Generally, we like our meat to be tender and juicy rather than tough and dry. Renowned food scientist, Harold McGee suggests that, “The ideal method for cooking meat would therefore minimize moisture loss and compacting of the meat fibers, while maximizing the conversion of tough connective-tissue collagen to fluid gelatin.”
“Unfortunately,” McGee says, “these two aims contradict each other. Minimizing fiber firming and moisture loss means cooking meat quickly to no hotter than 130-140°F. But turning collagen to gelatin requires prolonged cooking at 160°F and above.”
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In truth, there really is no ideal cooking method for all meats. “The method must be tailored to the meat’s toughness.” McGee says. More tender cuts are best prepared over high heat, just to the point where their juices start to flow. Tougher cuts are best prepared over low heat for prolonged periods of time (low and slow), usually by stewing, braising, slow-roasting, or smoking. Knowing which parts of the animal are tender and tough will go a long way to help you know how to best prepare them.
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McGee says, “Generally, the toughness of a cut of meat is determined by where it comes from on the animal’s body, the animal’s age and activity. Get down on all fours and “graze,” and you’ll notice that the neck, shoulders, chest, and front limbs all work hard, while the back is more relaxed. Shoulders and legs are used continually in walking and standing, and include a number of different muscles and their connective-tissue sheaths. They are therefore relatively tough.”
Below is an infographic that will help identify the different primal cuts from a cow, and the more popular steaks and roasts that are taken from each cut, as well as best practices for preparing and cooking them.