Skip navigation

Beef Basics

Beef is back and here’s what you need to know when buying it.

Beef is consumed 79.1 million times each day across America according to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. And much of that consumption takes place in cafeterias and other noncommercial outlets, often at all three day parts.

Burgers, of course, are the most popular, but other types or cuts of beef are also customer favorites, such as roasts, steak sandwiches, barbecued ribs and prime rib.

The following are some basic guidelines to follow when you buy and store beef. While this article offers a brief overview, for more information, your best bet is The Meat Buyers Guide, produced by the National American Meat Processors Association. It is a comprehensive collection of photographs and detailed specifications of standardized primal, subprimal and portion controlled cuts of beef, lamb, veal and pork. It is available on CD-ROM ($195) or in a spiral-bound book ($49). For more information, call NAMP at 703-758-1900 or click on You can also check out

FACT: Contrary to popular belief, London Broil is the name of a recipe, not a cut of meat.

Beef Cuts
Beef carcass is divided into "primal" or major cuts, which include round (hindquarter), chuck (shoulder) and rib (middle section), loin (middle and back to hindquarter) and brisket/plate/flank (lower front to middle section). The primals are broken down into smaller cuts, or "subprimals," the most common forms used in foodservice. They are available in whole or portion-control cuts, which offer more uniform appearance and cost control. Portion-control cuts can be ordered either by weight or thickness, but not by both.

When comparing costs, make sure that you’re comparing similar products and qualities, such as grade, weight, bone-in vs. boneless, etc. Also, remember that some cuts (those from the round and chuck) are naturally less tender than those from the loin and rib. Less tender cuts can be marinated or cooked in liquid to increase tenderness.

Here are some of the most popular cuts of beef used in foodservice and their corresponding reference IMPS* numbers from the Meat Buyers Guide.

Beef Top (Inside) Round (IMPS/NAMP 168): This is the inside portion of the round primal, with all bones, cartilage and glands removed. It can be used in multiple applications (roasted or cut into steaks, cubes, strips) and is fairly inexpensive. Fat content generally ranges from 5-8%.

Beef Tenderloin (IMPS/NAMP 189-192): Subprimal cuts include tenderloins with muscle on or off, defatted or skinned, tenderloin butt (defatted, skinned and short) and tails (fat). Portion control cuts include steaks and tips.

Beef Rib (IMPS/NAMP 109): Classic rib roast, used for many applications including prime rib. Cut from the wholesale rib, Beef Rib, Roast Ready (#109) contains 7 ribs and part of the vertebral bones. The small "cap" muscles have been removed and the outer fat layer is laid back over the ribs.

Beef Brisket (IMPS/NAMP 120): Typically used for barbecue, pot roast and corned beef, this cut is taken from the bovine’s breast section beneath the chuck, under the first five ribs. Weight ranges from 6-12 lbs.

Top Sirloin Butt, Boneless (IMPS/NAMP 184): A cut taken from between the short loin and round and separated from the bottom sirloin butt. Multiple applications and more affordable than higher-end cuts.

Diced beef (IMPS/NAMP 135): Prepared from any portion of the carcass exclusive of the shank and heel meat, unless other specified. The meat is either diced by hand or mechanically. Pieces range in size from 0.75" to 1.5". Fat should not exceed 1/2" thickness at any point. Similar cuts are used for stewing (135A) and for kabobs (135B).

Ground beef (IMPS/NAMP 136): Can be made from any portion of the carcass. It should be free of bones and its fat content should not exceed 22%. For the Child Nutrition Program, there is a ground beef product (IMPS/NAMP 136A) that combines beef and vegetable protein product (VPP). Ground beef chuck (IMPS/NAMP 137) is made from any portion of a boneless chuck item. Also available, ground beef made from a boneless round beef cut and ground sirloin (fat content less than 15%).

Popular Value Added Beef
Products on FS Menus

  • Pot Roast
  • Steak Sandwich Products
  • Breaded Beef Products
  • Pre-marinated Beef Products
  • Prime Rib

Source: Technomic Purchase Dynamics, 2000

*IMPS stands for Institutional Meat Purchase Specifications

Beef is available in 8 grades. The three most commonly sold in foodservice are U.S. Prime, U.S. Choice and U.S. Select. Beef also has six degrees of marbling, including Moderately Abundant, Slightly Abundant (both minimum marblings for U.S. Prime), Moderate, Modest, Small (all three minimum for U.S. Choice) and Slight (minimum for U.S. Select.)

Don’t assume that you must always buy the highest grade of beef available. Often, less expensive, lower grades are perfectly acceptable, especially if they will be marinated or used in dishes where tenderness is not a primary requirement.

Handling and Storage
When you receive a shipment of beef, inspect it closely. It should have a bright, cherry red color, be firm and elastic to the touch and be held at a temperature of 40°F or below.

Do not accept meat that has a brown or greenish hue or white, black or green spots, has a slimy or dry texture or arrives in damaged packaging.

Vacuum-packaged beef should be dark red/slightly purple in color and its packaging should not leak. Vacuum-packaged beef may have an unusual odor; this is due to lack of oxygen and is not a sign of spoilage. The odor disappears in less than 30 minutes after the package is opened.

Fresh beef should be moved to a cooler or freezer immediately upon delivery. It should be stored between 28-30°F (frozen beef should be stored at 0°F or below). Fresh, unopened vacuum-packaged meat has a shelf life of about 21 days (14 for ground beef). Once opened, this beef should be used in three days or less.

Meats should be stored alone in a cooler so that they do not pick up odors from other foods. Also keep beef on the lowest available shelf (i.e. below other foods) or in a dish or sheet pan so that the raw product does not drip down on them. FM

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.