Although it helps, you needn’t be an utter crackpot to believe that the prehistoric artworks adorning the caves of Western Europe are actually primitive menus. Sadly, though, those chef’s degustations at Thakk’s of Grobnork left much to be desired, as the peeps of the Pleistocene knew little and cared less about the finer points of meat cookery. “Tender, schmender,” Thakk was fond of saying, “as long as it’s hot and dead.”
Fortunately, we’ve learned much since Thakk’s day, what with “science” and all, and now we know why some meat is tender and some is tough. Read on.
WHY YOU NEED TO LEARN THIS
Think of the time you’ve spent at the butcher counter, staring. All those meat cuts. All those cooking methods. Just imagine knowing in advance how to pair them up.
THE STEPS YOU TAKE
The word of the day, which I just learned from my brainiac daughter, is “ungulate,” or hoofed mammal. Our planet (Earth) is rotten with ungulates: giraffes, hippos, okapis — ungulates all. Still, there are only a few of these magnificent beasts that we — how shall I put this delicately — kill and eat. And those, mostly, would be your cattle, your pigs, your sheep and your goats.
I mention these taxonomic similarities because they speak to those ungulates’ anatomic similarities, and those anatomic similarities are what have allowed us to develop a cogent theory of meat cookery.
“Meat,” by the way, refers typically to muscle. (We’ll save a discussion of the grottily monikered “organ meats” for another day.) Curiously, muscle is about three-quarters water. The rest is mostly protein, with smaller amounts of fat, minerals, steak sauce, alien nanobots, etc. (Here come the angry letters!)
Whatever meat we’re eating, whether it’s grilled steak or braised pork shoulder, we want it to be tender. And just so we’re all on the same page, lingo-wise, “tender” means easy to bite through, easy to chew. The opposite of tender is tough.
While meat can be tough for several reasons, the primary cause is the location it occupied whilst still attached to the animal. Location determines muscle structure, which, ultimately, determines cooking method.
Regardless of location, every muscle consists of individual muscle fibers, which are long and thin and wrapped with connective tissue, like living cigarettes. Multiple muscle fibers are grouped together to form individual muscles that are held in place by yet more connective tissue.
Here’s a true thing: The more use a muscle gets, the bigger the individual muscle fibers get. Now, if you consider that something thick is harder to bite through than something thin, it stands to reason that meat with thick fibers is tougher than meat with skinny fibers.
It’s also true that much-used muscles need more connective tissue to hold them together and keep them attached to the bone. Imagine setting a graceful Lladro figurine atop your head. If you don’t move, it could stay there indefinitely. Now, imagine the sudden appearance of an enraged ape. Your flight response triggered, you career across the street, sending your priceless piece to the pavement. Had you but strapped that Lladro down with a velvet sash, it could have stayed put no matter how rough the ride.
Or think of fish: Because they’re floating in water, they’re not subject to gravitational forces the same way as land animals. Therefore, they don’t need as much connective tissue. That’s why you can eat salmon with just your fork, whereas even the tenderest chateaubriand requires a knife as well. Dig?
Now, back to the muscles’ location: Because all they do is stand around all day, the legs and joints of modern food animals, like cattle, get more exercise than their backs.
Thus, those under-used muscles of the back, with less connective tissue and very skinny fibers, yield tender, finely grained cuts, while the well-used muscles of the legs and joints, with their thicker muscle fibers and more connective tissue, give coarse-grained, tougher cuts.
Happily, some of that connective tissue — the kind called collagen — dissolves when subjected to heat. Tough cuts with lots of connective tissue — like pork shoulders or beef chuck roasts — do best, therefore, with low, slow cooking methods, like braising or slow roasting. Over time, the collagen melts and the meat becomes, quite literally, fall-apart tender. That’s why stews and braises can take hours on the stove.
Tougher cuts can also be ground — what we call “mechanical tenderization” — because grinding makes meat easier to chew. It’s why mother birds spit food into their babies’ mouths.
Naturally tender cuts — ribs, loins, all from the back of the animal — don’t need long cooking times because they’re already easy to chew. Beef stroganoff (see recipe), made with tenderloin or other tender cuts, is cooked just long enough to meld the flavors, and steaks and chops can be seared quickly and eaten at medium or rare doneness.
Finally, younger animals, because they haven’t lived long enough to develop their muscles, are more tender than their older counterparts. Veal more than beef. Lamb more than sheep. (And, for the coyotes in my audience, kittens and puppies more than cats and dogs.)
Got it? Now let’s go have some red, red meat.
Prep: 15 minutes
Cook: 15 minutes
Makes: 4 servings
This recipe is based on one we teach our first-year culinary students at Kendall College. It’s one of my favorites. If you don’t want to shell out the dough for tenderloin, sirloin works just as well and tastes nearly as good.
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 pound beef tenderloin or other naturally tender cut, sliced into bite-size pieces
1/2 small onion, diced
12 ounces medium white mushrooms, quartered, or small white mushrooms, whole
1 ounce brandy
1 1/2 to 2 cups brown sauce (see recipe)
1/4 cup sour cream
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 to 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon fresh dill, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
8 ounces egg noodles, cooked, for serving
1. Place a large skillet over high heat. When hot, add just enough oil to cover the bottom of the pan. Add beef, and sear over high heat, stirring, until brown, 1–2 minutes. Transfer meat to a plate; reserve.
2. Add onion to the pan; saute until light brown, 1–2 minutes.
3. Add mushrooms; saute until dry and light brown, 1–2 minutes.
4 . Off heat, pour in brandy. Carefully light it with a match. Place pan back over heat; stir until flames go out.
5. Add brown sauce, bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, 5 minutes.
6. While sauce simmers, whisk together in a bowl the sour cream, heavy cream and mustard. Remove skillet from heat; whisk in sour cream mixture along with any accumulated juices from the meat.
7. Return pan to medium heat; bring sauce back to a simmer. Stir in cooked meat; reheat, about 1 minute. Stir in half the dill and parsley; season to taste with salt and pepper.
Serve immediately over egg noodles, garnished with remaining dill and parsley.
Nutrition information per serving: 728 calories, 44 g fat, 18 g saturated fat, 185 mg cholesterol, 49 g carbohydrates, 6 g sugar, 33 g protein, 239 mg sodium, 3 g fiber
Prep: 10 minutes
Cook: 20 minutes
Makes: 1 1/2 to 2 cups
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 small onion, diced
1/4 carrot, peeled, diced
1/4 rib celery, diced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 1/2 tablespoons flour
2 1/2 cups beef broth
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
4 sprigs parsley
Salt and pepper as needed
1. Melt butter in a small saucepan over medium high heat. When foam subsides, add onion, carrot and celery; cook, stirring, until lightly browned, 2–3 minutes.
2. Add tomato paste; cook, stirring, another minute.
3. Stir in flour; cook, stirring, until combined, about 30 seconds.
4. Whisk in beef broth, scraping bottom of pan to get up any stuck flour. Add bay leaf, thyme and parsley; bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, 20 minutes. Season to taste; strain, reserving liquid and discarding solids.
Nutrition information per tablespoon: 14 calories, 1 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 3 mg cholesterol, 1 g carbohydrates, 0 g sugar, 0 g protein, 18 mg sodium, 0 g fiber