A Guide to the Leanest Cuts of Beef

If you are a backyard pitmaster who enjoys low and slow cooking and smoking meat, you are probably used to looking for beef that has more fat, which renders down during the cooking and adds to the flavor of the meat.

But if you are looking for a healthier alternative, you can still choose from some excellent beef cuts which are leaner and have less fat content.

Here are the leanest cuts of beef and what the best ways for preparing them are.

How to read the nutrition labels

The easiest way to determine which beef cut is leaner is to read the label on the packaging.

Labels for beef and other meat in the USA are regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture when it comes to the product’s nutritional value.

There are strict regulations regarding which products can be labeled as lean or extra lean, based on their cholesterol and fat content.

Lean beef

According to the USDA regulation, a “lean beef” label can be placed on a cut of beef that contains less of the following nutrients per one 3.5-oz serving:

  • Up to 10g of total fat
  • Up to 4.5g of saturated fat
  • Up to 95mg of cholesterol

Lean beef is defined as a 3.5oz serving that contains less than the following:

Extra-lean beef

According to the USDA regulations, a cut of beef can be labeled as “extra-lean” if it contains less than the following nutrients per one 3.5-oz serving:

  • Up to 5g of total fat
  • Up to 2g of saturated fat
  • 95mg of cholesterol

Grading or labeling – which one is more important?

Beef is graded into grades, such as Select, Choice, or Prime, but the grading is not the same as labeling.

While labeling needs to comply with the very strict USDA regulations for the nutritional content of the meat, the grading process is voluntary.

Meat manufacturers may choose to have their meat graded in order to advertise their meat as higher quality but not its leanness.

So, while the meat grading is useful if you want to be certain of the quality of the beef, it is the nutritional labels that will let you know which cut of beef is lean and which is extra lean.

Shopping for lean cuts of beef

Shopping-for-lean-cuts-of-beef
Photo credit: smokedbbqsource 

There is a wide array of options of lean and extra-lean beef cuts on the market, so you shouldn’t have problems finding them in your grocery stores and butcher shops around you.

You can also order some high-quality lean and extra-lean beef cuts online from some of the best online meat stores, such as Crowd Cow and Porter Road, which offer top-quality, fresh, and carefully sourced meat.

Look for meat that says “lean” or “extra-lean,” which means that it is tested and complies with the regulations of the USDA standards for the leanness of beef.

Usually, beef cuts such as round and loin are leaner than other beef cuts.

Here are the most common lean and extra-lean beef cuts to opt for:

  • Sirloin
  • Eye of round
  • Bottom round
  • Top round

If you are not sure which cut to choose, you can ask your butcher or the person at the meat counter in your store for professional advice.

Names of cuts

The terms “loin” and “round” are usually used for leaner beef cuts, but the meat can be sold under different names depending on the manufacturer and the store you are buying it from.

One example is the same cut of meat which can be labeled as “top loin steak,” “strip steak,” or “New York strip steak,” depending on where you are shopping.

Check the label if you want to ensure that the meat is lean or extra-lean, depending on your preferences.

Beef low in fat content

Here is a list of the top beef cuts which can be labeled as lean, according to the USDA nutritional value standards by the USDA per 3.5-oz serving, including the total and saturated fat content, and the most suitable cooking methods for each:

Cut of BeefFat ContentCooking Method
Boneless Top Blade Steak3.2g saturated fat               6.9g total fatBraising
T-Bone Steak2.6g saturated fat               7.4g total fatGrill, Broil, Pan-sear, Skillet to oven, Sous vide
Tri-Tip Steak2.6g saturated fat               7.1g total fatGrill, Broil, Roast, Smoke, Sous vide
Brisket Flat2.7g saturated fat               6.8g total fatSmoke, Roast, Braise, Pressure cook, Sous vide
Tenderloin2.5g saturated fat               6.7g total fatGrill, Pan-sear, Skillet to oven, Broil, Sous vide
Bottom Round Steak2.3g saturated fat               6.6g total fatGrill, Pan-sear, Stir Fry, Broil
Top Round Steak1.6g saturated fat               4.6g total fatGrill, Pan-sear, Stir fry, Broil

How to prepare your cut of beef

While selecting the right beef cut is essential, preparing it properly is the next most important step if you want to enjoy a healthy and delicious meal.

You will need to be mindful of the other ingredients you use when preparing the meat because oil and fat can add to the total fat content of the meat and add to the calories of the dish.

