Picking the "Best" Meat
MeatsClick thumbnail to view full-size
How do you know if it's fresh?
You are at the supermarket, grocery store, or health food store and you are picking you favorite meat for the next few days. How do you know if you've gotten the freshest, best available?
This can be a tough shopping experience. Many of the items you chose are prepackaged and that packaging (even the lighting) can throw you off and cause you to make a less than palatable purchase.
Also, how do you know if that "brown" meat is really bad? If it was why would the butcher be allowed to sell it? What about fish; how can you tell if it's fresh or many days old? And what about shrimp, crab, and mussels?
This article will discuss the many types of meat (beef, pork, lamb, chicken, fish, shell-fish, and bivalves) and how to select each type for best taste and nutritional value.
Beef is defined as any meat that comes from domesticated cows.
Beef should be red in color (ideally) and have a slim layer of fat around the outside (depending on the cut) and slight marbling (thin strips of fat running through the meat).
There are many cuts of beef. The most tender being the loin and the toughest typically called the flank or skirt. With proper cooking this is no such thing as a bad cut of beef. The most tender cuts simply mean that the beef remains tender with short cooking times. "Bad" beef is meat that takes longer to cook to reach the same level of tenderness.
Lately there has been a lot of talk about the superior taste of grass fed beef over grain fed. This is very likely true. After all, a cow did not roam the plains in prehistory eating out of buckets filled with oats. No, they are ruminants and they are designed (by G_d or nature; your choice) to eat grass.
Looking at the chart at the right you'll notice that the best cuts are just forward of the rump. This includes the tenderloin (light pink), sirloin (darker pink above tenderloin), and top sirloin (just below the tenderloin (darker pink below tenderloin). From there the short-loin, rib, and round (green, beige, and blue). Then chuck and brisket (yellow and light blue). Followed by the flank and plate (AKA skirt) which are light brown and violet followed finally by the shanks (dark brown).
Picking the Best Beef
Beef should be bright red to red in color. Have a thin layer of fat around it and be marbled slightly with thin layers of fat. Any brown areas on the beef should be viewed with suspicion though it is highly likely that brown beef isn't old; just improperly stored.
In the modern grocery spotting perfect beef can be a challenge. Lighting in at the meat counter is purposely shifted toward the red to make it look more inviting. Grocery chains also like to put bright green fake grass nearby simply to make the reds even redder.
Also, because most meat is now packaged in foam trays with clear plastic covering it's impossible to really feel the meat or look at all sides of it. This is where trust in your grocer is really important. If you get a cut home and realize it isn't what you wanted or is not as advertised take it back. It's your money and you should get what you pay for.
Despite all of the advances made in the meat industry toward better tenderizing and the "perfect cut" a tough steak will occasionally get through the process and make it to your kitchen. Again, take it back if it's not up to your standards.
You could also buy directly from the butcher counter. At least this way you get a better look at what you are buying, but even then there's no assurance that you are getting the great cut that it looks like. Once again take it back if it's not up to your standards.
Hand TestClick thumbnail to view full-size
There are four levels of "done-ness" with steak. These are rare, medium rare, medium, and well done. The best way to tell if your beef has reached one of these stages is by touch. If rare you should be able to press on the meat and feel a particular amount of give. The more well done the less give.
To replicate these use your right or left hand and press on the pad below your thumb with the other finger. If you touch your index finger with your thumb and then press on the pad of the palm that would be the same feel as rare.
Touch your thumb to your middle finger and the pad on your palm represents medium-rare. (see photo above)
Touch your ring finger with your thumb and the resistance on the pad is what medium should feel like.
Finally, touch the little finger with your thumb and the pad below your thumb at the palm would represent well-done.
Storing, Thawing, and Cooking Beef
Frozen: If you are buying frozen beef let it thaw in your refrigerator for twenty-four (24) hours before putting it on the counter to thaw completely. This will prevent ice crystals from damaging the meat. If you thaw too fast you can actually damage the connective tissue in the cut. Of course if this is what you want to do, then by all means do a rapid thaw.
To achieve a rapid thaw put your packaged beef in a tub of cold (not hot or warm) water. Check often. You do not want it to sit at room temperature unless you are ready to cook.
You should always cook your beef starting from room temperature.
Desired Temperature: These days the Department of Agriculture recommends cooking to 160º F. I think this is overkill and you certainly won't get a rare or even medium rare steak that way. Shoot for 140º F. This is the same temperature pork should be cooked to.
If you use an oven thermometer make sure the probe is directly in the middle (from top to bottom / side to side) of the cut. If you are shooting for 160º, set the probe to 158º. You'll always gain another two degrees after the meat is removed from the heat. This is due to the effect of stored heat and the need to "rest" the beef.
Rest: Any time you cook beef (or pork or lamb, etc.) you should let the meat "rest" after taking it away from the heat source. Cooking causes any fluids in the meat to rise to the surface. Letting that steak "rest" for five to ten minutes will allow those liquids to be reabsorbed by the meat and this makes for a much more tender & flavorful meal.
