What Part of the Cow Makes Beef Jerky? | The Best Cuts


Illustration of a Cow Broken into Cuts with a Question Mark Over It

As a quick snack or a concentrated lean protein source, beef jerky is a popular choice for many people. I have often wondered exactly which part or cut of the cow is best to use. So, I looked into the matter, and this is what I learned.

Beef jerky can be made from any part of the cow. However, lean cuts are best and thus used with higher frequency. These include:

  • Top and bottom round- Rear
  • Sirloin tip- On top in front of the round
  • Short loin- Behind the ribs
  • Flank- Lower rear in front of the back legs

The best cuts to make beef jerky:

Arrows-Pointing-to-Best-Beef-Jerky-Cuts-on-a-Cow

To learn why specific parts of the cow are preferred in making beef jerky, read on. This article will cover the process of making jerky and how that is the overriding factor in choosing the cut of beef to be used.

How Is It That Any Cut of Beef Can Be Used for Beef Jerky?

The reason that any cut of beef can be used for making beef jerky rests with the process.

Making beef jerky mainly involves three basic steps:

  1. Preparing the meat. The most common presentation for beef jerky is in the form of lean strips. This is because it makes the drying process faster. Initial preparation involves slicing and pressing or pounding the beef into thin strips.
  2. Curing the meat. Curing is usually done with a brine solution. This enhances the flavor while also aiding in preserving the jerky by preventing the growth of bacteria.
  3. Dehydrating the meat. Drying the flesh is what gives beef jerky its characteristic dry texture. To have a long shelf life without refrigeration and to meet USDA regulations, it must be dried to a 0.75-to-1 moisture-to-protein ratio.

Since any cut of beef can be sliced, pressed, cured, and dehydrated, literally any cut could be used for making beef jerky. However, knowing the process also reveals how some cuts of beef are more practical for making beef jerky than others.

Factors in Selecting the Best Parts of the Cow for Beef Jerky

When selecting a cut of beef for making beef jerky, commercial manufacturers, and individuals who make their beef jerky at home generally consider two factors.

  1. The leanness of the meat- While any cut can be used, limited marbling is ideal.
  2. Cost- This drives which cut is used by manufacturers. Basically, they tend to use the cheapest “best” cut.

Lean Cuts of Beef Used for Beef Jerky

A lean cut is required to make beef jerky because fat does not dehydrate as thoroughly as muscle tissue. The presence of fat can cause the final product to contain stringy bits of fatty tissue due to the imbalance in moisture content. More significantly, the moisture retained in the fat — no matter how minimal — can contribute to the beef jerky’s spoilage and rancidity.

The leanest cut of beef for beef jerky is the tenderloin. This is because it comes from the cow’s psoas major muscle — one of the least used muscles by cattle. This runs beneath the ribs of the cow next to its vertebral column toward the butt portion.

Beef jerky made from the tenderloin will be very costly because it is one of the most expensive beef cuts. Additionally, the fact that it is so lean negatively impacts the flavor absorption during the curing process. Tenderloin-based beef jerky tends to be softer in texture and mellower in flavor.

Cool Fact: Tenderloin-based beef jerky is considered more of a gourmet food item. It is rarely used in commercial-grade beef jerky due to cost considerations.

Affordable Cuts of Beef Used for Beef Jerky

Low-budget homemade beef jerky and lower-end commercial jerky are made from more affordable cuts of beef. These include:

  • Beef Chuck– This comes from the top shoulder of the cow. Using chuck for jerky requires manually trimming all of the fat from this cut.
  • Brisket– Located just below a cow’s shoulder section, this can be used for making jerky with a dense flavor profile. However, since it has a high proportion of marbleized fat, it is prone to having a shorter shelf life.
  • Sirloin, top sirloin, and bottom sirloin– These cuts originate from the rear section of the cow. The sirloin is above the tenderloin near the animal’s back. The top sirloin comes just below the cow’s tenderloin muscle. The bottom sirloin comes from the area where the top sirloin leaves off and continues to just above the cow’s flank. These cuts come in varying tenderness and require trimming of fat to be used in beef jerky.

By the way, if you are thinking of making jerky at home, I recommend this dehydrator. It’s well-made and designed in America.

Or, check out my guide to making fish jerky. The principles are the same for using any animal.

Most Popular Cuts of Beef for Making Beef Jerky

The cuts of beef used the most often for commercially manufactured, and homemade beef jerky is, unsurprisingly, those that balance leanness and cost most effectively.

  • Rump section. Located in the rear of the cow, it is also known as “round.” It is a relatively lean cut that can be sliced with or against the grain for beef jerky. The majority of commercial jerky is made with this cut.
  • Flank. The flank comes from the lower chest and abdominal muscles of cattle. Since cattle heavily use these muscles, it is a firmer cut of meat with highly distinguishable grains. Softer jerky is made with the flank cut against the grain. Chewier jerky is obtained by slicing with the grain.

Least Popular Cuts of Beef for Beef Jerky

Beef cuts that are extremely tough in texture or too finely-grained and fatty do not make for the best choice to produce beef jerky. This is why the following cuts are rarely used:

  • Shank. The shank is the upper portion of a cow’s front and rear legs. Although considered to be a lean cut, since it is one of the muscle groups that the animal uses the most, it is also one of the toughest cuts of beef.
  • Rib. The rib section is located in the forequarter of the cow. That is from the center to the mid-frontal part of the cow. It is made up of the sixth through the twelfth rib of the animal. Cuts from this section, while very tender, are also high in fat. Thus, not the best for jerky.
  • Plate. The plate section is the lower extension of the rib section of the cow. It covers the same body segment but extends lower to include the chest plate. The meat here is very tough, contains cartilaginous fibers, and is very fatty. It is one of the least used sections of the cow for making beef jerky. 

Is There Beef Jerky Made With Ground Beef?

Beef jerky can also be made with ground beef. The base and trim cuts for ground beef can come from different parts of the cow. For making beef jerky, the leanest ground beef — sold as “extra-lean” or “ground sirloin” — is the one that is used most often due to it containing less than 10 percent fat.

A four percent fat count would be considered best for making beef jerky.

The majority of the meat used in these blends of ground beef comes from the cow’s rear sections — from its flank up toward the back.

Final Word

As I have said before, any type of jerky is a great survival food. The great thing is, it’s also delicious. It’s no wonder that that close to 126 million Americans consumed beef jerky in 2019. Any jerky really breaks up the monotony of anyone’s long term food stores. And knowing which part of the animal is best to use is key.

As you have read, beef jerky can be made with any meat portion of the cow. However, the leaner the choice of beef cut, the better suited it will be to make beef jerky. After leanness, the final determining factor in what part of the cow is selected for making beef jerky is usually based on cost.

I hope this article has been helpful. Thanks for reading!

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Jim James

Jim James spent most of his childhood outdoors fishing on lakes in his area. Due to his scouting background, he has always been interested in survival, camping, and the outdoors in general. Jim is a best-selling author and has a degree in History, Anthropology, and Music. He lives with his family in Charlotte, NC.

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