To maintain a low-fat content of your lean beef, you can follow the following instructions:

  • Trim the meat and remove any visible fat from its exterior before cooking it, and remove any other fat after the meat has been cooked.
  • Drain the meat if you are using ground beef. By using a colander, you can remove any excess fat from the ground beef. You can even rinse the ground beef with some hot water and use a paper towel to dry it before cooking it. But if you are going to rinse the lean ground meat, make sure that you use more seasoning when cooking it for the most outstanding results.
  • Chill the beef after cooking it, which will allow for any remaining fat and juices to solidify. Then you can scrape the excess fat using a spoon or knife and use it for another dish that requires the use of more fat.

By following these instructions and being careful about any high-fat ingredients to the beef, you can ensure that your dish is healthy and with low-fat content.

How to cook lean beef

How-to-Cook-lean-beef
Photo credit: bhg 

Preparing lean beef can be tricky because the low-fat content may make it easier to dry out or be overcooked.

While beef cuts such as brisket, which have a lot of tough muscle fibers and fat, are best cooked using a low and slow cooking method, lean beef cuts are best prepared using hot and fast cooking methods, such as searing the strip loin in its juices for a tastier flavor and a tenderer texture.

Here are the tips to follow when preparing lean or extra-lean beef:

  • Add a tablespoon of butter or cooking oil if you are pan-searing a lean cut of beef if your diet allows it if you want to add more flavors and moisture to the meat.
  • Season the beef cut with some salt and pepper prior to cooking it.
  • Preheat a cast-iron or other heavy bottom skillet over high heat and sear the lean beef steak until a nice crust is formed. Flip it, and proceed to sear the other side.
  • Once you are done with the searing, place the meat in the oven, which is preheated to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, so that it is finished to the preferred doneness.
  • Use a reliable meat thermometer to check the internal temperature of the meat, and remove it from the oven once the temperature reaches 10 degrees Fahrenheit below the target doneness temperature. Let the meat rest covered for 5-10 minutes prior to serving it.
  • If you will be grilling the lean beef cut, create a dual cooking zone on your grill. First, sear the beef over direct heat, and then move it to the cooler cooking zone over indirect heat to finish it off.

Is beef bad for your health?

Beef is one of the most popular meats in the USA, but unfortunately, some studies throughout the years have given it a bad reputation of being linked to different health problems such as cancer or heart disease.

But since then, the National Institute of Health has rebuked these study results, claiming that they were performed over limited time periods and among populations that have diets very different from the typical USA diet.

Beef is meat that is rich in top-quality protein, minerals, and vitamins which help improve the growth and maintenance of muscles in healthy and active individuals.

While recent studies have found certain correlations between eating red meat and developing some forms of cancer, other studies have concluded that beef and other meat are essential for a nutritious diet. And that richly marbled beef is not only absolutely delicious, but it can contain healthy fatty acids as well.

But as with any other food, it is recommended that beef or other red meat is included in a well-balanced diet and that the individuals maintain an active lifestyle if they want to prevent the development of health issues such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and others.

Which beef cuts are fattier?

If you find it difficult to tell which cuts are leaner and which beef cuts are fattier when you go to your butcher shop, here is a brief guide of the fattier beef cuts you can find on the market:

Brisket point

Briskets consist of two large combined muscles – the brisket point and the brisket flat. The flat is a leaner cut, but the point is among the fattiest of all beef cuts.

The usual meat-to-fat ratio of a brisket cut is about 80:20 to 70:30. Some brisket points can be labeled as “brisket deckle.”

Rib cuts

Rib cuts such as short ribs, ribeye cap, and ribeye filet are fattier beef cuts than others. The meat coming from these areas of the animal are usually richly marbled and juicier than the leaner cuts.

Chuck cuts

The beef cuts which come from the primal chuck cut, such as chuck ribs, chuck eye, country ribs, and others, are also very well-marbled and much fattier than the leaner cuts.

They can be prepared using any cooking method, but due to their high-fat content, the best way to prepare chuck cuts is using low and slow cooking methods.

Chuck roll steaks are cheaper than ribeye steaks, and yet they have a similar rich flavor and are juicy and tasty too.

Nevertheless, while these fatty beef cuts are definitely delicious, you should limit their intake if you are on a low-fat diet.

Final thoughts

Beef is a meat that is not only delicious but is also filled with high-quality protein, vitamins, and minerals.

By learning how to recognize which beef cuts are leaner and which are fattier, you can have better control over your calorie and fat intake and will also find out the best way to cook each of these cuts in the best way for the most delicious results.

Make sure to follow the instructions for marinating, cooking, and preparing lean and extra-lean beef cuts properly, and letting them rest, and slicing them against the grain if you want to be able to enjoy delicious and yet healthy meals.

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