EDITOR NOTE: Buying meat in Mexico can be very intimidating since they use slightly different cuts than the U.S. This incredibly thorough article highlights all the exact cuts you'll need for each meal.
Shopping for meat [in Mexico] can be daunting. This may come as a surprise to Americans who are accustomed to shopping in American grocery stores where everything is sanitized, tidy, clearly weighed, and labeled with familiar terms in a familiar language. Stray a bit from your familiar turf, however, and a whole new world could reveal itself. And one trip to a “foreign” butcher shop just might push you over the edge.
But in the grand scheme of things, a chicken with its head is still obviously a chicken. A rabbit with its feet, as well as providing a built-in good-luck talisman, was familiar to me. A goat’s head? Well, ok. I’ve eaten worse.
So what happened over twenty years ago when I moved to Mexico? Was it the butchering process itself that was distasteful? Certainly no more so than was normal. Was the butcher himself not obliging? Never! Was it the meat itself? Of course, it did look substantially different, not remotely close to cuts I could then recognize, but it was still, after all, just meat. Was it the language?
Well…it’s true that while my exceptional language skills allowed me to translate rather soon after my arrival such Spanish terms like T-bone, other cuts remained a mystery. Costillas I could handle; falda seemed obvious (but wasn’t); bistec sounded suspiciously like “beefsteak,” and though it didn’t look quite the same, I trusted that there was a connection between the two that I could believe in. But what on earth was diezmillo? Chambarete? Aguayón? And how was I going to explain to my helpful carnicero, who was so eager to accommodate, what it was that I wanted?
One of the most puzzling aspects of marketing for the newly arrived resident of Mexico is shopping for meat. It is frequently cut differently than it is north of the border, to accommodate Mexican cooking techniques. At first glance, the contents of the glassed-in meat counters in the mercado seem to resemble the “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” rather than any familiar cuts of meat. Even in the supermarkets, labels are often confusing.
The basic cuts are not so different, but the way they are broken down often is. However, meat can usually be cut to order if the shopper has the right nomenclature. This is also true for those living outside Mexico and trying to prepare Mexican recipes. What to use for authentic fajitas, guisados, or asados? In response to reader requests, we’ll take a look at Mexican beef cuts, how they are used, and what they are called.
Beef in general is called carne de res. Ground beef is molida de res, and Mexican butchers will grind any cut requested, which is good news for those wanting extra lean ground meat. With all the recent scares about pre-ground beef in the U.S., it is somewhat reassuring to get the meat custom ground. If the beef is to be finely chopped instead of ground, ask for picada.
Understanding Cuts of Beef
Pre-cut meat in Mexico may look different than you are accustomed to seeing. While the basic cuts are pretty much the same, the way they are broken down may be different. Generally, Mexican butchers are extremely helpful and will cut meat to order, if you can explain exactly what you want. Mexican beef is not usually aged, almost never marbled, and usually what little fat there is, is removed. For this reason, meat that is to be grilled or cooked quickly, benefits from the marinating process. Larger cuts are generally braised or stewed. Because terminology may vary from region to region as well, a little knowledge of the animal itself or from what part the meat comes from, is very useful.
Because beef is muscle tissue, the cuts that come from frequently used muscles are logically tougher and generally require long, slow moist-heat cooking methods such as braising in liquid (braising, stewing, and boiling) to loosen and melt the connective tissues, a process which makes them tender. But not all connective tissue will become tender when cooked.
The two main components of connective tissue are collagen (white) and elastin (yellow). When a slow, moist cooking method is used, collagen melts and becomes gelatin-like. Elastin, on the other hand, only shrinks and becomes even harder when it cooks. For this reason, elastin should be removed before cooking.
The most exercised muscles, the toughest, are the chuck, brisket, round and shank. The tenderest cuts come from the least exercised muscles, such as the loin.
Chuck: pot roast, stew meat, hamburger
Brisket: corned beef and barbecued beef
Round: (including top round, bottom round, eye of the round, and rump roast) Top round can be roasted (example: London broil), but the other cuts should be cooked using moist-heat methods. Sometimes, however, these cuts are roasted and served very thin, as in deli-style roast beef.
Shank, or leg: is best braised, stewed, or in stocks.
The short plate and flank constitute the cuts considered “medium tough,” or if you cup is half-full like mine, “medium tender.” Even though the muscle fiber is tough, these cuts still contain sufficient intramuscular fat to help maintain tenderness. These cuts can be grilled, but benefit from being marinated. Cutting them across the grain once they are cooked, also yields a more tender piece of meat.
