This is a quick tutorial on tackling a massive topic: cows. In this town they are all over, so you know they’re big! Most are also grass-fed and finished, like Clint Victorine’s Pacific Pastures and Eel River Organic Beef (a topic I covered in a previous post). Let’s look out on the pasture to see what the cows are bringing home.
You might think, it is too hard to learn all the parts of a thousand pound creature. In fact, you might be tempted to “graze” right over it, but trust me: this is simple! I will teach you a little bit about anatomy then you can match the part of the animal with the type of preparation it requires. When you visit the meat counter find out what general region each piece comes from. You can ask the butcher or Google it. Knowing some anatomy, you will be able to understand how to prepare it.
The closer a cut of beef is to the extremities of the animal (i.e. horns or hooves) the tougher it is going to be. Therefore the shoulders, rump and legs become tough because they are used frequently for hefting the cow as it grazes. Considering the size of a cow, that can be some serious grunt work!
Tender pieces hang out in the middle of a cow, between the front and back legs. That is where the prime cuts like Ribeye (pictured above) and Sirloin are found. For instance, the softest muscle in a cow is the Filet Mignon (aka tenderloin) which has the small task of supporting the quadruped’s spine (pictured below).
Equipped as you are, with a rough anatomy lesson, let’s begin to apply cooking techniques. I’m going to match up two basic heat applications with the two types of meat we just covered (tough v. tender).
Tough cuts, like this cow head want to be cooked “low and slow,” that means a long time at a low temperature. This process renders out fat so that the lean meat is juicy and falling apart. Oftentimes, this is achieved with an all-day barbeque or smoker that takes a lot of time but renders out the fat entirely so lean meat is literally falling off the bone. This technique is best applied to tough cuts like a shank (i.e. leg), ribs, shoulder or rump.
My favorite tough cut is the chuck, which comes from the shoulder. It is well marbled, which means a lot of those healthy grass-finished fats. As the fat is rendered into liquid stock it imparts flavor and moisture, while the lean meat pulls apart into a lovely shredded or “pulled” beef texture. It’s easy and foolproof. You can’t overcook a chuck and all the while you are developing a feel for how meat responds to heat. You can use a crock pot, the oven or even cover it on the stovetop.
First the meat contracts tightly. After some time though, the piece starts to relax again (now things are getting good.) Keep on cooking and you will find that pieces get easier and easier to pull apart. Before long they are falling off the bone and melting in your mouth! When finished, the fat has disappeared entirely and the only thing left is succulent strings of beef in a wonderful au jus. You can make stew, tacos/fajitas or just a big BBQ sandwich! Don’t forget the coleslaw.
On the flip side, tender steaks like a “hot/quick” treatment. They can be seared with a short, blistering dose of heat from the grill and served rare on the inside. It is always best to let the meat you are about to cook sit on the counter for a while and come to room temp. I also take this opportunity to apply a little Ted and Barneys, which is a seasoning that I use on every piece of meat that I cook (because it’s genius). Heat the pan and sear steaks for a minute or two on each side. Now, you can finish them in the broiler at four minutes a side. Finally, let them rest, covered on a cool plate for 5-15 minutes.
Once you’ve learned the concepts inherent in each method, you can mix and match those processes to effectively “freestyle” meat preparation with wonderful results! Searing a steak seals in its’ juices. Finishing that steak in a 200 degree oven for ten-twenty minutes (instead of a broiler for four) transitions you to a gentler “low and slow” approach. I especially recommend this option for pork chops, since they tend to dry out faster than beef. Once again, it is nice to “meat” you! Give these approaches a try and may the fat morsels be with you.