One of the fun things about trying to study menus in Spain is figuring out the correct terms for ‘beef’. Here is the USA, and especially in Nebraska, the second largest beef producing state in the USA (surprise, Texas is first, obviously, but what about Montana or Colorado?), it’s just beef (and if beef, as in a steak, is not explicitly stated it can be safely assumed).
Now the cuts of beef (or any meat) is yet another subject, most menus include ‘beef’, but what do they call it. It’s almost always “grilled” (various names for that) either on a hot iron cooking surface or over coals on a grate. IOW, it’s some kind of steak and as best I can tell, from looking at photos and reading descriptions, it’s more or less the generic “steak” (almost certainly beef in the USA). It’s hard to tell from the menu whether you’d get an old tough piece of cow (most likely) or something a little better. Of course in beef crazy parts of the USA there are lots of terms as well.
But is beef just beef and it doesn’t much matter, i.e. red meat cooked fairly rare. Now Spain certainly has an ample supply of lamb (lots of names for that) or pork (uncured, fairly simple, i.e. cerdo and cured, well, lots of names for that). If you’re not avoiding red meat you’re fairly safe getting almost anything that is “grilled” (mistakenly often called barbecued in the USA, which is rarely the case, since real BBQ is something entirely different, both the meat itself and the method of cooking).
The most common term (from my non statistically significant analysis) is ternera , which most dictionaries would call ‘veal’. But this is not really veal as we’d think of it, especially relevant to Italian style veal preparations. In Spain this seems to just be, mostly, a young cow, not the anemic milk-fed very young calf you might think of as veal.
Now as an outsider (and not as a butcher or rancher) I believe ternera is just a young cow, not much different from feedlot beef in the USA. Any USA producer of beef faces the issue that at some point you’re spending more money to keep a cow alive than that cow is gaining in commercial meat, so most feedlot beef is actually fast growing young cows. It is more gourmet (and much more expensive) to have more mature, larger cows, especially “free range” (I’ve sometimes seen terms that imply this in Spain) or even more expensive “grass fed”. So my guess is that ternera is most restaurants is not much different than generic “beef” one would find in the USA.
Now terms for beef in Spanish are also complicated because some of the countries in Western Hemisphere, esp. Argentina, are big beef producing (and consuming) countries and so you may encounter terms for beef, in dictionaries or web searches, that would rarely apply in Spain. But here are a few I’ve managed to collect:
carne vacuna: beef
Ternera de leche: veal
Añojo or ternera: 1-2 years old
Novillo: 2-4 years old
Buey: castrated male over 4 years old
Vaca: female over 4 years old
Toro: uncastrated male over 4 years old
Now vaca is somewhat common (in my sample of menus in Spain) and is, by dictionary lookup, just ‘cow’, i.e. again beef. buey is less common, but as per the definitions above that’s because it’s from an older animal and thus probably even more expensive, even though it’s also probably tougher (to a degree tender and tasty are conflicting terms when it comes to beef).
The other term one finds, not in the list above, is de res which seems difficult to define and also is less commonly used in Spain.
But one amusing difference in Spain than the USA is that rather old cows seem to be an especial treat (when done properly). Apparently Spain imports older cattle and fattens them up. When you see photos of the raw cut of meat the fat is thick and very yellow compared to the usual whiter fat. I suppose I could be sold on this as an interesting meal, but it doesn’t sound likely. So while chuleton is common (for the older cows) you also encounter what may be very specialized term of txuleton (the Basque equivalent and likely even less common except in northern Spain).
Now as to eating toro I’ll leave that to others. I suppose Spain has to do something with all those bulls killed in the ring but I can’t imagine this would be a top-notch culinary experience.
So back to ternera – why is that so common? I’ve seen two explanations: 1) younger cows are butchered to reduce the chance of having mad cow disease, plausible but the term itself is older than the concern over mad cow disease, and, 2) that raising cattle to older age isn’t very compatible with the agriculture in Spain, either as “free range” and/or “grass fed” which is an expensive (and land intensive) way to get good beef, so really the economics and process of raising cattle in Spain, somewhat like feedlots in USA, encourages early “harvest” of the animal to human food.
While a simple grilled steak may be a “safe” choice at a Spanish restaurant I wouldn’t expect that to be a very desirable selection. The roast lamb almost certainly seems more delectable.
Probably by any name (and cooking technique) the various terms for beef will put on your plate something you can eat as a good protein source (assuming you even can stand red meat, avoid any of these terms if you don’t like meat) and maybe sometimes it will be a tasty choice. Coming from a part of the USA (originally Texas, now #2 in beef Nebraska, famous for its steakhouses) I imagine I’d always find this edible (and some “beef” I had in Germany was dubious as edible) so probably it’s hard to tell from just the menu alone the quality of the beef you’ll be eating.