What’s a Side of Beef? Breaking Down the Cow Into Two Sides

November 25, 2022

The side of beef is exactly what it means. It’s the lateral or one-half of the animal cut transversely from the neck across the backbone to the rump. This is not entirely a biology class but we’ll deal a bit with the anatomy of the cow.

I’m not a butcher, but I know every part of the cow, thanks to my time in cooking school and experience in the meat industry. So I’m here to show you what you can make from a side of beef. If you’re ready to stock your freezer space with enough whole beef and ground beef, this is how you start. 

Side of beef

What Is a Side of Beef?

The side of beef is a primal cut you see after the carcass has been dressed and cut in two. The side of beef is further broken down into different cuts. Here, you can now have cuts like the brisket, foreshank, chuck, ribs, short ribs, short loin, plate, sirloin, flank, hand shank, rump, and round. 

How Is a Side of Beef Derived?

First, a cow is slaughtered. Then the neck and tail are cut off, and the cattle is skinned. That skin portion goes to the leather industry.

Next, the legs are cut from the knees downward with the meat saw, leaving the shanks. Then, the carcass is sliced open on the belly and the offal taken out. 

What’s next for the butcher is to take his saw and hack the carcass along the sacral vertebrae or backbone from the pelvic bone into two sides. The carcass is hacked all the way to the front and into two. 

The two large cuts of beef derived from this process are what you call the side of beef. If you’re looking to buy a side of beef, this is it.

What’s Included in a Side of Beef?

When purchasing beef from my butcher, I don’t get the tongue, tail, or organ meats. However, if you want the organ meats, you can request them when making your half beef orders.

I briefly mentioned what the side of beef contains in general earlier. These are what you get from a half beef:

The Rump and Round 

The rump is a cut obtained from the hindquarter of the leg and muscle above the bovine’s hip bone. You can find it at the upper side of the round or where you can call the lap.

This is high-quality beef. You won’t find fat caps or a lot of intramuscular fat here. It’s an all-lean, fully flavorful tender piece of beef. 

This cut is larger than the filet or short loin cut but it’s not as meaty as the round where you have the lap flesh. The rump has a lot of bones under it (the pelvis bone). 

Beef Rump on Cutting Board

Filet Mignon

The fillet is one of the most precious (and consequently the most expensive) cut of all. It’s obtained from the area between the loin and the round steak. The filet mignon also houses several cuts such as sirloin, tenderloin, top sirloin, and bottom sirloin

These beef cuts are famous for their texture and absence of fat. It’s all but the perfect marbling and tenderness. It’s a restaurant-quality cut and costs a lot as I mentioned. 

Raw Filet Mignon

Short Loin 

The short loin comes next to the filet on the side of the beef. The tip of the tenderloin from the filet cut runs into it. You can find really special cuts such as the T-bone steaks and porterhouse steaks from the short loin. Both the porterhouse and T-bones are similar except that the porterhouse is a bit thicker. The T-bone steak is a beef cut that contains a tenderloin on one side and a strip steak on another. This is the same with the porterhouse.

Beef Loin on Wooden Board

Ribs 

Next on the side of the beef after the short loin comes the ribs. I’m talking about the main upper ribs and the lower part where you have the short ribs. Again, the upper ribs are what we call the prime ribs or standing rib roasts and the beef back ribs

The beef back ribs are meaty and flavorful. The rib primal is where you take the ribeye steaks. By the way, the ribeyes are meat between the ribs. So, it’s boneless ad great for grilling or broiling. 

The small ribs beneath the main ribs contain smaller rib bones but these are succulent and tender. They will give you that perfect fall-apart beef when slow-cooked on the grill. 

Raw Beef Ribs

Shank 

The lower legs of the front and rear legs of the cow are referred to as fore shanks and hind shanks. The front shank is the lower leg of the shoulder. The meatier rear shank is the lower leg of the beef leg. However, both front and rear shackles are used in the same way.

The lower legs are heavily stressed by the cattle. Accordingly, it is long-fibered and strongly interspersed with connective tissue. 

Therefore, the beef shank is only suitable for cooking and stewing. Even with these two forms of preparation, the beef shank needs several hours until it is cooked and tender. In return, the meat and the marrow bones give off an intense taste to the broth or sauce.

Beef Shanks Roasted on a Barbecue Grill

Brisket 

The brisket is below the transverse rib from which it is sawn across to the rib bones. In shape, the brisket is high and narrow at the front and flat and wide at the back. 

