Experienced vegetarian cook needs to learn how to cook with meat!
October 5, 2011 12:32 PM   Subscribe

After seven years of vegetarianism, I'm opening up myself to eating meat every once in a while. I can tell you how to work with lentils, press tofu, and caramelize anything until the cows come home, I don't even know how to pick out a good cut of meat, much less what to do with it! Beyond recipes, I'm looking for suggested reading, tips, etc on selecting cuts of meat, working with meat for flavoring (when and how you use different fats, etc), and other pointers. Assume I know most cooking techniques that would apply to non-meat ingredients, but any meat-specific techinques would be great!

Cuisine-wise, I'm fairly open, although this is partially inspired by a recent trip to Europe, so continental recipes would be great. As a vegetarian, I've done alot of Indian, Southeast Asian, East African and adapted Mexican recipes (I am a Texan, after all) so I'd love to explore the meatier parts of those cuisines. But I also really like new cuisines, so anything seafood (which I pretty much avoided in the past) or great meat-centric cuisines (bbq) would be cool.
posted by silverspeak to Food & Drink (21 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
America's Test Kitchen covers meat basics pretty regularly, both cuts and how to treat it to get good flavor.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 12:36 PM on October 5, 2011

Pork Blood Stew
posted by Cerulean at 12:37 PM on October 5, 2011

Carmelization, or something similar, happens with meat too. For instance shortly after the bacon starts to cook, it sticks to the pan. But don't scrape it off yet: let it cook a little longer and it will "release." Then flip it fast before it burns. P.S. don't let anyone tell you bacon or eggs or butter are bad for you. A lot of the anti-saturated-fat propaganda was started by the soy-bean (and rapeseed) industry as a marketing effort to promote their oil. Check out the movie Fat Head for a "contrarian" take that people are becoming more aware about.
posted by markhu at 12:40 PM on October 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Start at random wikipedia page on cooking meat technique, like here. Use the box at the bottom of that page to click around when a recipie calls for "Barbecue-ing" something.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:41 PM on October 5, 2011

One issue with ATK (and Cook's Illustrated) is that they are based in Massachusetts so the cuts of meat and the names used for them may not match those used in your region. This chart might help:
The retailer divides the "sides" to suit his trade, according to the part of the country in which his shop is located. There are two chief ways of cutting a side of beef. One is known as the "Boston cut," and is used generally throughout New England. The other is the "New York or Philadelphia cut," and has been adopted quite universally throughout the United States except in New England. The New York method of cutting is used by the Department of Agriculture in their Farmers' Bulletins. It is to be noted that cuts of the same name may be taken from different parts of the animal in different localities. This explains why a New Yorker is puzzled not to find as good beef in Boston as she is accustomed to in New York, and why a Bostonian is frequently heard to complain of New York beef. Accustomed to the best cuts at home under a certain name, they purchase quite a different cut under the same name in the other city.
I have no personal experience with how things go in Texas but that really confused me when I moved from New York to New England and back.
posted by bcwinters at 12:42 PM on October 5, 2011

Alton Brown is your pal. Old episodes of Good Eats and the like are great. I might even recommend them over the America's Test Kitchen stuff because Alton Brown is so dang entertaining (and makes such mouthwatering stuff) that it makes near-vegetarians like myself want to go out and buy a rump roast.

He also devotes each episode to multiple techniques with the same ingredient (or vice versa) and explains how they work, so it's really easy to see how to substitute things and tweak it to fit your own tastes.
posted by Madamina at 12:43 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd recommend getting a copy The Butcher's Guide to Well-Raised Meat by Josh Applestone. He knows his stuff (he and wife his run great butcher shops), and he's a former vegetarian too.
posted by neroli at 12:57 PM on October 5, 2011

When selecting cuts of beef, look for marbling. The best cuts (filet, prime rib, good quality sirloin) will have small lines of fat distributed throughout the meat, in the way that color variation runs through marble stone. Marbling provides a good deal of the flavor and tenderness, and these cuts are especially appropriate for steaks and grilling. The best quality will have smaller lines of fat distributed more evenly than in the illustrations in the chart above. Usually you need to use very little additional fat to prepare these (although many like their steaks dressed with a little butter after grilling).

