Beef is the culinary name for meat from cattle, particularly skeletal muscle. Humans have been eating beef since prehistoric times. Beef is a source of high-quality protein and nutrients.

Most beef skeletal muscle meat can be used as is by merely cutting into certain parts, such as roasts, short ribs or steak (filet mignon, sirloin steak, rump steak, rib steak, rib eye steak, hanger steak, etc.), while other cuts are processed (corned beef or beef jerky). Trimmings, on the other hand, are usually mixed with meat from older, leaner (therefore tougher) cattle, are ground, minced or used in sausages. The blood is used in some varieties called blood sausage. Other parts that are eaten include other muscles and offal, such as the oxtail, liver, tongue, tripe from the reticulum or rumen, glands (particularly the pancreas and thymus, referred to as sweetbread), the heart, the brain (although forbidden where there is a danger of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, BSE, commonly referred to as mad cow disease), the kidneys, and the tender testicles of the bull (known in the United States as calf fries, prairie oysters, or Rocky Mountain oysters). Some intestines are cooked and eaten as is, but are more often cleaned and used as natural sausage casings. The bones are used for making beef stock.

Beef from steers and heifers is similar. Depending on economics, the number of heifers kept for breeding varies. The meat from older bulls, because it is usually tougher, is frequently used for mince (known as ground beef in the United States). Cattle raised for beef may be allowed to roam free on grasslands, or may be confined at some stage in pens as part of a large feeding operation called a feedlot (or concentrated animal feeding operation), where they are usually fed a ration of grain, protein, roughage and a vitamin/mineral preblend.

Beef is the third most widely consumed meat in the world, accounting for about 25% of meat production worldwide, after pork and poultry at 38% and 30% respectively. In absolute numbers, the United States, Brazil, and the People's Republic of China are the world's three largest consumers of beef; Uruguay, however, has the highest beef and veal consumption per capita, followed by Argentina and Brazil. According to the data from OECD, the average Uruguayan ate over 42 kg (93 lb) of beef or veal in 2014, representing the highest beef/veal consumption per capita in the world. In comparison, the average American consumed only about 24 kg (53 lb) beef or veal in the same year, while African countries, such as Mozambique, Ghana, and Nigeria, consumed the least beef or veal per capita.

In 2015, the world's largest exporters of beef were India, Brazil and Australia. Beef production is also important to the economies of Uruguay, Canada, Paraguay, Mexico, Argentina, Belarus and Nicaragua.

Beef production has a high environmental impact per gram of protein.

Beef cattle are raised and fed using a variety of methods, including feedlots, free range, ranching, backgrounding and Intensive animal farming.

Beef is first divided into primal cuts, pieces of meat initially butchering. These are basic sections from which steaks and other subdivisions are cut. The term "primal cut" is quite different from "prime cut", used to characterize cuts considered to be of higher quality. Since the animal's legs and neck muscles do the most work, they are the toughest; the meat becomes more tender as distance from hoof and horn increases. Different countries and cuisines have different cuts and names, and sometimes use the same name for a different cut; for example, the cut described as "brisket" in the United States is from a significantly different part of the carcass than British brisket.

To improve tenderness of beef, it is often aged (i.e., stored refrigerated) to allow endogenous proteolytic enzymes to weaken structural and myofibrillar proteins. Wet aging is accomplished using vacuum packaging to reduce spoilage and yield loss. Dry aging involves hanging primals (usually ribs or loins) in humidity-controlled coolers. Outer surfaces dry out and can support growth of molds (and spoilage bacteria, if too humid), resulting in trim and evaporative losses.

Evaporation concentrates the remaining proteins and increases flavor intensity; the molds can contribute a nut-like flavor. After two to three days there are significant effects. The majority of the tenderizing effect occurs in the first 10 days. Boxed beef, stored and distributed in vacuum packaging, is, in effect, wet aged during distribution. Premium steakhouses dry age for 21 to 28 days or wet age up to 45 days for maximum effect on flavor and tenderness.

