Something else they didn’t tell you about when you were learning all about France in French IV in high school: they cut up beef, lamb, and pork here differently than they do in North America. So today, a quick overview of some of the major differences or at least some guidance in getting dinner on the table.
For starters, be prepared for the fact that French and North American beef taste different. How’s that? French cattle are primarily grass fed and thus the meat is less marbled. Moreover, there is not as much emphasis on aging meat. As a result, French beef tends to be less tender than American. Food additives (such as antibiotics) are not used at all. So be forewarned, your tried and true dishes will not taste the same, no matter what you do. Moreover, you need to be particularly careful if you like your meat well-done. Because they are less tender, well-done meats are likely to be quite dry.
The laws for labeling are extremely strict and you can learn a lot about your meat, even before you put it in your supermarket cart.
Moving on to the cuts. Here’s your standard American head of beef:
Then, here’s the French counterpart:
As you can see, there are twice as many French cuts as there are American. But do not despair. Here are a couple of short cut definitions. If you are looking for a New York strip, choose a faux filet or Coeur d’Aloyau For rib-eye, try an entrecote. For sirloin, a rumsteak will generally do the trick. If you are making beef stew, look for paleron, macreuse, gite, or jumeau.
There are fewer cuts of pork. If you are a fan of pork tenderloin, look for filet de mignon de porc. Beware of bacon; it is more like what Americans call Canadian bacon than the crispy strips you’re used to having with eggs at breakfast. Poitrine is the best substitute although it’s probably not exactly what you want. Lardons in both nature (plain) or fumé (smoked) are bits of bacon sold packaged; these are good in quiches and any other dish calling for crumbled bacon. For a diagram of French pork cuts, check out this page on the French pork producers site.
If you’re ever in doubt, the best thing to do is to go to the butcher shop and ask the butcher’s opinion about the type of meat most suited to the dish you are making. You will pay a premium by shopping at the boucherie but in general, the product will be superior. If your budget doesn’t permit regular shopping at the butcher, don’t be embarrassed to go every now and again and in between, apply the knowledge you gain to your supermarket shopping.
Les morceaux de boeuf: From a French cattle industry group (and thus all in French), this site offers an interactive feature if you scroll down the page until you see the diagram of the cow. Click on a portion and you will get a photograph of the cut, its name, and suggestions for cooking.