After that you have leaner cuts of meat that can be used for things like roasts, but can also make decent steaks (such as a hanger steak). Roasts tend to require cooking with a thicker, external layer of fat, which is usually left on the cut when it is dressed by the butcher. In some cases you can even place additional fat over the roast while it cooks in this pan. This is helpful if you are roasting vegetables in the pan, or if you want drippings for gravy or Yorkshire pudding. Leaner steaks (hanger, skirt) are often make better pan steaks.

Finally, there are tougher cuts that tend to have bigger pieces of fat or gristle concentrated between the muscles. These are suitable for stewing or braising, as they will need to be cooked at lower heat for a longer period of time in order to break down the tissues. Brisket and chuck are good examples of this.

It's a bit confusing, because higher or lower quality cuts are not limited to particular sections of the cow. This chart may also help.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:03 PM on October 5, 2011

I highly recommend The River Cottage Meat Book. It explains the different cuts of meat, and the basics on different methods of cooking it (and why each method is used). A reviewer on Amazon describes it as the "theory and philosophy of meat," and I agree. The author also discusses the health reasons for treating animals well, and the ethics of eating meat.
posted by Specklet at 1:05 PM on October 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

Pork has a similar degree of variation in cut, with the two most popular being chops (used for grilling, similar to a t-bone steak) and loin (from the back, mostly used in roasts). Pork belly is now becoming increasingly popular as well- it provides thick alternating layers of fat and muscle tissue, and is often braised or smoked. With pork, you also get bacon which is cured, and sometimes smoked. This is usually from the side of the pig, but pork loin can also be cured as bacon. The legs are also typically cured- ham is the rear leg of the pig that is either wet cured in brine or packed in salt. Hams can also be smoked. Dry-cured hams (such as Spanish or Italian hams) can often be eaten without additional cooking. Wet-cured ham, which is more common in North America, usually has to be cooked on top of curing. Some hams (such as Virgina ham) need to be soaked to remove most of the salt before cooking.

Pork features prominently in Mexican and Southwestern cuisine. Often dishes from these traditions will be derived from techniques for using junkier portions of the animal, so a lot of braising, stewing or smoking will be involved. This is also where most barbeque traditions come from- for instance, smoking ribs (pork or beef) at low temperatures is about the only way to make the meat on them palatable.

Meats like lamb or goat have much stronger flavors. I would leave them until you decide how much you really like meat and are ready to experiment a little more.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:20 PM on October 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

I will take a moment to plug my friend's blog. He is a butcher at Whole Foods and is really good at what he does, and while you might not learn everything about advanced cooking techniques from his blog, you will learn all there is to know about the cuts themselves, and the basic preparation of said cuts for adaptation in a variety of dishes.

Austin Texas Butcher
posted by slow graffiti at 1:26 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Connoisseur's Guide to Meat is a great guide. It tells you about different cuts of meat, how to pick good cuts, how to determine quality of a cut. It talks about how to cook various cuts, using a whole range of methods. And it has some simple but tasty recipes included.

Beef, lamb, and pork are all covered. It doesn't deal with fish or poultry, but I'm sure similar books exist for those types of meat.
posted by asnider at 1:53 PM on October 5, 2011

Jaime Oliver's book "Cook with Jamie" covers all the basics you've asked for, plus has lots of yummy recipes for meat, fish and veg. (I'm an experienced enough cook that i didn't buy it for the instructions, but for the recipes. And yet i've still found lots of info - especially about meat, which even as an omnivore i'm less confident cooking - that has been really helpful and educational. Also, everything i've made from it has been delicious!)
posted by Kololo at 2:09 PM on October 5, 2011

Please don't eat just any ol chicken. After watching "Food Inc" (which you maybe shouldn't just yet), I am even more wary of where my meat has come from. I am sure you are already a conscientious consumer, but just thought I'd underscore this for anyone who happens upon this post.
posted by jilliank at 2:30 PM on October 5, 2011