Marinade: A marinade does not actually tenderize the meat; instead it expands the distance between the muscle fibers giving the impression of a tenderized cut. It also helps your meat retain more moisture during cooking. Both of these are good things.
Cutting and Serving: Cutting against the grain of the meat will give the impression of a much more tender cut. For example flank and skirt steak have a very noticeable "bias" in the meat fibers. If you slice these two cuts such that you cut across the fibers you'll have a much more tender, easy to chew, cut.
Serve the meat as soon as possible after the rest period.
Brown Beef: How do grocers get away with selling "brown" ground beef or brown spotted steaks at the meat counter? Simple; it's not spoiled.
Granted spoiled beef will look brown, but so will raw beef that has been placed under too much pressure when packaged or stored. Use this to your advantage. Ask for a discount!
Pork ChartsClick thumbnail to view full-size
Pork is any meat that comes from the domesticated pig. In this country (the United States) it is acceptable to use meat from every area of the pig including the head. This is not so with beef.
Pork should be pink or near white in color (ideally) and have a slim layer of fat
around the outside (depending on the cut). There is not describable marbling.
There are many different cuts of pork though not nearly as many as for beef. The most tender being the loin and the toughest typically called the side. As with beef with proper cooking there is no bad cut of pork; only improper cooking. The most tender cuts simply mean that the meat remains tender with short cooking times. "Tough" pork is a cut that takes longer to cook to reach the same amount of tenderness.
Generally speaking, pork is only slightly less tender than chicken when properly cooked.
Despite advertising claims of "the other white meat" pork is officially a red meat like beef.
Ham and Pork Servinigs
Storing, Thawing, and Cooking Pork
Click edit above to add content to this empty capsule.
Frozen: The same rules that apply to beef apply to pork. To thaw let it sit in your refrigerator for twenty-four (24) hours before putting it on the counter to thaw completely. This will prevent the rapid formation of ice crystals from ruining the meat.
You should always cook your meat from room temperature.
Desired Temperature: These days the Department of Agriculture recommends cooking to 140º F. You certainly won't get a rare or even medium rare cut that way, but you don't want to with pork. Shoot for 138º F.
As with beef, make sure the thermometer probe is directly in the
middle (from top to bottom / side to side) of the cut. If you are
shooting for 140º, set the probe to 138º. The meat will continue to cook for a few minutes after removal from the oven, pan, or grill.
Rest: Let the meat rest for five to ten minutes to halt the cooking process and allow the juices to return to the fibers of the meat.
A marinade is even more important with pork since it is more completely cooked than beef.
Cutting and Serving: As with beef cutting against the grain of the meat will give the impression of a much more tender cut.
Serve the meat as soon as possible after the rest period.
"Best" Pork Marinade
1 Cup Cool Strong Coffee
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
6 ounces molasses by weight
6 to 8 sprigs thyme
2 Tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 cloves garlic or 2 teaspoons crushed
8 ounces of pork
Lamb CutsClick thumbnail to view full-size
Lamb, Hogget, and Mutton
Lamb is the meat of domesticated sheep. By definition meat from sheep a year or younger is lamb; older than one year with two sets of incisors and it's hogget. More than two incisors and it is mutton. Here in the United States we rarely hear the terms "hogget" or "mutton."
Typically sheep meat darkens and reddens with age. For that reason Lamb will be pink in color and hogget & mutton a darker pinkish red. Hogget and Mutton have much stronger flavors that Lamb. This has to do with maturation and a higher concentration of fatty acids.
Because Lamb is somewhat foreign fare in the United States it is rarer and thus more expensive per pound than beef, pork, chicken, and most fish.
This may be partially due to it's strong flavors as well.
Storing, Thawing, and Cooking Lamb
Lamb is rarely found frozen.
Lamb is usually sorted into three kinds of cuts: forequarter, loin, and hindquarter (see chart above).
The forequarter includes the shoulder, neck, front legs, and the ribs. The hindquarter includes the rear legs and hip. The loin includes the ribs between the two. This is where the rack of lamb comes from.
Lamb chops are cut from the rib, loin, and shoulder areas. Shoulder chops are usually considered inferior to loin chops; both kinds of chop are usually grilled. Breast of lamb (baby chops) can be cooked in an oven.
Leg of lamb is a whole leg.
Older sheep meat generally takes longer to cook at lower temperatures.
After cooking sheep should be "rested" as with pork and beef. Lamb should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 135º F. This makes for a medium-rare portion.
Fowl (Chicken, Turkey, Cornish Hen)
This group includes chicken (the most popular meat in the United States), Turkey, and Cornish Hens. As a group, these meat are all cooked in roughly the same way with the same terminal cooking temperature desired. In all cases the temperature of the cooked bird should reach170º F.
Picking the Best Bird: This is almost impossible to do these days either visually or by feel. All poultry is highly packaged, even cuts of breasts, legs, or thighs. Fortunately, the mass production of birds means that they are bred for a specific purpose (eating), and tenderness of meat is not really an issue. One should certainly smell the meat in the store. If there is any hint of odor (there should be none) move on to the next bird. With whole turkey is too is almost impossible. The birds are typically completely sealed in shrink wrapped plastic.
