Learning how to cook meat isn't hard, but it also isn't a one-size-fits-all process. Different cuts of meat require different cooking methods. But before you can start cooking, you need to go shopping.
Start by looking for the highest quality meat you can afford. For beef, that means selecting USDA Prime meat if possible. If you'd rather not splurge on prime cuts, USDA Choice and USDA Select are the next two grades in terms of quality. The higher the grade, the more marbling the meat has, something that can increase its flavor. Some cooks prefer to buy their meat locally or use grass-fed beef. Both can be good options but be aware grass-fed meat is typically leaner than that which comes from grain-fed animals.
Cuts of meat
Regardless of how an animal was raised or what it was fed, its meat will fall into two categories: lean cuts and tougher cuts. Here's what you should know about each.
- Lean cuts: These are steaks, tenderloins and other tender cuts of meat. They don't require much preparation, and since they don't have much fat, they should be quickly cooked to keep them juicy and flavorful. Grilling and sautéing are good choices for lean cuts.
- Tougher cuts: Tougher cuts of meat can be just as delicious as lean cuts, but you have to prepare them right. These cuts comes from the muscular areas of an animal, such as the shoulder or rump. You'll want to slow cook, stew or braise these meats to break down the muscle and bring out the flavor.
Using a marinade is one way to help break down the collagen found in tougher cuts and tenderize the meat. They can also be used to add flavor to lean cuts.
Marinades are liquids that typically include acidic ingredients such as lemon juice, vinegar or soy sauce. You can purchase them premade in the store or use a recipe to make your own at home.
To marinate, place the meat in a non-metallic dish, pour the liquid over the meat, cover and place the dish in the refrigerator unless you plan to begin cooking immediately. Tougher cuts may benefit from sitting in a marinade for hours prior to cooking or even overnight. However, lean cuts should only be marinated for an hour or two at most. Any longer could turn your lean cut into a tough cut.
Like a marinade, a brine can be used to add flavor. What's more, it allows tough cuts of meat to remain moist even while being slow cooked.
In its most basic form, brine is a combination of salt and water although sometimes sugar and other flavorings are added. Heavily-salted brine can be used as a cure for meats that are going to be cooked very slowly, smoked or air dried. 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?
The answer to this question depends largely on the cut. Leaner 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 while braising, stewing and poaching are wet heat methods.
Here's a closer look at each one.
Grilling and broiling
- Exposes meat directly to the heat source.
- Meat takes on a smoky flavor as parts of the meat chars.
- With grilling, the heat source is below the meat while in broiling the heat comes from above.
Sautéing and stir-frying
- Done in pans on the stovetop, using a small amount of fat.
- Meat is cooked quickly at a high heat to create a sear and lock-in moisture.
- Stir-fry meat is cut into small pieces, cooked, combined with other ingredients and often finished with a sauce.
- Involves cooking meat with dry heat in an enclosed space, usually an oven.
- Tender cuts of meat, such as beef filet or lamb racks, are roasted at a very high temperature (425 degrees and above) for a short period of time.
- 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.
Braising and stewing
- Braising cooks meat in liquid in a sealed container such as a Dutch oven.
- Braises and stews cook for a long period of time on low heat.
- It's essential to maintain an even cooking temperature and not overcook. Otherwise, meat could become dry and tough.
- Meat is submerged in a liquid that is kept at a consistent temperature.
- Poaching is usually done with smaller cuts of meat.
- This method uses a higher temperature and a shorter cooking time than braising and stewing.