The River Cottage Meat book is great. One of my good friends got it for me a couple years ago after I started eating meat again. Go to a good butcher, preferably at a not super-busy time, and talk to them about the kinds of things you do and don't like. They'll be able to make recommendations for different cuts and preparation methods. I buy most of my meat from the farmers' market, so I know exactly where it came from, how the animals were raised, etc. It's good to get to know your butcher and/or farmer.
posted by smich at 2:31 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thirding River Cottage Meat Book. It's low-key and extremely informative.
posted by thirteenkiller at 2:39 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I came in to recommend The River Cottage Meat book as well. My partner was a vegan for seven years and used this as his guide when embarking on his adventures as an omnivore. He is a fabulous cook and the techniques, cuts, and details that this book covers are apparently "life changing". (He gets excited.)
posted by nathaole at 2:50 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

The goal work working with meat (or any basic cooking) is to make the tough stuff tender. With meat, this is generally accomplished by slicing against the grain, which turns a "Roast" into "steaks." Muscle is made of fibers, and long fibers = tough meat. Meat is also tenderized by, well, "tenderizing" (which means beating it for tenderness or for flatness) or by using a specialized knife-block to make a hundred slices. Most of all, it's tenderized by grinding.

Remember that the bacteria will be on the outside of meat, unless it's ground, in which case it's everywhere-- or it's chicken, which should be treated as it bacteria is everywhere. Cook meat to temperature, but sear the outside for flavor-- you can use two different cooking methods for these two things.

Meat "moisture" comes from the meat's ability to re-absorb and distribute its own fat and collagen after those things were rendered a liquid from the heat. Fat and browning = flavor. Boiling meat deprives meat of both, so only do that if you're adding meat flavor to a broth, or cooking meat in bulk to add to another application where it will get to pick up some flavor. Resting meat after dry cooking (e.g. oven or stovetop) is essential to restore moisture to the whole cut.

The Cook's Thesaurus is a great place to look up cuts of meat with unfamiliar names (many names are regional) and pictures are included. Go to a good butcher who can help you pick meat for a particular dish.

Finally, don't confusing barbecue with grilling. They are both wonderful things, but I'll be danged if some America's Test Kitchen Yankees can't speak the difference. Grilling is a fast direct-heat method that only certain kinds of meats tolerate without overcooking or undercooking. Barbecue is a slow and patient indirect-heat method which forcibly overcooks the meat almost to the point where it loses structural integrity. At that point, it's so tender you can take out your teeth.
posted by Sunburnt at 2:52 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was veg for 20 years before switching back. I also recommend the River Cottage Meat Book and the River Cottage Fish Book.
posted by dobbs at 4:40 PM on October 5, 2011

Also, to give you some actual advice instead of a book reco: cooking meat is actually pretty straightforward. Cooking a chicken breast is way easier than making most vegetarian food. The key to making things taste good is just not to over cook things. Basically, you want chicken to no longer be pink inside, you want fish to no longer be translucent inside, and you want beef to be pinkish (if it's uniformly brown/grey inside it's probably over-cooked.) Generally, if you're cooking something in a pan, begin cooking it initially on higher heat so they outside gets browned, and then turn down the temp so they inside has time to cook through without the outside burning. Since you're probably not going to from being a veggie to eating big hunks of meat, you'll probably be adding things like strips of chicken to stirfries or soups or pastas. If you cut up you meat into bite size pieces, they'll cook pretty quickly - a minute or two or less. For stir fries, cook the meat first, then remove it from the pan, and then cook all your veggies and stuff and add the meat back in when it's all done. (That way you can be sure both the meat and veg elements are cooked properly without having to time everything perfectly.)

Remember, for most animal protein, results are best when you cook either "high heat and fast" (like grilling a steak) or "low heat and slow" (like simmering a stew.) "High heat and slow" just results in rubber. "Low heat and fast" results in uncooked food. :)
posted by Kololo at 9:33 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

No specific book selections, but do remember that fat is flavor. It's also much more forgiving, ie you'll be able to cook it much easier as a beginner. Fatty fish include salmon, trout, and minnow. Dark meat (for example legs and thighs) are fattier than white meat on chicken. The marbling will tell you pretty much what you need to know about beef or lamb. With pork, unless you're getting chops or a tenderloin, you should be ok fat-wise.
posted by Gilbert at 9:56 PM on October 5, 2011

« Older A good printer for crafty things.   |   Bee sting question: one day later I have multiple... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.