How to choose quality food is one of a cook’s most important lessons. The quality of the ingredients that go into a meal determine its taste, texture, aroma and healthfulness. This is especially true of choosing the correct cut of meal for any dish.
Most industrialized countries today have a federal department responsible for inspecting the quality of meat. For example, in the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture inspects meat for contamination by germs or chemicals. Only meat that passes this inspection can be sold. Since some bacteria can still be present, raw meat also comes with safe handling instructions on the labels.
Beyond its wholesomeness, choosing the right cut of meat for a particular dish involves learning how meat is graded, where it comes from on the animal, and how it should be cooked. The following guidelines refer primarily to beef, although some guides also could apply to pork, goat or game meat. Poultry and fish have different standards.
The first thing you must learn is to understand the significance of the grade assigned to the meat by federal inspectors. ‘Prime’ grade meat is the highest quality of meat, which has a high rate of ‘marbling’ (combination of lean and fat meat). High marbling rates allow the meat to become tender when you cook it, meaning that prime grade cuts are most suitable for dry-heat (roasting, grilling or broiling) cooking methods. You can cook delicious grilled steaks and roasts using lower grade meats as well, but these less ‘marbled’ (or less juicy) meat cuts loose their toughness if you marinate or braise them. Marinating meat before you cook it gives it flavor and makes it tender. Braising refers to cooking meat in a covered pan with small amount of liquid (water, stock, tomato juice …).
If you are going to serve pot roast, choose beef cut from the rump of the cow, such as blade roast, round chuck, blade chuck; chuck steak or boneless short ribs. These meat cuts are appropriate for all braised or marinated meat dishes.
For dry-heat cooking (roasting, grilling or broiling), buy meat cuts from the ribs of the cow (rib roast, rib-eye steak or back ribs) or from the loin (porterhouse, T-bone and tenderloin steaks). Top sirloin steak, tri-tip steak and tri-tip roast are also excellent choices for grilling.
Top round steak, eye round roast and bottom round roast are better when marinated before cooking. These cuts make a good pot roast, or can be broiled or grilled if marinated first. Shank meat and brisket also are better as pot roast or marinated before grilling or broiling. These cuts include brisket, skirt steak and flank steak. Brisket is a particular barbecue favorite in Texas, where it’s often braised in a covered pan on slow heat for several hours. The result is remarkably tender beef that is then topped with barbecue sauce and used as an entree or in sandwiches.
Some final tips:
* When shopping for meat, do not buy packaged products that are sitting in too much liquid or blood. Choose meat that is bright to dark red, with white streaks of fat.
* Never keep raw meat in the refrigerator for longer than four days. If you have bought extra, store uncooked meat in your freezer until you are ready to use it. You can wrap the meat in aluminum foil, put it in special airtight plastic freezer bags or freeze it in any moisture-free container.
* Always clean your hands using soap before you handle raw meat. To prevent bacteria from the meat from contaminating other foods, remember to sanitize (not just wipe down) kitchen counters, cutting boards, and knives that have been in contact with the meat.