Jul 18, 2011

Beef 101: From Cuts to Cooking

In case you're like me and get overwhelmed at the Meat section of the grocery store or feel like you're constantly at battle with your beef in the kitchen--turning out chewy and dry, here's a little info on what the different cuts of meat are and how to cook them.

The Best Cuts & Cooking Methods
Grilling, broiling, and pan frying
The best cuts of meat are rib eye steaks, strip or shell steaks, and T bone, which contains both the strip and tenderloin steaks. Sirloin and round steaks will be tough and dry. Flank steaks and flat iron steaks are good when quickly cooked and sliced across the grain, as described above.

Top sirloin, tenderloin, standing rib roasts, and top rump roast are good candidates.

Stir frying
Flank, top round, and sirloin steak are good. These cuts are best cooked quickly, and since elastin is broken because the meat is cubed, they are more tender.

Tenderloin is the best bet. This mild cut absorbs flavors easily and it is very tender.

Pot roasting and braising
Chuck and rump are the best cuts. These cuts have more collagen and need long, slow cooking in a wet environment to reach their optimum tenderness. Chuck has the most flavor and is the most tender.

Ground beef, chuck is the way to go. It has optimal amounts of fat and is tenderized mechanically by the grinding action. Most lean ground beef is chuck, but if you're not sure, ask!

Read more to find out why and for extra tips...

Basic Cuts of Beef
For beef, there are eight 'primal cuts'. At the top of the animal, starting near the head and going back toward the tail, they are chuck, rib, short loin, sirloin, and round. Underneath the animal, from front to back, they are brisket, plate, and flank. The tenderness or toughness of the cut depends on how much the animal has had to use the muscle. Therefore, cuts near the shoulder or leg, which are used often for movement, are going to be tougher. The muscles that are not used as much, in the center of the animal, include the rib, plate, and loin. 

Protein, Water, Fat, Sugar, and Collagen

  • When meat is cooked, protein molecules, which are tightly wound and connected to other molecules, first unwind. This is called 'denaturing', and all it means is that the proteins are relaxing and separating. Because proteins are attracted to each other, they almost immediately pair up with other proteins, forming bundles. This is called 'coagulating' or cooking. As more heat is applied, the bundles of protein shrink. Up to 120 degrees F, the bundles shrink in width. After 120 degrees F, the bundles begin to shrink in length as well. 

  • Water is also present in the muscles. Some of it is bound up with the proteins, fats, and sugars, and some is 'free water'. The amount of liquid left after the beef is cooked is directly related to the juiciness of the finished dish. As the protein bundles shrink and fat melts in the muscle, water molecules are squeezed out. Not too much water is squeezed out as the protein shrinks in width. But as the temperature increases over 120 degrees F and the bundles become shorter, more and more water is squeezed out and evaporated. That's why a well done piece of beef is so dry. Cooking times and temperatures must be controlled when cooking beef.

  • Fat is flavor! A good cut of meat will have specks of white fat evenly distributed through the meat. Leaner cuts of beef, such as flank and round, have less fat and can benefit from marinades and dry rubs.

  • Sugar plays an important role in beef, its finished color and flavor. Sugar and protein, when heated in an acid-free environment, combine to form complex molecules in a process called the Maillard Reaction. The wonderful crisp crust with its rich caramel flavors that form on a seared piece of beef are all from the Maillard Reaction. High heat is required for this reaction to occur; grilling and broiling are the best methods. You can also brown meats before cooking to start the Maillard Reaction, and you can broil roasts at the end of cooking time to achieve the same result.

  • Other substances in meat include collagen and elastin. These are present in the hard working muscles of the animal. Collagen will melt as it is heated, turning into gelatin and becoming soft and melty. Elastin can only be broken down physically, as when you pound a cube steak before cooking or grind meat for hamburger. These compounds are found in the brisket, shank, chuck, and round primal cuts; in other words, the beef we cook as pot roasts and stews and hamburger.

The Two Methods of Cooking

There are two methods for cooking meat:
Dry heat: grilling, broiling, sauteing, roasting, stir frying, and deep frying.
Wet heat: braising, pot roasting, stewing, steaming, poaching, and slow cooking. 

You choose the cooking method depending on where the meat was located on the animal. Steaks, cut from the little-used center area of the animal, are naturally tender with little collagen and elastin, so they cook best using dry heat and short cooking times. Rump or round roasts have more collagen so they need wet heat, and longer, slower cooking in order to melt the collagen.

Most solid cuts of beef are cooked in a two stage method.
quick high heat produces the Maillard reactions and forms a flavorful crust on the surface.
slower cooking at a lower temperature will evenly cook the meat through without overcooking the outer edges.

If you are grilling a steak, divide your grill into a hot side and cooler side by controlling the number of briquette. Start the steak on the hot side to form a crust and pull it over to the cooler side to finish cooking.
Roasts and stir fries use the same two stage method; first browned over high heat, then cooked with lower heat until the correct inner temperature is attained. You can also cook a roast with low heat in the oven, then turn on the broiler for the final few minutes to create a crisp flavorful crust.

TIP: After cooking, cover the beef to retain heat and let it stand for 5-10 minutes. This will let the water redistribute throughout the cut.

*from www.about.com

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