In the BBQ world of low and slow cooking, you normally look for meat with lots of fat that renders down and add flavors.
But if you’re watching your diet, or you plan to grill hot and and fast you have plenty of great lean cuts of beef to choose from.
In this article, we will explore lean cuts of meat and how best to cook a piece of beef that’s low in fat content.
Understanding nutrition labels
To understand exactly what constitutes a lean cut of beef, look to the label.
Labels on beef packaging are subject to government regulations as they’re considered to be nutrition claims of the meat. The United States Department of Agriculture dictates what can be labeled as “lean” beef or “extra-lean” beef strictly based on the amount of fat and cholesterol within any given cut.
Lean beef is defined as a 3.5oz serving that contains less than the following:
- 10 grams of total fat
- 4.5 grams of saturated fat
- 95 milligrams of cholesterol
Any cut of beef containing those metrics or less can be labeled as “lean” by USDA standards.
Similar to lean beef, but with more stringent requirements, extra-lean beef is defined as a 3.5oz serving that contains less than:
- 5 grams of total fat
- 2 grams of saturated fat
- 95 milligrams cholesterol
Extra-lean beef is readily available at your butcher or grocery store. Just check the label to be sure it meets the requirements.
Beef grading vs. labeling
No doubt you’ve seen labels with grades of beef on them such as Prime, Choice or Select. Don’t confuse these with nutrition labels like lean or extra-lean.
The beef grading process is voluntary to the manufacturer and while better grades do indicate more fat, they are also grading several other factors to judge the quality of the product not the leanness of the product.
While beef grades are great for knowing what quality of beef you’re getting, do not mistake them to coincide with lean or extra-lean nutrition labeling.
Selecting lean cuts of beef
The options that meet USDA standards for lean and extra-lean beef are plentiful, and you should have no trouble finding them at a local grocer or butcher shop.
Keep an eye out for terms like “round” or “loin” as these cuts are usually lean or extra-lean.
When shopping for lean beef, look for the following terms or cuts:
- Eye of round
- Top round
- Bottom round
Ask your butcher or grocery meat counter if you’re still unsure or unable to find the cuts and leanness you want. Chances are they’ll be able to give you some options.
Names of cuts
Looking for the terms “round” or “loin” should point you in the right direction, but be aware that the same cuts of beef can have different names depending on how they are being merchandised.
For example, a “New York strip steak” can also be called a “top loin steak” or just plain “strip steak.” Regardless, the leanness should still be labeled on the product packaging.
Lean cuts of beef table
The table below can help you sort out the leanest cuts of beef based on a 3.5oz serving size. Remember, to be labeled lean, a 3.5oz cut has to have less than 4.5 grams of saturated fat and 10 total grams of fat.
|Cut of Beef||Fat Content||Cooking Method|
|Boneless Top Blade Steak||3.2g saturated fat|
6.9g total fat
|T-Bone Steak||2.6g saturated fat|
7.4g total fat
|Grill, Broil, Pan-sear, Skillet to oven, Sous vide|
|Tri-Tip Steak||2.6g saturated fat |
7.1g total fat
|Grill, Broil, Roast, Smoke, Sous vide|
|Brisket Flat||2.7g saturated fat |
6.8g total fat
|Smoke, Roast, Braise, Pressure cook, Sous vide|
|Tenderloin||2.5g saturated fat |
6.7g total fat
|Grill, Pan-sear, Skillet to oven, Broil, Sous vide|
|Bottom Round Steak||2.3g saturated fat |
6.6g total fat
|Grill, Pan-sear, Stir Fry, Broil|
|Top Round Steak||1.6g saturated fat|
4.6g total fat
|Grill, Pan-sear, Stir fry, Broil|
Preparing cuts of beef
Though selecting a lean cut of beef is a good first step toward managing the fat content of the meat, you still need to be mindful of the preparation and not douse it with fats or oils that will add unnecessary calories from fat.
Follow these suggestions to keep control of the fat content:
- Trim the beef – before cooking, trim away all visible fat on the outside of the meat. Do the same after cooking if some fat remains.
- Drain the beef – if using ground beef, drain it through a colander after cooking to allow the excess fat to fall away from the meat. If you want to be thorough, rinse the meat with hot water, then blot to dry. You will need to season more than normal with this method.
- Chill the beef – let the meat chill after cooking to allow the fat and juices to solidify. Once solid, you can scrape away the hardened fat and either discard it or save it for another dish that calls for oil or fats to be added.
