When we Americans say meat the sometimes mean 'red meat' which includes beef, lamb, and pork, or they sometimes mean to include poultry or even fish. We write here about red meat; beef, pork, lamb and so on.
Red meat is characterized by big flavors and ample amounts of fat. It also tends to be delivered in big hunks or cuts. One can categorize the cuts by their size: roasts, chops and steaks, ground meat, bony cuts such as ribs and shanks, and organ meats. The cut determines the cooking methods that could work.
Steaks and chops are typically up to an inch thick and are typically grilled. Plenty of internal marbleing will enhance flavor and keep the meat tender during cooking. Grilling browns the outside and leaves the center less cooked. It is fast, but if one is not very careful to control cooking time, meat overcooks. The secret is to sear quickly at a high temperature, and finish, if necessary, at a very low temperature. As a child I was led to believe that one had to eat shoe leather if one wished for steaks with browned surfaces. Actually, what one needs is a very heavy cast iron or stainless steel pan preheated to over 350F. And a high heat burner or a high-powered grill.
Flavor can be enhanced with steaks if a bit of something is worked into the surface. Certain spices such as coriander, cumin, mustard, and pepper will roast very nicely and impart a strong but subtle flavor to the meat. Sometimes herb-butter is worked into a steak, this can enhance flavor and juiciness, if not browning. Finally, a technique that has fallen out of fashion involves lightly dusting the surface with flour and then making a small amount of pan-sauce. This technique can be tricky because if the pan is hot enough to nicely brown the steak, it will burn the flour.
Roasts, as the name implies, are typically roasted or braised. They are fare for large meals, usually involving guests. Roasting is a dry cooking method in which the meat's juices - as they come out during the cookiing process - are drained away from the meat's surface. Normally, one starts a roast at a high temperature, and when the surface begins to get nicely brown, one lowers the temperature to keep the surface from getting too crispy. Internal temperature is the means of measuring doneness and since a roast can cost more than a good meat thermometer, it makes sense to buy one with the first roast one cooks. Otherwise, the roast will almost certainly be either overcooked or undercooked. For beef and lamb a roast is considered to be done when the internal temperature reaches 135F. Some people like it a little more done than this.
Ground meat is made into burgers, meatloaf, or meat sauces. It can have the advantage of incorporating flavor enhancements and moisurizing ingredients in a way that solid cuts cannot. Shanks and other bony cuts can be made into tasty stews and soups. Nothing new here. The interesting thing about these two categories is that the meat can start off and finish flavorful and tender, a quality more rarely found in big cuts of meat.
It is useful to bear in mind, when one is buying red meat, that the more tender cuts can be ideal for grilling, but tender cuts also may need some help to develop flavor. The tougher cuts are frequently less expensive and more flavorful. And sometimes the ones that make the tastiest braises and fricassees are the ones nearest the bone. This realization can be most useful when one is shopping.
Suppose one goes to the supermarket and finds a great deal on flank steak. Well, flank steak is reknown for being flavorful and tough. One treatment is to make fajitas out of it. It's a flavorful dish, but one can only slice hot fajita meat so thin. Beating it quite thoroughly with a special steak hammer or a heavy pan can help a little. Still, if one is in the mood for fajitas, one would then buy all the fixings - refried beans, tortillas, guacamole, salsa, sour cream, and so on. It's hard to beat good fajitas for the joy of eating.
On the other hand, one could decide to make 'Swiss steak.' This is a dish in which the tough steak is tenderized by the very vigorous and thorough application of the tenderizing mallet. The steak is lightly floured and beaten for several minutes before it is browned in a Dutch oven and simmered for an hour or three with onions, tomatoes, and perhaps celery. At the end of the ordeal, this cheap cut of meat, reknown for being obstinately tough, comes through meek and mild and full of flavor. It is a lovely transformation.
The list of cuts of beef is longer and more boring than the whole Encyclopedia Brittanica. Which probably explains why this particular topic was chosen for a special spot on The David Letterman Show. For this reason, and for the fact that we have already written ten times more than we know about red meat, we recommend that one find a competent butcher to navigate through the many cuts. Start by asking him questions you know the answers to already. If he treats you respectfully and answers correctly, he's probably a good choice. Buy more meat from him. And be nice.
As for the different ways to prepare meat, one is tempted to believe that there might be a kind of 'best dish' for which every cut of meat is ideally suited. For instance, if one happens to have nothing but tough flank steak and a kidney, then the best fare will be steak and kidney pie. The good news is that most cuts of meat do have a cooking method, if not a specific recipe, that will bring out the best in the meat.
