Learn the science behind:
Have you ever bought a seemingly beautiful piece of meat for dinner, only to find out it turned out completely dry in your stew, or chewy when grilled? Is so, you’re not alone, choosing the right piece of meat for the dish you’re making isn’t always straightforward. There are a lot of different cuts of meat out there that each shine in their own optimal preparation method. Some work great for grilling, others for stewing and yet others to make into a burger.
Understanding why these different pieces of meat all perform differently will help you make a good choice for your next meal. And to do so, we need to start by having a closer look at the animal the meat comes from.
Meat starts with an animal
Meat comes from animals (until we have lab-grown meat that is). Animals of course are complex organisms, just like we humans are. They have legs, necks, heads, bellies, etc. Every body part has its own role and job in the animal’s body. A leg needs to support the animal, the neck holds up the head and the belly stores some food reserves. As a result, every body part is different, optimized to do their individual functions.
When we slaughter animals for us to eat, we want to use as much of the animal as possible. Growing animals is energy-intensive, so farmers and slaughterhouses wouldn’t want to waste unnecessarily. It’s why the skin is taken off carefully after slaughter and why one of the first steps after slaughter is to cut the animal in several pieces. You end up with pieces of the front leg area, hind leg, ribs, etc.
Butchering the animal into individual cuts
Butchers then take these individual pieces and cut them into the individual muscles (or bones). In the case of a cow, these are still huge pieces of meat. Restaurants or caterer might buy these whole pieces, but otherwise these pieces are cut into the smaller portions that you will find in your supermarket or local butcher.
Bon Appetit has a great video of a butcher demonstrating exactly how these pieces of meat are cut apart. It is worth a watch.
By cutting the meat carefully by section of the cow, a specific cut will come from a specific location in the animal. A tenderloin for instance comes from one and the same muscle in the back of a cow. Other cuts come from the shoulder, legs, ribs, etc. But cutting the animal in this very structured way, cuts of one type very very similar characteristics. Just how a cut behaves has a lot to do with the role of that muscle in the animal itself.
Meat: muscle, fat and connective tissue
Once all the bones and excess fat has been cut away, you end up with a piece of meat that consists of mostly muscle, fat and connective tissue.
The muscle is the red/pink colored part of the cut. It’s the actual meat and is full of protein. The muscle is what allows a cow to swing its tail, move its legs, and do any other movement. The contraction of muscles is what makes animals move.
Each muscle is made up of a lot of thin long aligned ‘fibers’. You can see this well in a piece of oxtail. Surrounding the central bone are 6 round bundles of red meat. If you look closely, you will see that each of these sections is a large bundle of small fibers all lined up to the bone structure.
Muscle meat is delicate and can in some cases be eaten raw and still be juicy and tasty. A cut that consists of mostly muscle is prone to drying out though if you cook it too long. All the proteins in the muscle ‘cook’ and press water out of their structure. As a result, an overcooked piece of meat will be very dry. It’s why chefs recommend not ordering certain cuts of meat well done, they’ll just turn out dry!
Fat is used by the animal for energy storage and is dispersed all throughout the animal. Some pieces of meat are ‘marbled’ with specks of fat throughout. Wagyu beef for instance is known for this. Other cuts have a layer of fat on the outside, this fat would have covered the muscle in the animal.
Fat needs to melt to become tasty for us. Luckily the fat in meat melts are moderate temperatures, heating a steak on a frying pan, fat-side down, does the job. If you melt off enough of the fat you can create a very crispy layer (as we did for chicken skin!). Warm molten fat throughout a piece of meat makes it juicy. It’s why Wagyu beef is such a praised piece of meat.
Aside from the muscles and fat, meat requires some support to hold them all together. This is the role of the connective tissue in the meat. It holds together all those muscle fibers.
Just like the fat, connective tissue has a whitish color. The thin white/yellowish sheets that surround those muscle bundles in the oxtail are connective tissue. They keep it in compact bundles and it ensures the muscles holds on to the bone, thus staying in place. Even though, to some, connective tissue looks like fat, it is a lot tougher.
Connective tissue is made up of several types of molecules, the most important one being collagen. Collagen is a protein, but a very different type than the one in the muscle itself. Collagen is very tough. As such, meat with a lot of connective tissue can be tough if not prepared well. Only when the collagen is broken down fully will the meat become juicy.
