What is the desired end result when cooking a great piece of meat? Individual preferences can vary based on the person, and each cut of meat has a different potential depending on several factors such as what part of the animal it comes from, but here are some general end results most folks can get behind:
- Juicy: retains enough moisture to avoid overly dry meat
- Tender: doesn't wear out the jaw from excessive chewing
- Flavorful: retains the natural flavors of the meat, which can be enhanced by marinades, spices, or sauces rather than masked
Whether it's a pricey ribeye steak or a cheaper chuck roast, you can achieve great results when pairing the right cooking method with the cut.
THE THREE MASTER COOKING METHODS
There are three cooking methods which you can apply depending on what cut you're cooking. Some cuts are versatile enough for any of these methods to be used while other cuts really need to be cooked with one particular method.
- SEARING: medium to high direct heat applied for a relatively short amount of time. This includes pan searing, frying, broiling, and grilling.
- ROASTING: low, medium, or high heat cooking in a dry environment. This includes oven cooking, smoking, or indirect grilling (with the lid on).
- BRAISING: low heat cooking in a wet environment. This includes indirect (oven or smoker) and direct (stove top) cooking and requires that the meat either be completely or partially submerged in liquid. If fully submerged, this can also be called stewing.
These three basic methods can accomplish amazing results with any cut. Some recipes also call for combinations of these cooking methods, such as:
- Searing (browning) a piece of meat before it goes into a braise/stew
- Searing a thicker cut first before transferring to the oven for roasting
- Roasting slow and low and then searing over high heat to finish
The key factors here when using these methods are time and temperature. Those two variables will ultimately need to be controlled for a desirable end result, and this can be anywhere from 4 minutes to 8+ hours.
A DEEPER DIVE INTO EACH COOKING METHOD
Searing is best suited for steaks and cuts which don't have a lot of connective tissue. Connective tissue needs longer, slower cooking methods in order to break down into something that is not overly chewy or inedible. Certain parts of the animal, particularly heavily worked muscles and areas, will tend to have higher amounts. Older animals also tend to have a greater degree of connective tissue.
With that said, some steaks do have chewier parts (gristly bits) and/or denser muscle fibers (such as the top round steak), and that's okay. I don't mind some chewing if it has flavor! Alternatively, an acid based marinade with lime juice or vinegar can help tenderize a cheap steak.
So how long is needed to sear the meat? From rare to well-done (measured by internal temperature and the red/pink color in the meat or lack there-of), there is an entire gradient of possibilities. Generally speaking, the more lean the steak, the rarer it should be because it will dry out quicker. The more intramuscular fat (marbling), the more margin for error you have before it dries out because the fat serves as an automatic basting mechanism resulting in juicier meat.
The most effective way to measure the doneness of your steak is with an internal probe thermometer. This tool is well worth the purchase because you can use it with any piece of meat and cooking method. My favorite is the ThermoWorks instant read thermometer, but there are plenty of cheaper options that we use as well (particularly for roasting or smoking), such as this Taylor oven-proof probe thermometer.
For internal temperature, here is the general guideline for measuring doneness:
- Rare:122 F to 131 F
- Medium-rare: 132 F to 138 F
- Medium: 139 F to 145 F
- Medium-well: 146 F to 153 F
- Well-done: 154 F and above
Keep in mind that the steak will continue cooking when it comes off the heat. So if you want a really medium-rare steak, pull it around 3 to 4 degrees before it hits 132 F and it should reach that temperature while the steak rests. For thicker steaks and cuts, because they retain more heat, they will go up in temperature even further as they come off the heat and rest.
Here are some resources we've created for searing:
- How To Make The Best Pan Seared Steak
- How To Cook The Perfect Steak
- Recipe: Pan Seared Bavette Steak
- Recipe: Ground Beef Tacos
Roasting is best suited for thicker cuts. This can be applied for a medium rare finish on items with minimal connective tissue (think sliced roast beef or a prime rib roast) or for dense, heavily used muscles which need to be cooked to the point of falling apart (think beef brisket or pork shoulder).
If you're working with a roast that is both on the leaner side and has a large degree of connective tissue, you'll likely want to choose a braise to help keep it moist during cooking.
Roasting can also be employed on thicker steaks. While it doesn't tend to create as much of the crust you might get with a sear, it's a really easy approach which works well for keeping things simple.
When working with tougher cuts like brisket, the desired target internal temperature is around 195 - 205 degrees F. This is the point at which it will be the most tender without drying out too much.
The Fork Tender Test for slow cooked items (until falling apart):
- To test tenderness, whether a roast or braise, use a fork and insert into the meat. If you can remove the fork easily without the meat holding on, it's done. If the meat easily holds onto the fork as you're pulling it out, it needs more cooking time. Keep testing until desired tenderness is achieved.
Here are some resources we've created for roasting:
- Recipe: Easy Beef Ribs
- Recipe: Beef Heart and Bone Marrow
- Recipe: Butterflied Chicken
- Recipe: Meatloaf
- Recipe: Another Meatloaf
- Recipe: Crispy Coulotte Steak
Cooking with liquid is a great way to keep things moist and flavorful. There are many combinations of options when it comes to the liquid, such as wine, stock, water, tomato sauce, coconut milk, etc. This method is best suited for tougher cuts that have a medium to high amount of connective tissue (shanks and cheeks, for example).
Connective tissue which would otherwise be inedible starts to breakdown into something tender and delicious around 160 degrees F temperature. The strong ligaments and membranes become a great part of the dish at this point. One of the best examples of this is Osso Bucco, a cross-cut beef shank with a bone in the middle (packed with marrow). This is one of the toughest cuts on the entire animal, but turns into something magical with the right amount of cooking time.
Braising in the oven typically means a covered or partially covered pot simmering away at 300 - 325 degrees F. Using the stove top is also an option over a low heat (once it comes to a boil). The classic crock pot slow cooker is also a highly useful tool, or even electric pressure cookers which turn tough cuts into fall apart results in half the time.
Here are some resources we've created for braising/stewing:
- Recipe: Red Wine and Honey Braised Brisket
- Recipe: Carne Guisada (Stewed Beef)
- Recipe: Thai Curry Smothered Steak
- Recipe: Braciole, A Versatile Italian Classic
- Recipe: Simple Beef Stew
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
These three cooking methods are required knowledge for cooking meat. Once you have enough experience, you can freely interchange ingredients or cuts and really let your creativity take over.
For a better idea of which cuts are suited best for which method, you can check out our previous blog post on Beef Cuts Explained. And as always, please don't hesitate to reach out with any questions. We love talking meat and offering cooking recommendations!