Meat is Meat, Right? Wrong!

“Meat tastes good, but is all meat good? When you take the first bite into a superb steak or a succulent sausage, you can instantly judge quality. But quality runs deeper than your taste buds. The way the animal was raised and the way the carcass has been treated affect the taste, the nutritional value, and the possibility of any adverse affects to your health.

This chapter gives you all the information you need to make educated decisions at the meat counter. Here, I tell you how to determine what elements make meat good, how to decipher meat labels and the mysterious nomenclature of retail cut names, how to understand what affects the flavor of meat, and how fat content, marbling, and aging can lead to delicious, decadent results.

Knowing what you’re Getting

Ribeye, standing rib roast, export rib, bone-in rib chop, boneless rib chop, prime rib, cowboy steaks….all these cuts are either bone-in or boneless variations of the same section of muscles from the forequarter of beef. But if you don’t know the similarities, how can you make a good buying decision or a decent substation when the cut you’re looking for isn’t available?

Obviously, the most reliable way to get the best bang for your buck behind the meat case is to know what you’re buying and how to best prepare it. With this info, feeding a family on a budget is much easier because you’ll be able to confidently choose less-expensive, quality cuts and substitute meats without sacrificing taste or tenderness, and you’ll be empowered to embrace a little off-the-cuff culinary creativity.

You say “tomato”, I say “porcupine” — Playing the name game

The meat beat isn’t changing much because not much new and exciting is happening when it comes to body structure. Unless cows start spontaneously growing extra body parts, meat is what it is. Still, the temptation to give fanciful names to established retail cuts is alluring because it gives consumers the appearance of a new, exciting or special meat cut. But the multitude of over-lapping names and terminology around meat also creates confusion for shoppers. Calling a New York strip a “Harrison steak” for example, is hardly helpful and makes mowing what’s what really hard.

Having a standardized language around meat is important. Butchers and meat processors rely on NAMP (North American Meat Processors Association) to create common industry definitions for retail cuts. The NAMP Meat Buyers Guide is a book of recognized names, cut specifications, and identifications for the U.S meat market. Other countries have their own versions of these standards. Although the NAMP guide may be a very useful resource for butchers, for most home cooks, it feels like an overwhelming amount of information and technical terminology that is irrelevant to the shopping experience.

When you shop for meat, shop with knowledgeable butchers you can trust. Doing so ensures that, when you have a question about how to prepare or substitute meat cuts, you get the information you need. Reading this book and learning about what cuts are and where they are located also give you and advantage.

Think cooking instead of cutting

Meat diagrams are useful visual representations of how carcasses are broken down into retail cuts, but not all cuts are included. Familiarity with primals, subprimals, and retail cuts are important, but researching and memorizing each of the cuts (and their variations) can be a daunting task. In addition, every region and butcher counter puts its own spin on nomenclature and selection.

To simplify things for consumers and novice butchers, try this: Look at an animal in simple cooking preparation terms. The idea is that everything on an animal can fall into these three preparation categories: grilling, braising, or roasting. All are universal culinary techniques and apply to all cuts. Looking at meat this way is a good start to understanding meat and the different cuts. This perspective can help you interchange cuts and choose the best method of preparation for your mealtime recipes.

If you’re not sure where on an animal a cuts comes from, ask the butcher wether it should be grilled, braised or roasted:

•Tender cuts are often grilled (or seared)

•Cuts of medium texture can be roasted and sliced thin to maximize the tenderness of the cut.

•Tough cuts should be braised or stewed; these slow-cooking methods break down and soften the fibrous muscles, tough connective tissues, and tendons in the meat.

Remember – A working muscle is a toucher muscle, and if you can envision animals in movement, you can figure out which muscles don’t work (as hard anyway). Because of the increase of blood flow to these working muscles, they are richer in collagen and have more depth of flavor.

Now suppose you walk into a butcher shop armed with your favorite fajita recipe only to discover that the butcher is fresh out of the three pounds of flank steak you need. What do you do? Ask for a quick-grilling meat: Think cooking instead of cutting!

Tip –  Take a moment to study a well-stocked meat case. You’ll see that some cuts are sliced thin; others are cubed, ground or left in-tact as whole muscles; and roasts may be both deboned and left bone-in. Ask yourself why the butcher cut the meat in a particular way. A butcher’s expertise is isolating muscle groups and cutting the meat into portions by considering how they will be eaten. The next time you look at the trays of meat in a retail case, keep these basic rules in mind:

•Grilling, searing or quick-cooking cuts are typically sliced thin or cut into individual steaks.

•Roasting or braising cuts are usually larger, left in whole-muscle pieces or cubed into stew meat.

This article is quoted from my book, Butchery & Sausage Making FD. I will be posting several more pages next week, so check back for more!

Chapter 2 | Butchery & Sausage Making FD  | Pages 21-24
published by John Wiley & Sons Canada, Ltd. 2013 author, Tia Harrison 

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