Meat Primer Will Help Cooks Know Flanks From Steaks!

The woman was explaining one of her culinary problems: "I'm afraid of meat."

What she feared was a pricey mistake. Meat can be intimidating to beginning cooks. Bungling a big beef roast is one of the more expensive cooking faux pas.

One of the problems is that the names of cuts seem to change from store to butcher shop to restaurant. Another problem is that meat is considered high in fat. How to cook meat also is confusing. A porterhouse steak needs to be treated differently from a chuck roast.

To explain the basics of meat names and how the names help determine the cooking method, we have to talk about the anatomy of cows and pigs.

Basically, the less exercised parts of the animal are more tender. The active muscles used for walking have more connective tissues and are less tender. In beef, these are called the chuck (front part) and the round (rear part).

The more tender (and expensive) sirloin, tenderloin - those kind of "loin" things, all come from the area behind the ribs and toward the top: "the loin."

Pork chops can be boneless or bone-in, and they can come from the loin or the ribs.

The meat industry has come up with standard names, although supermarkets and butchers still can slap on another label if a cut of meat is known locally as something else, such as "Sirloin Tip Roast" instead of "Beef Round Tip Roast Cap Off." "London Broil" is not a cut of meat, but really a recipe, says Marlys Bielunski, director of food communications for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. (London Broil is quick panbroiling over high heat. The meat, traditionally flank steak but also other lean, tougher steak cuts, is thinly sliced across the grain to serve. London Broil is best if cooked no more than medium-rare.)

Unfortunately, the industry names, invented by a committee, sound as if they were translated from another language, because they describe the cuts backward, like "Beef Chuck Neck Pot Roast Boneless." With a little practice, it is decipherable. For a list of alternate names for cuts, which in the case of the Beef Chuck Neck Pot Roast Boneless include "Boneless Yankee Pot Roast," see the chart on this page.

Anatomy of labels

The basic meat label tells three things: what type of meat it is (beef, veal, pork or lamb); the primal cut indicating anatomical location (neck), and the retail cut, which tells you what part of the primal cut the meat comes from, such as Beef Chuck (the primal) Neck (the area) Pot Roast.

Rib-eye steaks come from beef ribs. Pork spareribs come from the lower belly area; back ribs and country-style ribs are from the loin.

Is beef fat? Yes and no. You've no doubt heard of "marbling" in connection with beef tenderness. Marbling is small flecks of fat in lean muscle, contributing to juiciness, flavor and tenderness. Beef producers say it adds calories, but not as much fat and calories as the external fat covering on many cuts of beef. These days, most beef fat is trimmed to one-eighth inch or less before you buy it.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture grades meat according to quality. Beef is graded into eight standards by the USDA, but in retail outlets, you usually can find only three. "Prime" has the most marbling, is limited in quantity, and sometimes can be found at specialty butcher shops. Fancy steak joints are liable to offer "prime" (not to be confused with "primal").

The leanest beef comes from the loin or round and is graded "select" or "choice," which are basically the two grades sold at most supermarkets. "Choice" means younger animals with moderate marbling. "Select" is assigned to less tender, leaner meat. (The lowest grades, which you don't see in supermarkets, are used for canning and other commercial meat production purposes.)

Cattle and pigs are bred to have much less fat. Beef producers say beef is 27 percent leaner than it was 20 years ago, and pork is 31 percent more lean than it was a decade ago.

Beef serving sizes in restaurants are often so humongous they could feed a family of four. The Food Pyramid says to have two to three servings a day from the proteins area (meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs and nuts). One serving is three ounces of meat. If you can visualize a deck of cards, that's approximately the size of a three-ounce beef or pork serving.

Leanest designations

The six leanest beef cuts per three-ounce cooked, trimmed serving are tenderloin, top loin, top sirloin, round tip, eye round and top round.

For pork, the leanest cuts have "loin" names; pork rib chop and boneless rib roasts also have less than 200 calories and 9 grams of fat per serving.

Beef is a good source of iron, zinc, vitamin B-12, other B vitamins and protein. Pork is also high in iron and is especially rich in thiamin and the B vitamins.

"The iron in meat is better absorbed than the iron in plant foods, which is why it's considered such a good source of iron," said Sharon Salomon, nutrition and culinary education director of the Arizona Beef Council.

Get into the habit of shopping for your protein perishables last, so they spend less time going from the refrigerator case to your refrigerator. In Phoenix summers, you should keep a cooler in your car to transport meats, milk and other perishable food items. Frozen foods can keep other foods cooler.

Why is some ground beef bright red and some purplish? Ground beef exposed to air is bright red. Beef packaged in a vacuum (and the inside of packaged ground beef) will have a darker purplish cast but will turn cherry red when exposed to air. Ground beef that has turned gray or brown may have handling or age problems. Look for intact packages and a uniform red color.

When making patties, balls or loaves from ground meat, handle the meat gently. Don't overmix, or your burger or meatball will be dense and compact. If the mixture's just too crumbly, add a beaten egg white.