The brisket forms the front part of the beef; it is narrow, fleshier, and less boned than the other parts. 

The brisket is cut with or without bones. It is mainly used for cooking meat for broths, soups, and stews. Beef brisket is also a special ingredient for corned beef and is one of the most sought-after by pitmasters for grilling. It’s a tough meat that requires slow cooking to break down the connective tissues.

Piece of a Beef Brisket

Chuck

The chuck region is where you have the cross rib, also known as the Boston cut, boneless chuck roast, or thick rib roast. 

Other cuts derived from the chuck are the ground chuck, chuck pot roast, shoulder tender medallions, shoulder steak, and even the flat-iron steak

All cuts of beef from the chuck are very tough except the flat iron steak which is extremely tender and newly discovered. This is why it’s great for slow cooking.

However, chuck beef is one of the most versatile cuts of the cow. First, the boneless chuck cut is my go-to cut for my ground beef. Meanwhile, the boned cuts are also used for making soup bones. It’s rich in flavor and has a good balance of meat to fat. 

Moreover, the chuck beef cut is the meat most used as stew meat. It’s also known as braising steak or gravy beef.  It’s particularly suitable for cooking or stewing, i.e. for hearty stews or pot roasts as well as for goulash or ragout. The piece of meat is also well-suited for making soups or broths.

Boneless Beef Chuck

Abdominal Flap

What I’m yet to touch of all the side of beef is the belly or abdominal flap of the carcass. The abdominal flap is the thin muscle tissue on the underside of the beef. It protects the abdominal cavity and the organ meat.

The abdomen flap is one of the cheapest parts of beef and is meat heavily streaked with sinew and fat. The meat is suitable as soup meat and for stewing. However, it is rarely sold but is mostly used to make ground beef and further processed into sausage and similar products. 

This includes two large cuts of beef: the plate and the flank steak. The plate is where you get the skirt steak. Like the skirt steak, the flank is a very tough stretchy cut with fibrous tissues. 

It becomes like this because it carries the load of the animal’s organ load. The flank steak is all lean with almost no fat. There’s no way fat can build up under the load the flank carries. However, I like its strong beefy flavor. You can use this as a stew meat. Both the skirt and flank steaks are used for fajitas. 

Fresh Raw Flap Meat

FAQs

How Much Should a Side of Beef Cost?

The price of a side of beef is based on the hanging weight. They typically cost around $5.25 per pound hanging weight if the side of the cow is from grass-fed beef. However, you have to factor in the butcher fees, which are about $600. 

How Much Meat is a Side of Beef?

A beef side weighs around 400 to 500 pounds in edible meat. How much beef there is in a beef side depends on how many unwanted parts are taken away. However, with the estimated price given above plus the butchering fee, we’re looking at around $2,700 to $3,250. If that’s a lot, you can buy a quarter of beef, which is around 200 to 250 pounds. All you need to do is choose whether you want the frontal side or the rear part of the cow. 

How Much Freezer Space for Side of Beef?

A side of beef weighs around 400 pounds of beef at least. So you’ll need a medium-sized freezer of 10 to 16 cubic feet. Stocking up on beef is a great way to save money and avoid waste.

What Does a Side of Beef Yield?

A side of beef is around 40% of the live weight of the entire cow. The two sides make up around 80%. Take note: the lower legs, head, tail, and sometimes organ meat doesn’t come with the side of beef.

Also, the side of beef is derived after the slaughtered animal has been skinned. All these make up the remaining 20% of the steer. 

Conclusion

Buying a side of beef is the best way to stock up your freezer space on ground beef, briskets, roasts, and more.

As described, the side of beef from the rump to the chuck and from the ribs to the flank and skirt contains different cuts of beef.

The most valued cuts are less active regions where you don’t have a lot of muscle and connective tissues. These include the ribs, short loin, and sirloin.

The underbelly, frontal and rear cuts around the hind and rear legs are quite muscular, full of bones and lean meat, and great for stewing, braising, or making soup bones.

By Kristy J. Norton
I'm Kristy – a chef and connoisseur of all things BBQ! You can find me either in my kitchen (or someone else's) or at a big outdoor barbecue surrounded by friends and family. In both my professional and personal life I’ve picked up more than a few tips and tricks for turning out delicious food. I consider it a privilege to share it with others!
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