Breaking Down Connective Tissue

Remember that connective tissue is highest in muscles that are frequently exercised and in mature animals.

Look again at the primary cooking methods (column 4) in the table of meat cuts (p. 268).You should detect a pattern of tender cuts, cooked primarily by dry heat; slightly less tender cuts, cooked sometimes by dry and sometimes by moist heat; and least tender cuts, cooked almost always by moist heat.

The concept of moist-heat cooking needs further explanation as it applies to breaking down connective tissue in meat.The usual explanation of the effect of moist heat on connective tissue is that heat breaks down collagen in the presence of moisture. But meat is about 75 percent water, so moisture is always present. Collagen breaks down because of long, slow cooking, no matter what cooking method is used.

The catch is that, for small cuts of meat, dry-heat cooking methods are usually short, quick methods. Cooking must be short, in part because too long an exposure to dry heat results in excessive moisture loss from the product. The terms moist-heat cooking method and dry-heat cooking method refer to the way in which heat is transferred from the heat source to the food, whether by dry means like hot air or radiation, or moist means like steam or simmering liquid. Because the product is surrounded by moisture when it is simmered, steamed, or braised, moist-heat cooking methods promote moisture retention, not moisture loss, so the cooking time can be as long as desired.

A tough steak on the grill or in the oven doesn't have enough time to become tender before it is dried out. On the other hand, large cuts of less tender meat can be roasted successfully because they are too large to dry out during a long roasting time. A 40-pound (18-kg) roast steamship round of beef can be tender because it takes hours to cook even to the rare stage. A grilled steak cut from the same round, however, is likely to be tough.

To summarize: Long, slow cooking tenderizes collagen. Moist-heat methods are most suitable for long, slow cooking. Dry-heat methods usually are short, quick cooking methods, suitable only for tender cuts, except when larger items are roasted for a relatively long time.

1. Rib and loin cuts.

Always the most tender cuts, used mostly for roasts, steaks, and chops.

Beef and lamb. Because these meats are often eaten rare or medium done, the rib and loin are used almost exclusively for roasting, broiling, and grilling.

Veal and pork. Pork is generally eaten well done,and veal is most often eaten well done, although many people prefer it slightly pink in the center.Therefore, these meats are occasionally braised, not to develop tenderness but to help preserve juices.Veal chops, which are very low in fat, may be broiled if great care is taken not to overcook them and dry them out. A safer approach is to use a method with fat, such as sauteing or pan-frying, or to use moist heat.

Knuckle-or tip

Leg or round bone

Beef. The cuts of the round are less tender and are used mostly for braising.

Top grades, such as U.S. Prime, U.S. Choice, Canada Prime, and Canada AAA, can also be roasted.The roasts are so large that roasted at low temperatures for a long time,the beef's own moisture helps dissolve collagen. Inside round (top round) is favored for roasts because of its size and relative tenderness.

Beef round is very lean. It is best roasted rare. Lack of fat makes well-done round taste dry. Veal, lamb, and pork. These meats are from young animals and therefore are tender enough to roast.

Legs make excellent roasts because large muscles with few seams and uniform grain allow easy slicing and attractive portions.

Figure 10.9 shows the muscle structure of the round in cross section.A center-cut steak from a whole round of beef, lamb, veal, or pork has this same basic structure.

3. Chuck or shoulder.

Beef. Beef chuck is a tougher cut that is usually braised. Although chuck is not the ideal choice for braising if uniform slices are desired,it makes braised dishes of excellent eating quality. Its connective tissue is easily broken down by moist cooking, yielding moist, tender meat with abundant gelatin content Veal, lamb, and pork. These are most often braised but are young enough to be roasted or cut into chops for broiling. Shoulder roasts are not the most desirable because they consist of many small muscles running in several directions.There-fore, they do not produce attractive, solid slices.

4. Shanks, breast, brisket, and flank.

These are the least tender cuts, even on young animals, and are almost always cooked by moist heat.

Shanks are desirable for braising and simmering because their high collagen content is converted into gelatin that gives body to braising liquids and good eating quality to the meat.

Beef flank steaks can be broiled (as London broil) if they are cooked rare and cut across the grain into thin slices.This cuts the connective tissue into chewable pieces (see mechanical tenderization,p. 260).

5. Ground meat, cubed steaks, and stew meat.

These can come from any primal cut. They are usually made from trimmings, although whole chucks are sometimes ground into chopped meat. Ground meat and cubed steaks can be cooked by dry or moist heat because they have been mechanically tenderized. Stew meat is, of course, cooked by moist heat.

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