Many of my posts are going to revolve around one topic: the purchase, preparation and consumption of meat. To save myself the hassle of re-typing the same things over and over again in every post, I thought it prudent to jot down some simple rules for buying and preparing meat. If you’re a protein enthusiast like me, I implore you to go out and pick up:
There are a few rules that apply to any meat. Follow them and you are well on your way to preparing an excellent meal:
1: Find a local butcher and a local fish monger.
This is rule one for a reason. Nothing is more important to continually being able to prepare excellent protein courses than this. Find a butcher. Get to know them. Make friends with them. Ask them questions. These folks have spent more time around meat than you and I ever will. Chances are high that they know pretty much every detail about the meat or fish found in their display case. Use them as a resource for ideas and ask them for their recommendations. I almost never go to my butcher/fish monger without asking “what would you take home today?”
Believe me, the difference in price between your local super-mart and your local butcher is going to be marginal at best. The difference in the quality of meat you receive as well as the knowledge you will gain is nearly immeasurable.
2: Be flexible
Many home cooks get themselves into trouble by over-planning their meals. I often walk into my butcher shop with a meal in mind and walk out with something entirely different. Why? Because the protein I had in mind either wasn’t available or (more likely) there was something different that looked especially good. Why deprive yourself the opportunity to work with something exceptional just because it was not what you were planning to prepare?
Next time you are planning to cook, walk into the meat counter or butcher store and pick up what looks best or what is recommended to you. Then walk back through the produce to pick up the accompaniments and ingredients you will need. This method will not only ensure that you only go home with the best quality ingredients possible, but will also get you thinking creatively about preparations.
3: Use your senses
Look, hold and smell your meat whenever possible. Pay attention to how your meat is being displayed at the store. All seafood should be in trays packed in fresh ice. Other meat should be displayed in something that allows the natural juices to flow away from the meat. (They should not be sitting in trays pooled with “blood.”) When you make your selection, it should be wrapped in butchers paper from the case. Stay away from anything that has been wrapped with plastic wrap and sits on polystyrene trays, which only forces contact between the juices from the meat and the meat itself. This leads to moisture laden, slimy meat. The meat you bring home should be mostly dry to the touch.
When buying fish, ask to smell it. Smell is the only way to truly tell the freshness of seafood. Fish should have little to no smell, and any odor should remind you of the ocean. Fish that smells of anything else (chlorine, especially) have already started down the road to rancidity, and there is no reversing the process. (If the store you are in will not let you sniff the seafood, you’re shopping in the wrong store.)
4: The closer you buy it to where it lived, the better.
The ultimate way to buy any meat is to get it directly from the farmer. Many will be surprised at what they find. Within an hour from almost any major metropolitan area in the U.S, you will find countless farms with plenty of stock to unload. Many farms have web pages that list what they are raising, when it will be ready (or when they stop taking orders) as well as their prices. If you are lucky enough to have excess freezer space, may farms will oversee the butchering of the animal to your precise specifications and deliver it to you properly packaged fresh or frozen on the premises.
Why are you buying cryo-vaced steaks that have been trucked in from 500 miles away when there is a farmer just down the road willing to sell you meat of unimaginable quality for the same price? Do some internet sleuthing and take a weekend field trip to some of your local farms!
5: The bigger the piece, the better.
The larger the piece of meat you buy, the less people have handled it. Pretty simple concept, but one that eludes many people. Not only will your meat be freshest (because it gets to market faster,) but it will also be cheaper (less hands to pay.) A larger piece of meat also gives you the flexibility to cut/trim it yourself. Yes, you should be trimming your own meat. The larger the piece of meat that you will be cooking, the more important this becomes. I am handy enough with a knife to trim my own roasts and briskets so I leave just the perfect amount of fat to render continuously through my target cooking time. This takes practice and patience, but your efforts will be rewarded.
6: Know what you are buying
Following rule #1 will make this easy. The premise is simple – the more you know about what you are purchasing, the better the purchasing decision you will make. Qualities shared by pieces of meat and consumer electronics. Before you head out to the store, do some research. How much do you need? Are there different cuts of the primal that I should be on the look-out for? (Top cut vs. bottom cut, loin end vs. shoulder end, etc.)
7: Proper seasoning
Once you’ve procured a wonderful piece of meat, the next two tenants are keys in the process of not ruining it. The first is proper seasoning. Most home cooks I’ve observed get a little gun-shy when the salt comes out. Salt does a number of things. The first and foremost is allowing the meat to reach its full flavor potential. Proper salting will not make that roast beef taste salty – it will make it taste more beefy. Salt also draws various proteins to the surface. The increased presence of these proteins will aid in the browning of the meat. The process of browning (aka the maillard reaction) releases important flavor compounds that add to the deliciousness of the preparation and serve as the basis for all pan sauces. These are good things.
When you are seasoning a piece of meat prior to cooking, there are a couple of things to remember:
-As most things should be brought to room temperature prior to cooking, I always season as soon as it comes out of the refrigerator to maximize the salts’ effectiveness and bring as much of the proteins to the surface as possible.
-The larger the piece of meat, the more salt you need. Remember, when you are working with a whole beef tenderloin, you are adding salt for all 12 servings of filet mignon you are hoping to plate from that roast.
-Unless you are completely certain that you are adding enough salt prior to cooking, you aren’t. In other words, until you’ve at least once gotten to the point where you’ve over-salted a piece of meat prior to cooking, you can double the amount of salt you use with little fear.
Stay tuned for both a post about brines and a post about the varieties of salts and the applications we use them for.
8: Cooking to the proper temperature
Just as the majority of home cooks use too little salt, they also use too much heat for too long. If you’ve gone through the trouble of properly sourcing your meat, please do yourself a favor and don’t over-cook it. One of the handiest kitchen items I use regularly is a probe thermometer that alerts you when your meat has reached the proper temperature for removal. These can be purchased extremely cheaply. If you don’t own one, I suggest picking up a: ThermoWorks The Original Cooking Thermometer/Timer
It’s cheap and takes the guess work out of knowing when your meat is appropriately done. It will pay for itself over and over again in meats prepared exactly to the specifications of the cook.
A couple of things to remember about meat temperature.
-Even the smallest piece of meat you cook will continue to cook once removed from the heat source. Always remove meat at least 5 degrees below where you want the temperature to end up. The larger the piece of meat, the longer it will continue to cook once removed. (A whole pork or beef tenderloin may rise 10-15 degrees.)
-Proper rest is crucial. As the meat cools slightly from its peak temperature, the juices that remain will slowly descend from their “excited” state and will redistribute themselves evenly within the meat. A proper rest will ensure that the juices stay in the meat, not on your cutting board. As with the above, the larger the piece of meat the longer the rest period required.
-If you are unsure what the proper temperature should be, ask your butcher. If you like your steaks more-done than medium, get the chicken. (Steaks and other cuts of beef that are cooked hot and fast should be removed from the heat at to no more than 125 degrees F.)
-Always start with room-temperature meat (except fish and seafood.) This prevents the skin from becoming “heat shocked,” (the proteins in the skin denature at too high a rate, causing burning on the outside before the inside is cooked.) Room-temperature meat also browns better, and browning=flavor.
Thanks for taking the time to read my treatise on meat. Rest assured that as I think of new tenants, I will return to this post and update it accordingly. If you have any questions or comments, either leave them here and I’ll do my best to answer, or email them to me here.