Have you ever bought a beautiful piece of meat, tried to fry it in a frying pan, but no matter what you did, ended up with a leathery, tough piece of meat? Did it turn out dry and certainly not juicy? If so, you’re not the only one for sure. There are so many different cuts of meat and certainly not all work well on a grill. Instead, these shine when you use them in a stew or other slow cooked dish.
The reason these cuts all turn out different is that they’re from different parts of an animal. Since these different parts all had different jobs to do during the life of the animal, they all turn out different. However, once you know what you should be looking for (and why), you’ll be less prone to making that leathery and dry piece of meat. Instead, you’ll be making soft and smooth stews. Thanks to a little bit of science!
The origin of meat
Meat comes from animals, sounds obvious doesn’t it? But that has one important consequence: no two pieces of meat are alike. There will be variation in size, structure and colour. Whenever you’re cooking with meat, keep this in mind, you might have to vary your cooking and baking a little to adjust for these variations. Also, each type of animals will give a different meat. Meat from a lamb is noticeably different than that from a cow or a pig.
Apart from variety between different animals, there’s another huge source of variability: the location of the meat in the animal. After an animal has been slaughtered, cleaned and its skin removed, butchers will carefully cut the meat from the carcasses. This will result in several larger pieces of meat. Some will come from the chest, others from hind leg, shoulder or front leg area. Each of these give a very different type of meat, based on the way the muscle was used by the animal.
Muscles have to work
Apart from bones, the cuts of meat mostly consists or muscle, fat and connective tissue. The muscle is the actual meat, the red/pink coloured structure. For some cuts these muscles have been used extensively during the animals’ life. The legs have worked hard for an animal to move around. But for grazers the shoulder has also worked hard to keep the head up and move it to allow the animal to eat. Muscles on the animal’s back on the other hand haven’t had to do a lot of work.
Nature has taken this into account when ‘building’ the animal. The composition of the meat and thus the ratio of muscle, connective tissue and fat differs per region. Pieces of meat that had to work a lot will have a lot more connective tissue to support it in that work. The connective tissue helps the muscle to do its work and move those bones they’re connected to. Muscles that don’t work, have less of this connective tissue. The amount of fat also differs throughout the animal, although this is less directly linked to the amount of work a muscle had to do.
Structure of muscles
A muscle is made up of a lot of thin long fibers which all lie next to each other. You can see this well in a piece of oxtail. If you look from the top you will see the bone in the center. Around that several round red pieces of meat. These round cylinders are large bundles of small fibers, arranged parallel to one another. These structures will cook easily and won’t need a lot of time to become palatable or can even be eaten (almost) rare. When cooking these muscle fibers too long they will actually become tough and dry.
When an animal gets older and uses their muscles more and more, the number of fibers in a muscle won’t change. Instead, the individual fibers will become thicker. This results in tougher meats and is why veal and lamb are more tender generally than beef and sheep.
Connective tissue structure
The connective tissue holds together all those muscle fibers. The thin white/yellowish sheets you see on the oxtail is this connective tissue. It may be confused with fat quite easily, but that’s thicker and doesn’t tend to go around the whole muscle fibers. The connective tissue holds the bundles together and connects them to the bone. As we discussed before, more use of a muscle will make this connective tissue stronger and thicker.
The most important component of connective tissue for cooks is the collagen. Collagen is a protein and makes up an essential part of the connective tissue. Collagen itself is tough, not very appetizing. However, by cooking it, it will partly dissolves and become gelatin. This will take a while, so by cooking this connective tissue for a longer period of time, it will become softer.
Older animals do not have more collagen than younger animals, but, the collagen they contain will be more intertwined and structured. As a result, it becomes tougher and less soluble in water. Therefore, again, it takes more time to soften this meat.
Fat is also an important part of the connective tissue. In some cases the meat is marbled. meaning that the meat sits through the whole muscle. In most cases though there are larger deposits of fat at specific areas, for example just under the skin. As a result, some cuts of meat may have a thick layer of fat on one side. Fat takes longer to cook than muscle itself. It will need more time to dissolve and become soft.
Choosing meat for a stew
When making a stew, or a braise, you’re trying to make a saucy moist meat dish. You’d want to be able to cook the meat with other ingredients to optimize flavour. As a result, you want a piece of meat that can withstand (or even requires) a longer time of cooking. In doing so, you have to choose a piece with plenty connective tissue, since that actually improves during cooking. The gelatin that comes free will help to create that smooth dish. This type of meat actually has to be cooked in liquid, in order for that collagen to dissolve and hydrolyze into the gelatin.
Choosing a piece of meat with some extra fat won’t hurt either for a stew. Over time the fat will dissolve and will enrich both the flavour and the texture of your dish.
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!
- 200g beef suitable for a stew (cut in chunks)
- 1 small onion
- 1 carrot
- ½ leek
- 1 clove of garlic
- 1 tbsp pepperberries
- 8 mushrooms (regular or brown)
- 200 ml red wine
- 200 ml beef stock
- 15g butter
- 15g flour
- Heat oil in a pan (preferably a thick-bottom pot) and lightly fry of the onion, carrot, leek and thyme.
- Add garlic and pepperberries and cook for a few more minutes
- Add the beef in small portions. Once you're adding beef a lot of moisture will be released, this prevents it from browning. By adding it in 2-4 portions you have a better chance of browning it nicely.
- Add the mushrooms and let it cook a little longer
- Add red wine and stock
- Leave to simmer at a low heat for at least two hours. If you can pull apart the meat, it's done.
- Once the meat is done, melt butter in a separate pan and mix in the flour.
- Add the flour + butter mixture with the meat mix. Make sure is disperses well. It will thicken up your mix. If you think it's too thick, add some extra water (be careful), if it's still too thin you can either boil it a little longer or whisk in some extra flour (mix with a little cold water first to prevent clumps).
- The filling is now ready to put in your pie. It will not require a lot of cooking anymore, the cooking/baking time will mainly depend on your crust.