Ground beef must be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees to guarantee food safety. Centers and juices should have no pink color. Bacteria can be ground into the interior of ground beef during the grinding process. Only thorough cooking can guarantee its safety. Because other cuts of meat don't go through the grinding process, it is safe to cook them to rare.

The "sell by" date means meat should be purchased before or on that date, then used or frozen within two days. Store all beef in the coldest part of your refrigerator. If you must stick the ground beef in its original package in the freezer, it should be good for two weeks. After that, rewrap it tightly in heavy foil or put it in a plastic freezer bag.

Mash all the air out of the freezer bag before you seal it, for ground beef as well as all other foods. Oxygen equals deterioration.

A 1- to 1 1/2-inch-thick package of ground beef will defrost in 24 hours in the refrigerator. Never defrost meat on the counter because it could grow bacteria on the exterior before the interior is thawed.

Cooking meats calls for tender loving care
Cooking meat properly hinges on one important concept: Cook less tender cuts with moist cooking methods and more tender cuts with dry cooking methods.

Pretty simple, no?

When meat is cooked, the fibers toughen and shrink, and moisture and fat are lost, according to information from the Arizona Cattlemen's Association. Collagen, a type of connective tissue, is transformed into a water-soluble gel, causing fibers to soften and become tender.

The types of cuts that have more connective tissue, from the chuck and round, should be cooked at lower temperatures with liquid for a relatively longer time. More tender pieces stay tender when cooked rapidly with dry-heat methods - roasting, broiling, grilling, pan-broiling, stir-frying - at higher temperatures.

Moist methods

BRAISING AND STEWING: Meats, excluding corned beef, are slowly browned in a heavy pan in a small amount of oil, and any drippings are poured off.

For braising, add 1/2 to 2 cups of liquid. For stewing, enough liquid is added to cover the meat. In both cases, the pan is covered and meat is simmered or baked at low heat until fork-tender.

Less tender cuts are bottom round roast and steak; eye round roast and steak; round tip roast or beef for stew; or pork shoulder or Boston butt. Moist-heat recipes such as pot roast, stew, chili, soup or shredded beef often include vegetables.

Most slow-cooker dishes are essentially stews. The fun of stewing and braising is in adding different flavor variables to the liquids.

Small pieces of more tender meats are good for quick braising on a weekday.

Dry methods

ROASTING: This is good for large cuts of meat from tender areas, such as beef top round roast, eye round roast, round tip roast and tenderloin roast as well as pork loin roasts, crown roasts and tenderloins. The meat is placed, fat side up, on a rack in an open pan. Roasts are never covered nor is liquid added. (When you "roast" a turkey in an oven bag or a covered roaster, it actually is steaming.) Vegetables can surround the roast, and you can rub the surface of the meat with your favorite seasonings. Try garlic for starters.

A meat thermometer is inserted into the thickest part of the roastwithout touching fat or bone. For beef: 145 degrees is medium-rare, 155 to 160 is medium, 170 is well-done. For pork: 160 for medium and 165 to 170 for well-done. Cook the meat until it is 5 to 10 degrees cooler than the desired doneness and remove from the oven.The temperature will continue to rise after the meat is removed from the oven. Tent the roast loosely with aluminum foil and allow to stand for 15 minutes before carving. If you carve it sooner, it will lose more juices.

If your roast becomes dried-out, make gravy. To make a little sauce, pour off fat drippings and add liquid (wine, water, broth) to the cooking pan. Scrape up the little bits as the pan deglazes over medium heat. Let cook until reduced to desired thickness.

BROILING: This is the indoor cousin of grilling. Broiling by direct heat in an oven is good for tender cuts that are thinner, such as top loin steak, sirloin or tenderloin steaks, or any kind of thinner lamb or pork chop. It also can be used for less tender cuts, like top round steak or flank steak, that have been marinated to tenderize them. Use a broiler pan with a rack in it; meat usually is turned once during broiling.

The thicker the meat the farther from the broiler it should be cooked. For cuts 3/4- to 1-inch thick, cook 2 to 3 inches away; for cuts 1 to 2 inches thick, cook 3 to 4 inches from the heat.

PANBROILING: This and broiling are great methods for those cooking for themselves to master, because either works well for small amounts of food. Broiling or panbroiling one chop or steak is quick and easy and requires only one pan. A well-seasoned cast-iron pan is perfect for panbroiling because you need a pan that is thick enough so it doesn't warp when you preheat it with no liquid in it. Add the meat and cook over medium to high heat, turning it once to sear each side, then turning more often if needed to finish cooking. You can use a baster or spoon to remove fat as it accumulates.

Panbroiling is faster and better for cuts less than an inch thick, such as thin cuts of round tip steak, top loin steak, eye round steak or tenderloin steak. In addition to serving broiled and panbroiled items as entrees, you can slice them for use as toppings for salads or pasta dishes, stretching one steak for use in several dishes.

Source: Judy Walker


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