Scientist and author, Beth is also a keen home cook. She enjoys trying new recipes.
Stretch Your Food Budget
A meat-based meal can be an expensive part of your food budget. If you need to economize, then you will save money by cooking a cheaper cut of meat; the price per pound of stewing steak is half that of grill steak. However, they are cheap cuts for a reason; the meat is tough, and thus needs extra attention and care when cooking. But don’t be disheartened, the five tips in this article will show you how to tenderize the meat and make delicious family meals for a low price.
5 Tips to Make Cheap Cuts of Meat Taste Delicious
- Cut meat against the grain
- Use a tenderizing tool
- Make your own marinade
- Buy a tenderizing mix
- Cook meat slowly at a low temperature
1. Slice Meat Against the Grain
The grain of the meat refers to the way the muscle fibers are aligned. If you look closely at some meat, you can see thin white lines running through the darker, red flesh. If your knife slices in parallel to these, then you are cutting with the grain. If you slice at right-angles to the muscle fibers, then you are cutting against the grain.
By cutting against the grain you shorten the length of the fibers which makes it easier to chew. In summary, long muscle fibers give you tough meat, shorter fibers result in more tender meat.
2. Use a Tenderizing Tool
There are two main types of meat tenderizing tool for sale. One is a kind of mallet that you use to hammer the meat into thin pieces. The pounding physically breaks up the connective tissues. The other type has multiple prongs or long pins. The action of this tool pierces the meat many times. The pins-pricks help to destroy the connective tissue—but do so without damaging the overall size and thickness of the meat.
I use this multiple-prong type meat tenderizer. It’s easy to use and clean, and it doesn’t need the physical force of the hammer type.
3. Use a Marinade
A great way to add flavor and tenderize is to use a marinade before cooking the meat. You can buy a ready-made one, but it’s very simple to make your own. Homemade marinades can be either wet recipes or a dry rub.
A wet marinade is made from spices and herbs (flavorings) that are added to an acidic liquid (can be vinegar, wine, or freshly-squeezed fruit juice). The meat is soaked in the marinade overnight, and it becomes tender due to acidic action.
Alternatively, a dry marinade such as salt or baking soda can be rubbed into the meat to give similar results. Leave the coated meat for a few hours, then rinse well before cooking. You should use either a wet marinade or a dry one, not both at the same time.
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4. Buy a Tenderizing Mix
Tenderizing mixes contain enzymes that speed up the process of breaking down the connective tissues. This reduces the cooking time needed for the meat to become tender. There are many brands available, but I have never used one, so I can’t recommend which ones are the best. I prefer to make my own tenderizer, and not to add anything artificial to my food.
5. Cook Meat Slowly at a Low Temperature
Slow cooking is a way to tenderize meat without using chemicals or mechanically altering its texture before cooking. Often called braising, it is a method that is the basis for traditional stews and casseroles. The meat is first seared quickly in a pan to seal in the meat juices, then it is transferred to the oven or a pressure cooker to allow the meat to continue cooking until tender. Using a covered container ensures that very little liquid escapes from the dish. Any vitamins and minerals released into the meat juices during cooking are retained within the stew pot.
Beef Stew or Casserole Recipe
The ingredients in a beef stew or casserole are as individual as the person making it. My stews contain root vegetables, meat and onions. The following quantities are just a suggestion but will make enough for 6 people.
- 1½ lbs. chuck steak, brisket or oxtail
- 1 large onion
- ½ lb. carrots
- 1 lb. potatoes
- 2 sticks celery
- Fresh herbs and seasoning to taste (e.g. bay leaves and rosemary)
- 1 pint meat or vegetable stock
- Dice the cheap cut of meat into small pieces no larger than one-inch square.
- Fry them quickly to seal in the juices before putting them into a casserole dish or slow cooker.
- Chop onions, carrots, and potatoes into small pieces and add them to the dish. You could also add chopped celery, peppers, diced swede, or parsnip.
- Add water or stock to about one inch from the top of the cooking dish.
- Season with herbs, spices, salt, and pepper according to taste.
- Sprinkle on 1 tablespoon of flour if you like a thicker sauce. For a gluten-free option, thicken the juices at the end of cooking (instead of at the start) using egg yolks or cream.
- Place the casserole dish on the middle shelf of your oven. Cook at 300°F or 160o C and cook slowly for 3 hours. If you’re using a slow cooker, refer to your manual for equivalent cooking times.
- After every hour or so of cooking check to see that the stew is still very moist. Add a little extra water if it is becoming dry.
- Et voila! You have created a delicious, tender meat meal.
Mutton, Game Birds and Wild Boar
Although this article has referred to beef, the same principles can be applied to other meats. Older animals produce tougher meat than younger ones. For example, mutton will need to be cooked long and slow, unlike lamb. Meat from wild animals and game birds also tends to be tougher than domestic ones. Game meats benefit from being “hung” as well as being cooked for a long time at a low temperature to break down collagen.
Making a stew or casserole is a tasty and economical way to serve meat. You can use the cheaper cuts of a meat carcass, and can vary the ingredients according to what’s in season. If there are only one or two of you in the house, it’s an easy way to cook food in bulk and then freeze the extra portions to be reheated another time.
The Science of Cooking Meat
The key to getting stew steak tenderized is to prepare and cook it correctly. If you’re unfamiliar with a particular cut of meat, it’s a good idea to ask your butcher for advice. They usually know the best way to cook the various parts of an animal. Meat eaten by humans is muscle tissue with some fat. Muscles are made up of bundles of protein fibers. These protein fibers are held together by connective tissue, of which there are three types; collagen, reticulin, and elastin.
Collagen is the most common connective tissue found in meat. It holds and connects each protein fiber to other protein fibers. If collagen is heated above 60°C it denatures and becomes soft (called gelatin and used in jellies), and the connecting hold is loosened. When you stew meat, the aim is to break down the collagen tissue so that it transforms into gelatin and the protein fibers fall apart.
Reticulin and elastin are much stronger connective tissues. Their role is to connect muscles to the skeleton (bones). They require temperatures of over 90°C maintained for long periods before they become denatured. They are tougher fibers and form the gristle found in meat.
The best stews are made from cuts with a lot of connective tissues (tough meat), as these have maximum collagen and so will benefit from long slow cooking.