Most people serve large cuts of beef only on special occasions. A standing rib roast, a beef tenderloin, or pot roast is expensive and merits a formal occasion like a holiday or birthday. Your beef entree will be a huge success once you understand a bit about meat structure and how it cooks.
Location, Location, Location
Meat is a muscle. Whether it has a lot of fat or a little, needs wet or dry heat to cook it, and is light or dark colored depends on its location on the animal. Fat, collagen, protein, sugar, and water behave in specific ways inside the beef muscle as it is prepared and cooked.
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. These cuts are cooked in different ways to maximize flavor and tenderness.
A big problem with describing cuts of meat is that many butchers and grocers have their own names. For instance, a New York strip steak can also be called a Kansas City steak, Delmonico steak, boneless club steak, and shell steak. If you're unsure about the cut of meat that you're buying, ask the butcher. He or she will be happy to tell you where the cut came from. And as long as the 'primal cut' word is in the name of the cut, you can be pretty sure you know where the meat was located on the animal.
The Components of Meat
Beef is considered 'red meat' because the animal's muscles need so much oxygen as they work keeping the cow upright and moving it around. Myoglobin is the molecule that transports oxygen around the body; it is red in color, therefore the muscles which are used a lot contain a lot of myoglobin and will be deep red.
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.
Now go to the next page to learn about different cooking methods.