Meat from less tender cuts or older cattle can be mechanically tenderized by forcing small, sharp blades through the cuts to disrupt the proteins. Also, solutions of exogenous proteolytic enzymes (papain, bromelin or ficin) can be injected to augment the endogenous enzymes. Similarly, solutions of salt and sodium phosphates can be injected to soften and swell the myofibrillar proteins. This improves juiciness and tenderness. Salt can improve the flavor, but phosphate can contribute a soapy flavor.

These methods are applicable to all types of meat and some other foodstuffs. Grilling is cooking the beef over or under a high radiant heat source, generally in excess of 340 °C (650 °F). This leads to searing of the surface of the beef, which creates a flavorsome crust. In Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Canada, the UK, Germany and The Netherlands, grilling, particularly over charcoal, is sometimes known as barbecuing, often shortened to "BBQ". When cooked over charcoal, this method can also be called charbroiling. Barbeque refers to a technique of cooking that involves cooking meat for long periods of time at low temperatures with smoke from a wood fire. Broiling is a term used in North America. It is similar to grilling, but with the heat source always above the meat. Elsewhere this is considered a way of grilling. Griddle meat may be cooked on a hot metal griddle. A little oil or fat may be added to inhibit sticking; the dividing line when the method becomes shallow frying is not well-defined. Roasting is a way of cooking meat in a hot oven, producing roast beef. Liquid is not usually added; the beef may be basted by fat on the top, or by spooning hot fat from the oven pan over the top. A gravy may be made from the cooking juices, after skimming off excess fat. Roasting is suitable for thicker pieces of meat; the other methods listed are usually for steaks and similar cuts.

Beef can be cooked to various degrees, from very rare to well done. The degree of cooking corresponds to the temperature in the approximate center of the meat, which can be measured with a meat thermometer. Beef can be cooked using the sous-vide method, which cooks the entire steak to the same temperature, but when cooked using a method such as broiling or roasting it is typically cooked such that it has a "bulls eye" of doneness, with the least done (coolest) at the center and the most done (warmest) at the outside.

Meat can be cooked in boiling oil, typically by shallow frying, although deep frying may be used, often for meat enrobed with breadcrumbs as in milanesas. Larger pieces such as steaks may be cooked this way, or meat may be cut smaller as in stir frying, typically an Asian way of cooking: cooking oil with flavorings such as garlic, ginger and onions is put in a very hot wok. Then small pieces of meat are added, followed by ingredients which cook more quickly, such as mixed vegetables. The dish is ready when the ingredients are 'just cooked'.

Moist heat cooking methods include braising, pot roasting, stewing and sous-vide. These techniques are often used for cuts of beef that are tougher, as these longer, lower-temperature cooking methods have time to dissolve connecting tissue which otherwise makes meat remain tough after cooking.

  • Stewing or simmering - simmering meat, whole or cut into bite-size pieces, in a water-based liquid with flavorings. This technique may be used as part of pressure cooking.
  • Braising - cooking meats, in a covered container, with small amounts of liquids (usually seasoned or flavored). Unlike stewing, braised meat is not fully immersed in liquid, and usually is browned before the oven step.
  • Sous-vide - Sous-vide, French for "under vacuum", is a method of cooking food sealed in airtight plastic bags in a water bath for a long time—72 hours is not unknown—at an accurately determined temperature much lower than normally used for other types of cooking. The intention is to maintain the integrity of ingredients and achieve very precise control of cooking. Although water is used in the method, only moisture in or added to the food bags is in contact with the food.

Meat has usually been cooked in water which is just simmering, such as in stewing; higher temperatures make meat tougher by causing the proteins to contract. Since thermostatic temperature control became available, cooking at temperatures well below boiling, 52 °C (126 °F) (sous-vide) to 90 °C (194 °F) (slow cooking), for prolonged periods has become possible; this is just hot enough to convert the tough collagen in connective tissue into gelatin through hydrolysis, with minimal toughening.

