Cooking Class: Great Ways With More Economical Cuts of Meat

Some of the most affordable options in the Meat Department are diamonds in the rough – all they require is a little polishing to turn them into dinnertime gems. With a bit of understanding of what distinguishes these more inexpensive cuts and an idea of your end goal, you can turn them into mouth-watering dishes that will earn raves in your kitchen. Here's a look at the main categories of these great beef selections:

Medium-Rare Beef RoastRound cuts are very, very lean and don't have much connective tissue (which when melted becomes gelatin that softens the protein). They are a very mild flavor experience, and even when slow-cooked they will be best sliced very thin. Deli roast beef often comes from this cut. In general, cuts labeled with the word "top" (such as top round) are more tender and more flavorful than cuts containing the word "bottom" (such as bottom round). Eye of round falls somewhere in the middle.

Brisket, plate or flank cuts are more flavorful. These are the cuts from which pastrami, corned beef and London broil are made. They are still tough, though, and are best slow cooked and/or thinly sliced.

Chuck cuts are very flavorful and have a lot of connective tissue. They also require slow cooking to break down that connective tissue. Chuck shoulder blade roast and chuck eye roast are more flavorful and tender than the chuck shoulder arm roast, which is a little chewier and generally less flavorful.

OBJECTIVE(S)TECHNIQUE
Is your primary objective to improve, add or preserve...?SLOW COOKMARINATEBRINESERVE WITH A SAUCESLICE THINLY
FLAVOR

(depending on ingredients)

TENDERNESS

(depending on ingredients, less effective than slow cooking)

(doesn't make meat tender, but may improve the mouthfeel of chewier, tougher cuts)

JUICINESS

(doesn't actually add moisture to a dry meat, but may improve the mouthfeel of lean cut)

Here's a look at some of the above techniques and a little information as to why they work the way they do:

Marinate

Marinated ChickenMarinades are used primarily to add flavor to food, and depending on the recipe, may produce a tenderizing effect. A marinade is a liquid in which food (such as meat, poultry, fish or produce) is soaked. The liquid is typically seasoned with herbs, spices and other flavorings and usually also contains oil and some form of acid which can provide tenderization. Acids break down proteins and connective tissues, with the most pronounced effect coming from the most highly acidic ingredients (such as citrus juices). Such acids can be problematic in this respect, producing enzymatic cooking. With prolonged exposure (more than 2 hours), they can actually cause proteins to toughen or become mushy. Pineapple, papaya and kiwi are highly effective acidic ingredients without the negative side effects. Dairy products like yogurt and buttermilk are also lower in acid and are very effective tenderizers.

Brine

We've written much about brining (see our article, "Cooking Class: Brining"). Brining works on the scientific principles of diffusion and osmosis to hydrate protein cells, allowing them to retain more moisture after cooking. It's a great way to maintain moisture in certain cuts and proteins. Don't confuse moisture with fat, though. Just because a cut is lean doesn't mean it doesn't have moisture contained in the cells of the protein itself. Though brining isn't used primarily for flavor, flavoring agents such as fresh and dried herbs, root vegetables, spices and seasonings may be added to a basic brine to infuse their tastes.

Slow Cook

It is important to understand internal temperature because conventional advice would lead you to believe that beef cooked beyond 160° will be overcooked, tough and dry. For lean, naturally tender cuts, this is certainly true. At 140°,collagen (that connective tissue mentioned earlier) surrounding muscle fibers begin to shrink, forcing out the moisture. But beyond 160°, that same collagen begins to break down into gelatin, which not only replaces some of the lost moisture but it surrounds the individual fibers with a tender gel that Slow Cookingloosely holds the muscle fibers together. The heat can be dry (in an oven or on a grill) or wet (see note on braising below), but it needs to be applied gently (low and slow) to prevent the exterior from cooking (or worse, burning) before the collagen in the middle reaches critical temp. Meats that don't have a lot of connective tissue – think tenderloin, sirloin, chops, etc. – should not be slow cooked.

It's worth mentioning tenderizers. Whether you're talking about those medieval devices that pulverize connective tissue through mechanical force or commercially available convenience products labeled "tenderizers," neither work as well as slow cooking or even marinating. In the case of the meat mallet, not only does it break down connective tissue but it also breaks down the rest of the cut. The powdered tenderizer contains an enzyme that is often derived from pineapple (which is a highly effective tenderizing agent) but does little to add flavor and usually contains other ingredients you may not care for.

WHAT ABOUT BRAISING?
Braising is a type of slow cooking that doesn't actually add moisture, but gentle moist heat does help break down connective tissues and collagen in tough proteins, turning them to gelatin which lubricates and makes meat taste moister. The gelatin also enriches and adds body to the cooking liquid, which is often used as the base of a sauce or gravy. It's especially great for chuck cuts.

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