Short plate: skirt steak
Flank: flank and hanger steaks (good for Mexican fajitas)
The most delicate cuts of beef come from the rib, short loin, and sirloin. Cuts like rib steaks (also called delmonico or prime rib), rib eye steaks, (boneless), and rib roasts, all come from the rib. The sirloin provides a variety of steaks named from where they are cut from. These can be broiled, grilled, sautéed, or roasted.
The most delicate cuts:
Rib: rib steaks, rib eye steaks, rib roasts
Sirloin: sirloin, top sirloin, bottom sirloin, and tri-tip
The most tender cuts come form the short loin. From the larger side of the short loin we get porterhouse, T-bone, top loin, strip, New York strip, and shell steak. The smaller side provides the tenderloin or filet mignon. The loins can be cut into roasts or smaller steaks.
The most tender cuts:
Steaks: Porterhouse, T-bone, top loin, strip, New York strip, and shell
Roasts: tenderloin, filet mignon
A Few Tips for Cooking Beef
Amounts to buy: Allow 225 g/8 oz to 350 g/12 oz per person from a roast on the bone and 150 g/6 oz to 225 g/8 oz per person from boneless roasts. A steak weighing 125 g/5 oz to 225/8 oz should be enough to satisfy most appetites.
Safe temperatures: A roast whose internal temperature reads 145F, is considered safe to eat. Ground meat is considered safe at 160F.
Medium rare: 145F | Medium: 160F | Well-done: 170F
A Glossary of Terms in English/Español
Beef carne de res
Ground beef carne molida or molida de res
Boneless deshuesada/o, pulpa, or en trozo
Very finely chopped picada
To shred para deshebrar
Bone marrow tuétano
Meat for grilling carne para asar
Meat for shredding (for tacos) carne para deshebrar
Meat for stewing carne para guisar
Specific Cuts of Beef Cortes de Res
Diezmillo: Chuck (Braise or stew)
This is the topmost part of the forequarter, used for chuck roasts, both boneless and bone-in. The upper part of the chuck, directly behind the head, is called the pescuezo (neck), used for making the fortified beef broth called jugo de res. The paleta (shoulder) is used for chuck steaks and pot roasts. The rest of this cut is simply called diezmillo. Cross rib pot roast, also called boneless English roast, comes from the bottom part of this cut, while blade roasts and steaks come from the upper portion. Since these are not common cuts in Mexico, order ahead (the diagram should help) or chances are that they will have been cut for milanesas, bisteces, or carne para guisar (stew meat.)
Pecho: Brisket (Braise or stew)
This is located under the chuck. The front part of the chest, above the fore shank, is generally used for res para guisar (stewing beef). The back part of the chest is the flat cut Americans generally think of as brisket. This is a cut that would usually be cut up for stews in Mexico, and one of those that needs to be specially ordered or custom cut early in the day. Corned beef brisket is not often found in Mexico, but when it is, it is called pecho curado.
Chambarete: Shank (Braise or stew)
Under the chest is the chambarete de mano (fore shank). It is most often cross cut and makes a good substitute for veal in preparing osso buco, in which case ask for huesos de tuétano (marrow bones) and you will get bone-in shanks. The rear shank is called the chambarete de pata. In some parts of the country, the upper part of the shank is called the chamorro, but this term is more frequently applied to pork. The hoof is called the pata. A bony cut at the back of the leg joint is called the copete, used for stock.
Entrecot: Rib (Roast, broil or pan-fry)
This is directly behind the chuck, and is sometimes called rosbif in Mexico. Bone-in rib roast (standing rib roast) is cut from the upper part of the rib section, though this will most likely have to be specially ordered as trozo de rosbif or costillar. Rib eye steaks – also called rib eye in Mexico – and boneless rib roasts, are cut from the lower part. Rib eye steaks can usually be found already cut as such in supermarkets. Other rib steaks are called costillas chuletas. The lowermost part of the rib yields part of the agujas cortas (short ribs), another common supermarket offering.
Agujas: Short Plate (Braise or stew)
Under the rib cut, the short plate has the lower short ribs, also called agujas cortas. (There is a cut of chuck steak, used for grilling, that is called “aguja” in parts of Northern Mexico and, though the name is the same, one look tells that this is definitely not a short rib.) Although the entire cut goes by this name, the lower part of it is the skirt steak, or arrachera. This is sometimes mistakenly called flank steak, because it does run along the flank, but the skirt steak is the diaphragm muscle. It is on the tough side, but can be marinated and grilled, and is the cut of choice for fajitas. Confusingly, the literal translation of “skirt” is “falda” which is the name for flank steak. However, the best fajitas are made from arrachera, not falda.