With the adequate combination of temperature and cooking time, pathogens, such as bacteria will be killed, and pasteurization can be achieved. Because browning (Maillard reactions) can only occur at higher temperatures (above the boiling point of water), these moist techniques do not develop the flavors associated with browning. Meat will often undergo searing in a very hot pan, grilling or browning with a torch before moist cooking (though sometimes after).

Thermostatically controlled methods, such as sous-vide, can also prevent overcooking by bringing the meat to the exact degree of doneness desired, and holding it at that temperature indefinitely. The combination of precise temperature control and long cooking duration makes it possible to be assured that pasteurization has been achieved, both on the surface and the interior of even very thick cuts of meat, which can not be assured with most other cooking techniques. (Although extremely long-duration cooking can break down the texture of the meat to an undesirable degree.)

Beef can be cooked quickly at the table through several techniques. In hot pot cooking, such as shabu-shabu, very thinly sliced meat is cooked by the diners at the table by immersing it in a heated pot of water or stock with vegetables. In fondue bourguignonne, diners dip small pieces of beef into a pot of hot oil at the table. Both techniques typically feature accompanying flavorful sauces to complement the meat.

Steak tartare is a French dish made from finely chopped or ground (minced) raw meat (often beef). More accurately, it is scraped so as not to let even the slightest of the sinew fat get into the scraped meat. It is often served with onions, capers, seasonings such as fresh ground pepper and Worcestershire sauce, and sometimes raw egg yolk.

The Belgian or Dutch dish filet américain is also made of finely chopped ground beef, though it is seasoned differently, and either eaten as a main dish or can be used as a dressing for a sandwich. Kibbeh nayyeh is a similar Lebanese and Syrian dish. And in Ethiopia, a ground raw meat dish called tire siga or kitfo is eaten (upon availability).

Carpaccio of beef is a thin slice of raw beef dressed with olive oil, lemon juice and seasoning. Often, the beef is partially frozen before slicing to allow very thin slices to be cut.

Yukhoe is a variety of hoe, raw dishes in Korean cuisine which is usually made from raw ground beef seasoned with various spices or sauces. The beef part used for yukhoe is tender rump steak. For the seasoning, soy sauce, sugar, salt, sesame oil, green onion, and ground garlic, sesame seed, black pepper and juice of bae (Korean pear) are used. The beef is mostly topped with the yolk of a raw egg.

Bresaola is an air-dried, salted beef that has been aged about two to three months until it becomes hard and a dark red, almost purple, colour. It is lean, has a sweet, musty smell and is tender. It originated in Valtellina, a valley in the Alps of northern Italy's Lombardy region. Bündnerfleisch is a similar product from neighbouring Switzerland. Chipped beef is an American industrially produced air-dried beef product, described by one of its manufacturers as being "similar to bresaola, but not as tasty."

Beef jerky is dried, salted, smoked beef popular in the United States.

Biltong is a cured, salted, air dried beef popular in South Africa.

Pastrami is often made from beef; raw beef is salted, then partly dried and seasoned with various herbs and spices, and smoked.

Corned beef is a cut of beef cured or pickled in a seasoned brine. The corn in corned beef refers to the grains of coarse salts (known as corns) used to cure it. The term corned beef can denote different styles of brine-cured beef, depending on the region. Some, like American-style corned beef, are highly seasoned and often considered delicatessen fare.

Spiced beef is a cured and salted joint of round, topside, or silverside, traditionally served at Christmas in Ireland. It is a form of salt beef, cured with spices and saltpetre, intended to be boiled or broiled in Guinness or a similar stout, and then optionally roasted for a period after. There are various other recipes for pickled beef. Sauerbraten is a German variant.

Beef is a source of complete protein and it is a rich source (20% or more of the Daily Value, DV) of Niacin, Vitamin B12, iron and zinc. Red meat is the most significant dietary source of carnitine and, like any other meat (pork, fish, veal, lamb etc.), is a source of creatine. Creatine is converted to creatinine during cooking.

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