Do you ever go to the grocery store and wonder why there is a huge price difference in the cuts of meat? Understanding where each cut of meat comes from does help. Beyond that, knowing basic facts about beef allows the cook to expand beyond recipes they have on hand and become creative them-self developing their own recipes.
Image from 90meat.com where you can also see what each cut of meat looks like.
As you can see from the diagram some cuts of meat come in very small quantities from the cow. Like everything else, the law of supply and demand increases the cost of those cuts of meat.
It is also easier to understand why some cuts of meat are tough while others are very tender. Like all muscles, those that are used more will become tough and require a different type of cooking. These are the cuts that recipes specify braising as the low and slow method breaks down those strands of muscles. On the opposite end of the spectrum, meats that are very lean and tender should not be overcooked as it will make even the most tender cut of meat tough. Understanding how each piece of meat should be handled allows the cook to substitute cuts they have on hand or are on sale for the ones called for in a given recipe.
Corn beef is the most popular in March around St. Patty’s Day although it is not their national dish by any means. Instead it was used in lieu of bacon by Irish Americans and likely is how we came to associate it with the holiday. This is a good time of year to stock up on it when it goes on sale. The 2 cuts seen in the store have a huge price difference. The brisket itself come from the breast area. Corned beef is most often made from this beef. The meat has been salt cured which leads to the distinct flavor. The flat cut allows for uniform slices and tends to be leaner. The point cut is the cheaper of the 2 and has more marbling.
USDA: the Us Department of Agriculture developed 6 grades of meat that are used after the meat and poultry have been inspected for wholesomeness. Grading for quality looks for traits regarding tenderness, juiciness, and flavor of the piece of beef.
Prime grade is produced from young, well-fed beef cattle. It has abundant marbling and is generally sold in restaurants and hotels. Prime roasts and steaks are excellent for dry-heat cooking such as broiling, roasting, or grilling.
Choice grade is high quality, but has less marbling than Prime. Choice roasts and steaks from the loin and rib will be very tender, juicy, and flavorful and are, like Prime, suited to dry-heat cooking. Many of the less tender cuts, such as those from the rump, round, and blade chuck, can also be cooked with dry heat if not overcooked. Such cuts will be most tender if braised.
Select grade is very uniform in quality and normally leaner than the higher grades. It is fairly tender, but, because it has less marbling, it may lack some of the juiciness and flavor of the higher grades. Only the tender cuts (loin, rib, sirloin) should be cooked with dry heat. Other cuts should be marinated before cooking or braised to obtain maximum tenderness and flavor.
Standard and Commercial grades are frequently sold as ungraded or as “store brand” meat.
Marbling This is when the fat runs in little veins through a piece of meat. Modern ranchers control this by breeding and the feed. Marbling results in a higher grade of meat because it provides a lot of flavor when it is cooked. There is a fine line between what is enough and when it becomes too much.
Utility, Cutter, and Canner grades are seldom, if ever, sold at retail but are used instead to make ground beef and processed products.
Roasting is good for large, tender cuts of beef. It is done by placing the fat side up on a rack in a shallow roasting pan.
Broiling is best for very tender steak which should be a minimum of 3/4 an inch thick. Thinner cuts of meat will become overcooked. Place the steaks on a broiling pan 2 to 5 inches from the source of heat. One must always stay near the broiler as the steaks will cook very quickly and must be turned halfway through desired doneness.
Panbroiling is for those thinner steaks that are also very tender. Using a heavy pan, on medium to medium-high heat, cook the steak on both sides.Be sure to drain off liquid as it occurs or you will movie into a different style of cooking.
Panfrying is used for thin cuts of meat that have been MADE tender by cubing, grinding and scoring. Cook over medium heat and allow the liquids to build up in the pan. Do not cover the meat in this process of cooking.
Braising is best for those cuts of meat that need help becoming tender. Meat is browned in a heavy pan with a little liquid,covered and simmered at about 300. This is when an electric skillet comes in handy as the temperature gauge can be set at a low simmer and the cook does not have to worry about constantly monitoring the liquid.
Cooking in Liquid is for large cuts that are not very tender and stews. For example, the typical pot roast uses this method.
I considered including charts that provide estimated times of cooking, but in recent years the traditional idea of cooking temperatures hase changed. For example, a standing rib roast is often cooked at a low temperature for a while, then a high temperature at the end. Therefore the best thing for the cook to do is read the recipe, and then read it again to make sure they know how long it will take to cook.
The best cut of meat is wasted if proper handling of the meat is not observed. Pieces of beef can be cooked and still be pink the middle because the majority of bacteria is on the outside and therefore cooked to the proper temperature. Once the beef has been ground up, that bacteria is all over and the beef should be cooked all the way through. Everything that the raw meat or juices has touched should be cleaned in hot water. This includes your hands!
Rare = 120 to 125 degrees
Medium Rare = 130 to 135 degrees
Medium = 140 to 145 degrees
Medium Well = 150 to 155 degrees
Well Done = 160 degrees Hamburgers should always be cooked to 160 degrees.
A meat thermometer gives the average cook the ability to check the progress of their steaks. There are 2 things to keep in mind. The more you poke the meat, the more juices will run out. Also, there is the idea of carry-over cooking. Basically, you want to stop cooking the steak BEFORE it reaches the temperatures you want as it will continue to cook once it is removed from the heat.
If you don’t have a thermometer, use your thumb. Turn the palm face up and poke the area where the thumb joint is located. You will see that as you move upwards, it feels softer. The lowest point feels the same as a well done steak.The highest point feels like a rare steak. The more you practice this technique, the better you will become at knowing when the steak is at the point you like to eat it.