"Meat" with your Butcher

Visiting your local butcher and asking for non-standard "American" cuts of meat can be a daunting task. Most often the cut you end up with is not the same, a different size or a totally different shape. Perhaps you have already received the blank look?... but don’t worry - you are not going crazy! American cuts of meat can differ greatly to Australian cuts in various ways. They are also often called totally different thing as well! (UK cuts are different again.) Confusing right - yep!

Unless you have a particularly internationally cultured butcher, you may find yourself in a bit of a conundrum. You won’t know exactly what to ask for and your butcher probably won’t have the time to research the exact cut you want and get back to you, no matter how nice he or she is. The only other option is to know your cuts of meat and to speak your butcher's language and that is, in industry terms. Basically this means, muscle groups. Not only are you then guaranteed the best cut and the right cut of meat, you will make a good impression but most of all, it will save you time and embarrassment.

The question we need to help our butchers understand when asking is, what muscle or muscles are we after. A tricky question is for example, do you want a certain larger or smaller muscle left connected or removed and to a lesser degree, have the fat trimmed and or the bone removed. Getting on top of these questions is what this web page section is all about.

To be thorough, we have also thrown in some Australian and American meat industry reference guides later down the page, however this material will probably not help you discuss cuts of meat with your butcher. It is just good to know. The more interesting section for most will be the last sections where we talk about specific cuts of meat such as Brisket and Pork Shoulder. For example the flat, point and deckle of a brisket and the Boston butt money muscle. Of interest also will be some industry training videos which will certainly help develop your butchering knowledge.

Let’s knock off some easy things first to begin with.

1) Supermarket pre-packaged: These cuts are always smaller and perhaps wrapped in twine or netting, marinated or trimmed or all three. If you are hungry or can’t wait for anything more sophisticated - go for it. The experience will help when using more premium, larger and more expensive cuts of meat and as they say, practice makes perfect!

2) Size: Animal sizes and therefore the cut size will be the first thing to notice. Your local supermarket or even local butcher will not have “those” big American size cuts of meat like the ones on TV or internet. Animal sizes in Australia are generally smaller than those in the States and therefore so are the cuts. Larger size cuts are available in Australia however you will need to hunt them down. They are often those specialist non-mainstream warehiuse style butchers. They are around, so keep looking. Make some calls or jump on a forum to find one close to you.

3) Fat: Yes. Leave it on. This generally means you will pay less for a cut but essentially fat is flavour and it will also help naturally baste your meat while it cooks. Most fat will actually render off during cooking no matter how thick, hard and well -  unappealing it looks. There are exceptions however such as with Brisket where most fat is commonly trimmed for presentation purposes. (If you are wondering, school is out whether to cook fat side up or down. I prefer up, for obvious reasons.) 

4) Bone: Where you have the choice, leave the bone in (eg. Like with a Pork Shoulder) The bone helps hold the meat together, adds flavour and helps the cooking process by retaining and channelling heat and moisture. Some primal or sub-primal cuts by nature however will not have a bone left connected at all.

Now let’s ease into some more technical industry type stuff. Take a few minutes to read over all of the following cuts in each diagram to begin familiarising yourself. You can also come back to these diagrams later for reference if you need to.

5) Muscles: The initial sections to be processed and removed are also the largest and these are called Primal cuts. Once these cuts have been removed (and put onto a preparation table) they can then be more closely worked to produce smaller and smaller cuts. These cuts are called sub-primal cuts.

Firstly, here is a diagram showing some common "basic" Beef cuts. Click here

Now let’s look at a more detailed diagram (downloadable PDF) showing primal Beef cuts then the subsequent sub-primal Beef cuts. Note the (Australian) reference numbers next to each cut. Click here   

Finally to bring everything together, here is a fantastic point and expand interactive diagram. Note that these Beef cuts not only have Australian reference numbers (AUS) next to them but also American reference numbers (US) which are very different. Click here

By this stage you should now have a good understanding of cuts and where they are located and what the connecting muscles are. Let’s go a little deeper into some more industry information. Although the following section won’t really help you to discuss cuts of meat with your butcher, but it will provide a valuable meat industry perspective for your information.