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Mutton, for instance, can be tough and gamey. Both factors suggest it be used in stew. Several of India's greatest culinary offerings are curried lamb dishes that I could never get enough of. The lamb is cut into chunks and browned, then it is simmered in a very thick sauce of onion and spices until it melts in the mouth. There are four or five seasoning methods and there are four or five sauces that are popular. Vindaloo, Rongan Josh, and Tikki Masala are three versions that come to mind. Each is superb.
Rack of lamb, on the other hand is tender and not objectionably flavored. It is perfectly suited to serve roasted with a little sauce on the side to hold one's interest. I have been served single lamb chops at fancy Christmas parties. These have the lovely attribute of being a sort of food on a stick that does not drip or crumble, and it can be nice as part of a wide ranging selection of things. But it really needs some cooked vegetable canapes to follow it.
I have occasionally purchased a pound of neck pieces and made stew of them. It turns out that the cut is mostly bone, so there is precious little meat in any stew made from this cut, but the flavor is very good, especially if the meat is browned before being fricasseed for an hour with onions, carrots, beans, and other vegetables.
Pork, long ago when it was well marbled, was well suited to grilling as chops. Today it is lean and many cuts do better with treatments that preserve its precious juices. This might mean cooking it quickly , but more often it implies keeping it moist with some sort of applied daub or sauce while cooking. Pork roasts are the heart and soul of southern barbeque, perhaps because pork marries so well with fruit.
Pork chops prepared with apples is an old classic which almost cannot be improved upon. Pineapple works magic with pork, especially crushed pineapple with ham. Prosciutto and canteloupe is a classic appetizer. And I have several times enjoyded meatloaf made from ground ham, apricots, prunes, and a small number of other sundry delicacies. It is easy to think of pork and sauerkraut; but this meat - especially in its lean form - craves fruit.
It is common knowledge that meat goes bad if it is left at room temperature long enough. From this bit of knowledge we generally extrapolate that good meat is fresh and better meat is fresher. But we have been told many times by authorities on the subject that the best beef is aged. Aging causes the beef to develop a softer, rounder, more robust flavor and causes it to become a little more tender. The process involves storing very large hunks of meat - a half a beef for instance - at 36F for days at a time, typically a week or ten days. It is not generally something one would undertake in one's own refrigerator - not on purpose anyway - because it can dehydrate small cuts of meat and make them more prone to spoilage.
But knowing about aging can help one when shopping. If one sees large cuts of meat that have just begun to lose their red coloration and one sees that they are on sale at a reduced price, one might find that the grocery store has accidentally aged a piece of meat to perfection, and end up getting a pretty good deal. There may be a fine line between meat that is well aged and meat that has begun to spoil, but sometimes that is a line that one ought to explore.
It is impossible for me to think of this idea without recalling days of my early childhood. Whenver our dog received a hunk of fresh meat, instead of eating it, she took it off and buried it somewhere. Presumably, she returned a day or two later to enjoy properly prepared fare. In any case, aging meat is a practice so basic that even farm animals are acquainted with its benefits.
Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are - Brillat-Savarin
Not that anyone is interested, but what we eat matters. Red meat is an important part of a balanced diet. And we ought to continue eating some amount of it. Nature produces red meat, and when cows and sheep are done producing for us the other products we depend upon it makes sense to make wise use of the parts left over. Unfortunately, we eat a lot more beef than this. And huge amounts of corn are grown and fed to cattle so that we might enjoy more beef. The point is that this takes its toll on the environment - ten percent of America's energy use goes directly to the growing of grain to feed cows and make sweet beverages. That's not to run the tractors, but to fertilize the soil with ammonia derived from oil.
So it makes sense that if we choose to eat poultry or fish which draw on fewer resources, we are good stewards of the world we live in. I personally love red meat. And I am loathe to give it up. But I have found a lot of other good foods that I am interested in - foods with flavor, nutrition, convenience, and value. And foods that take a bit less of a toll on the environment. When my neighbor fires up his grill that aroma of beef fat burning in the flames, really gets my appetite going. I come indoors and have a smoked turkey sandwich or hummus on pita bread.
Read also the new volume "Omnivore's Dilemma" for a fresh perspective on food, nutrition, and agribusiness.
Eat well, and prosper.
Copyright S.R. Brubaker 2002 - 2006.