Getting To The Meat Of It -- A Beginner's Guide
Choosing the Right Cut for the Job
Many factors come into play when cooking meat, including determining which cut is best suited to the dish that you are preparing, having some knowledge of where the meat comes from, and deciding how you plan to cook it. Lean, tender cuts of meat require less preparation and less complex methods of cooking than those that are more muscular or higher in collagen or cartilage. Those tougher cuts require a long, slow cooking process and often more complex preparation before the meat is cooked.
What Determines Meat Quality?
Quality and flavor are first determined by how the animal is treated early in its life. The breed, age, diet, and living conditions of the animal as well as how it is slaughtered, how it is stored, and how it is packaged and shipped are all factors that contribute. The best quality meats are those from animals that have been raised on a natural diet of hormone, antibiotic, and pesticide free organic food and those that are allowed to spend time outdoors grazing and roaming, rather than being kept indoors with limited room to move. Certified organic meats meet these requirements. Meats labeled 'natural' imply that the meat was raised with minimal processing and without artificial ingredients but the term is sometimes vague and never a guarantee that the meat is of top quality or that it will meet your high standards.
How to Prepare Your Meat for Cooking
A number of techniques can be used to prepare a piece of meat before it is cooked. Choosing the correct preparation depends on which cut of meat you are using and how you are using it. Some techniques alter the natural shape of meat and poultry--tying them with butchers twine before they are cooked. This ensures that they are uniform in size and thickness and will cook evenly throughout. To impart certain flavors before cooking you can use a rub or a marinade. A dry rub is a mixture of herbs and /or spices that are blended together and then rubbed into a piece of meat and allowed to penetrate and flavor it.
Spice Up Your Recipe with a Marinade
Marinades are flavorings that penetrate meat in liquid form. They often contain acidic ingredients such as lemon juice or soy sauce, and the acid acts as a tenderizer and slightly breaks down the structure of the meat. For this reason, marinades are most often used for tougher cuts that can benefit from some of the tenderizing effects, while rubs, or marinating for just a short amount of time are better for leaner cuts.
Building the Perfect Brine
Brine is a combination of salt and water, and sometimes sugar and other flavorings. Heavily-salted brine can be used as a cure for meats that are going to be cooked very slowly, smoked, or air dried. Some of the water in the meat is replaced by the salt, which provides a less desirable environment for bacteria and decreases the chances of spoilage. Brining with a lower salt content is done to impart flavor and increase moisture and always results in a juicier piece of meat. For a quicker effect, meats are sometimes injected with flavored liquids using a special meat syringe. While this does not give the same overall moisture increasing effect as brine, it imparts flavor throughout the meat.
What Cooking Method is Best?
How a piece of meat should be cooked is determined mostly by the cut. Leaner, smaller cuts of meat are best cooked using a dry heat method, while larger, tougher cuts of meat are best when cooked using a wet heat method. Grilling, broiling, sautéing, stir frying, and roasting are all dry heat cooking techniques. The first four techniques allow meats to cook quickly and do not involve a lot of preparation prior to cooking.
Grilling and Broiling Meat
Grilling and broiling are techniques that expose the meat directly to the heat source. With both techniques, the meat takes on a smoky flavor as parts of the meat char from the intense direct heat. With grilling, the heat source is below the meat while in broiling the heat comes from above.
Sautéing and Stir Frying Meat
Sautéing and stir frying are both done in pans on the stovetop and both use a small amount of fat and high heat. Stir fries are used mostly in Asian cooking. It is characteristic for all of the ingredients used in a stir fry to be cut to roughly the same size prior to stir frying. The ingredients are cooked individually and then ultimately combined together and often finished with some type of sauce.
With roasting, food cooks surrounded by hot, dry air in an enclosed environment--most often in an oven, although a covered grill can also be used. Tender cuts of meat, such as beef filet or lamb racks, are roasted at a very high temperature (425oF and above) for a short period of time. This allows the outside of the meat to brown and caramelize quickly enough that the inside does not lose a lot of moisture. Tougher, thicker cuts of meat are roasted at a much lower temperature (250 to 300 degrees) for a longer period of time, often for many hours. By maintaining an even, low cooking temperature, fat and moisture are more likely to be retained, which results in a tender, juicy roast.
Braising, Stewing and Beyond
Wet heat cooking methods include braising and stewing, poaching, and cooking 'en papillote.' Braising cooks meats in liquid in a sealed container. Most meats are well seared before braising, which allows the deep, rich flavor of the browned meat to be incorporated into the flavor of the braise. Braises and stews cook for a long period of time on low heat. This process converts the collagen in the meat, which is tough to chew, into gelatin, which literally melts in your mouth. The key to producing a good braise is to maintain an even cooking temperature and to not cook for longer than instructed. Even though braised foods are cooked in liquid, overcooking causes moisture to be drawn out and results in a piece of meat that is as tough and inedible as one that is overcooked in dry heat.
Poaching is a cooking method in which meat is submerged in a liquid that is kept at a consistent temperature. Poaching is usually done with smaller cuts of meat cooked at a higher temperature for a shorter amount of time than braising and stewing. Cooking 'en papillote' is a French technique in which an item is basically steamed within an enclosed packet made from either parchment paper or foil. Vegetables and herbs and sometimes a small amount of liquid are placed in the packet along with the main ingredient. The packet is then placed in a very hot oven and as the vegetables and liquid release moisture they steam the contents of the packet until it is cooked.
About the Author
After receiving degrees from the University of Wisconsin and the Culinary Institute of America, Andrea Rappaport moved into a full-time career in the restaurant business. For over 12 years, she worked in various culinary jobs, including as a cook for Wolfgang Puck at Spago, and ultimately as the executive chef and partner of the highly revered San Francisco restaurant Zinzino. For the past seven years, Andrea has worked as the private chef for one family in the San Francisco area, and continues to expand her culinary portfolio by catering, teaching, and consulting.