You break collagen down by being patient. Long cooking times will slowly break down the collagen. The proteins fall apart into smaller pieces, becoming gelatin. Gelatin is almost the opposite of collagen, it can make for very rich and smooth dishes (such as panna cotta) and when part of a gravy gives it a smooth mouthfeel.
Composition follows function
Every cut of meat contains a different ratio of fat, muscle, and connective tissue. The ratio of the components depends on various factors.
First of all, it depends on the role of that specific part in the living animal. A leg has to do very different work than a back or a neck for instance. As such, their composition is different especially the connective tissue content.
Muscles that need to do a lot of hard work tend to contain a lot of connective tissue. The connective tissue supports the muscle to do its work. Legs and a cow’s shoulder do a lot of work during an animal’s life. As such, they tend to contain more connective tissue. Also, as animals get older the way the collagen is distributed throughout the muscles changes. It becomes more structured and intertwined to better serve its function. As a result, it becomes tougher.
The amount of fat on a cut of meat depends on how much the butcher decided to leave on, but also on the diet the animal ate during its life as well as the type of animal. Different cow varieties for instance can result in different contents of fat.
Choosing your cut of meat for a stew
Now that you know the basic structure of a piece of meat, it’s time to choose your cut of meat for a stew. When making a stew, or a braise, you’re aiming for a saucy moist meat dish. You’d want to be able to cook the meat for a longer period of time, together with other ingredients to optimize flavor. As a result, you want a piece of meat that can withstand (or even requires) a long cooking time.
You might by now realize that a very lean, red piece of meat likely isn’t you best choice here. And that’s correct, don’t use your precious tenderloin for a simmering stew. The meat will toughen up instead of soften over time.
Instead, you should choose a piece of meat with plenty of connective tissue. Cooking the meat for long periods of time (or under pressure) ensures that all that connective tissue breaks down. What’s more, if the connective tissue and fat are dispersed throughout the cut it will literally fall apart into pieces (it’s why the Dutch call this ‘draadjesvlees’, or ‘fiber-y meat’). The collagen breaks down into gelatin giving the sauce that silky mouthfeel.
Since you’ll be cooking the meat for a while, the fat will also have plenty of time to melt and dissolve. There’s no harm to choosing a fatty piece of meat for a stew, but don’t go overboard, you don’t want the stew to turn greasy. Trim off excessive fat (and don’t throw it away but use it instead of oil for instance when glazing onions for another dish).
Typical stew cuts
Unfortunately, meat cuts aren’t standardized globally. The cuts of meat used in Europe, versus those in Australia and the USA are all slightly different. This is not just a naming thing. Butchers actually cut up those large pieces of meat slightly differently, resulting in slightly different meat types.
That being said, these cuts or origins tend to work well for a stew
- Cuts from the shoulder:
- Chuck steak
- Flat iron steak
- Neck roast
- Cuts from the lower legs:
- Shanks: bottom of the leg (works very well for soups)
Good pieces to choose tend to be those from the shoulder, legs and front of the back (close to the shoulder). It’s best to either look on the label or ask a butcher for advice. You want to be looking for something with plenty connective tissue and some fat. Since names for cuts of meat tend to vary per animal type and country, it is hard to give a shortlist of the best cuts here.
Making a stew or pie filling
Stewed or braised beef works very well in pies, but also for any cold day. The trick to making a good stew, apart from the spices, sits in treating the meat well. Just because a cut is suitable for a stew doesn’t mean it can be cooked for as long as you want it to. That said, it’s not an exact science 15-30 minutes more or less often won’t do any harm.
Your stew is ready when the meat starts to fall apart into smaller strands. At that point most of the connective tissue has dissolved and the meat fibrils can separate very easily. Also, at this point the meat should come off the bone very easily. if you’re using meat with a bone in it (e.g. lamb shoulder).
Speeding it up
Since stewing and braising is all about breaking down and dissolving that collagen there is a way to speed this up somewhat. The hydrolysis of collagen into gelatin is sped up in an acidic environment. Therefore, wine, as well as lemon juice, tomatoes or vinegar are often added to these recipes. They help the tenderization.
Beef pie filling recipe
Beef tends to be very suitable for making a stew or soft filling. Give this recipe a try!
Delany, A., Watch: every cut of steak, explained, Bon Appetit, May-24, 2017, link