down into one-inch sections,” Clark explains. “But they do that in house.” And that means that if you ask you can usually get a whole chuck short rib.
“A four bone piece weighs about four or five pounds. It’s a great option to use for smoking.” Clark advises seasoning them lightly with salt and pepper then smoking at 225 degrees for about six to eight hours. “I typically would wrap them at 160 degrees to let them sweat and let the moist heat further cook. Cook to 200 to 210 degrees (internal temperature), then they are done.”
Finding Your Cuts
Where do you go to find these lesser-known steaks and roasts? “If you’re looking for unique cuts, a lot of times your best option would be to go to more of a specialty market to find them,” Clark says. They generally hand-cut to order and can recommend new cuts and offer guidance for how to cook them.
At supermarket chains it can be a little more hit and miss. “It is always going to depend on who is behind that counter,” Clark says, and she has a great tip for improving your odds. “The most knowledgeable person will usually be there as early as possible to get the case filled. By five o’clock they are done for the day. If you go in as early as you can, that would be your best bet.”
More than anything, don’t be shy. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” Clarke says. “That butcher has more knowledge than you probably do.”
Unless you’re a meat scientist, of course.
Diana Clark’s Tips For Better Grilling & Smoking
- Keep That Smoker Low. “I’m a very low smoker,” Clarke says. “There is a science behind it.” Once the outside surfaces reaches 180 degrees or greater, she explains, the meat stops taking on smoke. “The lower you start the better smoke ring you have.” She tends to start her meat out at 200 degrees and keep it there for the first several hours, though she might raise to 225 or 250 after that to speed the cooking.
- Get Your Grill Hot: When it comes to grilling, the opposite rule applies. “Make sure the grill is super hot before you put that steak on there. Let it get to at least 500 degrees. If you put your hand and over it and have to pull it away in less than a second, it’s ready.”
- No Poking. Use A Thermometer.: Being scientifically-minded, Clark isn’t a fan of what she calls “the poke method”—trying to gauge meat’s doneness by pressing it with a finger. “Always use a thermometer,” she advises. “You can destroy beef if you overcook it.”
- Lose the Weenie Fork: Those big two-prong implements look pretty impressive when you’re stabbing and flipping a hefty steak on a grill, but Clark frowns on such practices. “Always use tongs,” she says. “The more you poke holes in the meat the more juice will come out.”
- Let it Rest: “You definitely need to rest your meat,” Clark says. “I preach 20% of the cooking time.” The resting period lets the juices redistribute through the meat and keeps them from gushing onto the platter when you slice it. “People think their steak is going to be cold but it’s not.”