6) International references: As noted above there are 2 key referencing schemes in use for our purposes. These are the Australian scheme, called HAM (Handbook of Australian Meat) and the American scheme, called the IMPS (Institutional Meat Purchase Specifications) or NAMP (North American Meat Processors Association). These schemes are set up to guarantee the quality and cut of meat you buy and standardises these cuts across the country. This simply means a cut purchased in Sydney will be the same cut you buy in Perth. This also covers quantities of fat and connected muscles.  If you would like to know more about these references schemes and descriptions you can click on the following links. They are a simple cut versus reference number table. 

For the downloadable HAM reference number PDF, click here
For the IMPS web site based reference table, click here  

The obvious question here is that why are these reference number schemes so different? Although the answer would be quiet complicated, it would at least be due in part to fundamental differences in the standards used for each counties scheme.

Now that most of the theory is out of the way, lets have some (practical) demonstrations with some common cuts of meat favoured for low and slow barbecue and they are of course - Beef Brisket and Pork Shoulder.

7) Beef Brisket: As this page has been a little heavy on the text, so please enjoy the following Australian industry training video which shows the removal of a whole brisket. The things to note with this video are the two main parts of the brisket. These are the Brisket Point End or Deckle (from under the neck) and the Brisket Flat (following on around to the side). 

Following on from this, below is a video on trimming the brisket in preparation for cooking by no other, than Aaron Franklin - it doesn't get much better than that!


The briskets that Aaron is using above are whole briskets with point and flat connected. These whole primal cuts are most commonly used as they have undergo less processing at the factory and there fore are more cost effective. This also allows greater freedom in preparing the brisket to suit any type of smoker and the time chosen to cook it. (eg. Low and slow, hot and fast, fat on, off or trimmed).

As a primal cut some of the meat and fat will typically need to be trimmed before cooking for better presentation. This can also help reduce the thin ends of the meat from burning (called burnt ends), but this is mostly a regional preference, as mentioned by Aaron. You may find in certain areas however that when the brisket flat is fully cooked and ready to serve, that the fattier point end is removed from the flat and put back into the smoker for further cooking to intentionally create more burnt ends (the real kind this time) which are super flavorful, greasy and pure delicious. In some BBQ joints, burnt ends are actually part of the menu!     
8) Translation - Brisket: In America a brisket primal cut with Deckle and Flat still attached is called colloquially as a "Packers cut", as perhaps in the past these cuts of meat would have to be ordered in direct from the factory or meat packers. (we are happy to be told otherwise) In Australia however, this terminology is not used. It is just called by its industry name and that is a whole brisket with flat and deckle connected.

9) Pork Shoulder: Here is a brief video from the French Culinary Institute (New York and California) showing the removal of the primal pork shoulder. This video covers the all head to tail cuts however we have set this video to start at the shoulder section only. Feel free to start the video from the start to view all the sections.

Following on from this, below is a simple video showing how to trim the shoulder ready for cooking. This is a particularly easy job with not much trimming required.

For a primal pork cuts diagram, click here

Pork shoulder is typically served shredded as "Pulled Pork" and as such not much attention is paid to the different sub-primal cuts. There is one important section however as mentioned in the above video and that is called the money muscle. The money muscle is a particularly flavorful section of the shoulder with very long straight meat fibers and is a prized part of the shoulder used for its presentation value during BBQ competitions.

As a primal cut, Pork shoulder generally has a fairly thick fat cap which is used during cooking to keep the meat tender and also a shoulder blade bone which is always left in place during cooking .      

10) Translation - Pork shoulder: In America a pork shoulder primal cut is known as a "Boston Butt", perhaps as this cut comes from the end of the shoulder. In Australia it is just called a Pork Should Bone in. 

11) Lamb: We have not covered much to do about lamb, however here is handy little diagram should you be interested. Click here