Chicken: Not that long ago a frying chicken was a laying hen that was no longer an egg producer. This meant that the hen was tough, gamy, and largely undesirable as a meal.
Today, chickens are "segregated" by type of production. Egg layers produce eggs for a certain amount of time and are then retired; never finding their way into the human food chain. Fryers and cooking chickens are raised from the beginning for this purpose.
Chicken, likely has the most methods of cooking of any meat in the marketplace. It can be boiled, broiled, fried, roasted, grilled, and steamed.
Cornish Hen: At one time a Cornish Hen was a particular breed of bird; a cross between a wild "rock" Cornish bird and a domestic chicken. These days it is more likely to simply be a very young chicken.
Turkey: Also a highly domesticated bird, turkey is not just for holiday feasts where it's most common method of cooking is a roast. Turkey meat is now sold ground, filleted, and as individual parts of the bird such as the breast and legs. Turkey is also now a prime ingredient is lunch meat, ground cured meat products (sausages), and even a bacon* substitute.
As with lamb, pork, and beef a frozen bird should be thawed in the refrigerator for twenty-four (24) hours. As with these other meats turkey, chicken and Cornish hen should all be "rested" after cooking to allow the natural juices to return to the meat.
In all cases, largely due to the high incidence of salmonella in poultry, internal temperatures for a cooked bird should reach 170º F.
Please note that the U.S. Department of Agriculture considers "freezing" anything below 25º F. That means that your "fresh" bird could have been stored at a temperature above 25º F and still be considered unfrozen. I don't know about you, but there's nothing in my icebox that doesn't freeze below 32º F.
* Oddly, turkey bacon has as much fat and carbs as pork bacon, but fewer of pork's nutrients.
Fish in this group includes scaly, boned, gilled, and shelled aquatic life. I make the distinction between bony fish and others because many boned (as opposed to cartilage) fish are endothermic (warm-blooded). Endothermic fish include billed fish (Marlin and Sword), as well as most types of tuna. Some sharks are partially endothermic in that their blood temperatures are elevated around the eyes and brain.
Most other fish (halibut, cod, trout, etc.) are ectothermic (cold blooded) meaning their blood temperature is at or near the temperature of the surrounding water.
Despite the fact that much of the fish that is eaten is cultivated in fresh water, all fish are referred to as "seafood."
Lobster, shrimp, prawns, and oysters & mussels are not really fish, but they fall into this group because they must be handled in similar ways to fish when cooking.
Compared to the other meats listed above fish has the lowest number of calories and fat per pound while retaining almost identical levels of protein for the same weight for beef, pork, lamb, or fowl. For this reason fish is a highly valued food source around the globe.
Fish also takes the least amount of time and temperature to cook.
Storing, Thawing, and Cooking Fish
Most fish purchased these days, with the possible exception of the butcher counter, is "flash" frozen. This is a freezing process that is so fast and effective that ice crystals do not have time to form in the flesh of the fish.
The process of flash freezing was pioneered by Clarence Birdseye. Birdseye, while ice fishing with Inuit natives in Labrador, noticed that once the fish hit -40º F air they froze almost instantly. He also noticed that the meat of the thawed fish was almost as good as fresh; nothing like the frozen fish sold in New York at the time, which tended to be mushy when thawed.
If you do purchase "fresh" fish be certain to smell it before purchase. There should be no (or very little) odor if the fish is fresh. Any hint of fishiness means that "catch" is well on it's way to unpalatable.
Storing: Because most fish sold is now frozen simply keep the fish frozen until just twenty-four hours before expected use. If you purchase your fish fresh plan on using it that same day...within hours if possible.
Thawing: Prior to cooking you want to thaw your fish as slowly as possible to prevent ice crystal formation which, in turn, will puncture the tissues and weaken it's flesh. To retard the thawing process wrap the frozen fish in a layer of newspaper and put into the refrigerator. Plan on thawing your fish for at least twenty-four (24) hours. This thawing technique is more important with fish than any of the other meats mentioned.
Cooking: It is particularly important, unless you have long experience with cooking fish, to find a good recipe and follow it closely as to cooking times. Typically a fillet is so thin that trying to measure it's internal temperature during cooking means that once that temperature is reached, it will rapidly be exceeded.
Overcooked fish is rubbery and it's flavor often altered for the worse. This is true for scaled fish, shelled fish, and bivalves (mussels, oysters, and clams). In fact when cooking shrimp, lobster, or crayfish it's often recommended that these be drenched in cold water once the cooking time has been reached. As with all other meats, fish will continue to cook once removed from the heat source.
Rules of Thumb
- Any meat should be odor free at the time of purchase.
- You should have a good idea what a good cut of meat should look like be it beef, pork, lamb, or fish. Thus the charts in the article.
- Frozen meats should be thawed overnight or for twenty-four (24) hours.
- Meat should be close to room temperature before cooking.
- Know the ideal internal temperature for all meats when cooking. Each meat type in this article (except fish) has an ideal internal temperature given...this is for your health and safety.
- When cooking fish one should watch cooking times closely to prevent overcooking. Shellfish should be cooled immediately upon reaching the desired cooking time.