The meat section of the grocery store can be daunting. But, learning some meat basics will help to open up additional possibilities to your culinary lexicon.
The meat section of the grocery store can be daunting. Why are some meats more expensive than others? Is a top round tough or tender? Why does a porterhouse steak always cost a bit more than a T-bone? Why is it essential that flank steak be cut a certain way? Why is a chuck steak tougher than a rib steak when anatomically, they are very near each other in the animal? What makes different cuts of meat tough or tender—and how should each be cooked?
Faced with these uncertainties and the myriad of options, people often reach for the tried and true—something that has worked out well before. But, learning some meat basics will help to open up additional possibilities to your culinary lexicon.
The key to understanding the different cuts of meat is to understand where in the animal a certain piece of meat comes from. That is why culinary students spend so much time learning the anatomies of different animals.
Meat is muscle and different muscles do different things in the body. One of the most important principles of understanding meat is that muscles that work more in the animal are tougher than those that are used less. In general, the parts of the animal that work the most are the shoulder, neck, and legs. The parts of the animal that work less are found in the back and especially toward and including the small of the back, which is where we get T-bone and porterhouse steaks from. These steaks both contain a NY strip steak on one side of the bone and a piece of tenderloin on the other side.
Porterhouses are more expensive as they contain a slightly larger piece of tenderloin. The sirloin and rump (basically the pelvis region into the hind leg) can be varied in terms of toughness. Of the two, the sirloin is tenderer as it is next to the porterhouse.
The top round comes from the leg and thus would be less tender.
One important note—there are some exceptions on the animal. For instance, recently butchers have been separating a very tender muscle from the shoulder (which is generally tougher) which is called a flat iron steak. The flat iron is wonderfully tender.
Our society tends to value tender cuts of meat over tougher ones. Go to the meat counter and compare prices of different cuts (assuming that they are the same grade) and you will see that tender commands the highest prices. Another reason for the price difference is that there are simply smaller amounts of tender meat in the animal versus tougher cuts.
For instance, there is much more shoulder meat (tough) than fillet/tenderloin (tender). At the same time, remember that while there is a difference in the price between tender and tough meat, it is not a reflection of quality. Many chefs love to slow braise tough cuts like ribs, shoulders, brisket, shank, and neck.
Tougher cuts of meat require slow cooking, often with some sort of liquid like the braising liquid in a pot roast or the constant mopping and steamy environment of a slow cooking BBQ smoker. This longer cooking tenderizes tough muscles. When cooked correctly, they are irresistible with deep flavor.
The muscles that work less are more tender and are best suited for quick cooking over high heat such as on the grill or in a sauté pan. If these same tender muscles are cooked low and slow, they dry out to the point of being extremely unpleasant. Misunderstanding the cut of meat and how it should be ideally cooked can lead to disaster or success.
One of the reasons that chefs admire tougher cuts of meat is that they are full of flavor. The rule here is that the more tender the cut of meat, the less flavorful it is. Conversely, the tougher the cut of meat, and deeper and richer the flavor is.
In fact, the tenderloin, while exceedingly tender, is the least flavorful cut of meat on the animal. Cuts like the shank and neck takes hours to tenderize, but are richly flavored. Muscles that work build flavor.
What is fascinating is that the above rules apply to most meat that we consume from different animals whether it is beef, lamb, veal, pork, etc. Even poultry follows the same rule with the breast meat being tenderer than leg meat. The leg and thighs simply work more which makes them more flavorful, tougher, and less expensive.
When it comes to grilling, tender cuts of meat are perfect with SABER’S high temperatures. While it would be great to always cook the most tender steaks, it is often not feasible from a cost perspective. Additionally though, these cuts are not always the most flavorful!
When grilling less tender steaks, there are some things you can do to tenderize them. Tougher steaks benefit from marinating when the marinade contains some kind of acid. Acidity tenderizes meat.
Tougher cuts can be mechanically tenderized with a meat tenderizer/pounder or a jacquard machine that makes a series of small cuts in the meat, thus breaking up the meat fibers.
Some steaks with a well-defined grain can be sliced thinly across the muscle fibers after they are cooked. One great example of this is a flank steak. Flank steak is a less tender, but very flavorful steak. Slicing thinly across the grain will eat like butter.