Just being mindful throughout the cooking process will ensure your beef stays lean.
The best way to cook lean beef
Lean beef is challenging to cook because the lack of fat makes the meat easy to overcook and dry out.
Whereas fatty, tough muscles like brisket require low and slow cooking to break down the fat and collagen over time, lean cuts like strip loin are best done hot and fast, searing in the juices and keeping as much flavor within the meat as possible.
Follow the tips below on cooking lean cuts of beef.
- The lack of fat in lean beef will render less juices in the pan, so if your diet allows you to add a tablespoon of cooking oil or butter, it’s highly recommended.
- Season the beef with salt and pepper.
- Preheat a heavy-bottomed or cast iron skillet over high heat on the stove top, then sear the beef until a crust has formed, then flip and sear the other side. Times will vary depending on the thickness of the meat.
- After searing, move the meat to a 400°F oven to finish cooking to desired doneness.
- Use a meat thermometer to check the internal temperature, and remove when the meat is 10°F away from desired doneness temperature. Cover and let rest for five to ten minutes.
The same tips would hold true for grilling as well. Set up your grill for dual zone cooking and start your cut of beef over direct heat, then finish over indirect heat.
Is beef actually bad for you?
Beef has gotten a bad rap in recent years, as it’s been linked to heart disease and cancer in certain studies. However, the National Institute of Health states that “most of these studies were done over limited periods of time, had design flaws, or were done in populations with diets other than that of the typical American.”
Beef is rich in high-quality protein, vitamins and minerals which may improve muscle growth and maintenance when paired with an active lifestyle.
Though recently, studies show a correlation between certain cancers and the consistent consumption of red meat and processed red meat. Again, these studies merely show correlation and not the whole slew of lifestyle choices that may have also played a part in the results. One NCBI study concludes that:
“Meat plays a pivotal role in nutritious diets, high quality marbled beef is not only of excellent eating quality but may also contain more beneficial fatty acids. In any case a healthy lifestyle will include a well-balanced diet including meat and regular exercise.”Korean J Food Sci Anim Resour – Health Implications of Beef Intramuscular Fat Consumption
The overarching theme is balance, and so long as you make informed choices and do your best to lead a balanced and active lifestyle, then there’s a place for red meat in your diet.
The fattiest cuts of beef to avoid if you’re trying to cut back
Looking for the lean and extra-lean labels is a surefire bet to cutting back your fat intake, but if you’re going to the butcher store where cuts are wrapped in butcher paper, how do you know what’s lean versus what’s fatty?
We’ll walk you through the fattier cuts so you can be educated when ordering from the meat counter.
1. Rib cuts
Ribeye filet, ribeye cap, short ribs – basically anything labeled with “rib” is one of the fattier cuts form the cow. For this reason, rib cuts tend to be well marbled, juicier, and more flavorful due to the increased fat content.
2. Brisket Point
Brisket cuts are actually two muscles combined: the brisket flat and the brisket point. The flat is considered a lean cut, as shown in the table earlier in the article, but brisket points are some of the fattiest parts of the cow.
The meat to fat ratio can range anywhere from 80/20 to upwards of 70/30. Brisket points can also be labeled as “deckle,” or “brisket deckle.”
3. Chuck Cuts
Chuck eye, Chuck ribs, Country ribs are all from the chuck primal cut of the cow. Chuck is the one primal where there’s a cut that can be prepared with just about any cooking method, but most of it is best prepared low and slow cooking.
Some well marbled steaks can be cut from the chuck roll subprimal. These steaks are good substitutes for ribeye from a cost perspective, and the rich flavor is very similar to its rib cousin.
While tasty, and excellent when enjoyed in moderation, be sure to avoid these cuts if you’re managing fat intake.
Lean into it
Beef is chock full of nutrients and minerals, and can play a part in any balanced diet. Being knowledgeable on fat content will help you make informed decisions on what cuts to choose and how often you eat them.
Lean beef can be flavorful and succulent when cooked and seasoned correctly, so don’t be afraid of the stereotype that lean meat is always dry and tough. Be sure to follow tips like marinating or slicing against the grain to tenderize and add flavor to the meat.
Whether you’re looking to cut back on the fat intake or just want to be more informed, we hope this article helped. If you learned something new or have a good recipe for lean cuts of beef, let us know in the comments below.