Meat 101
March 10, 2013 8:14 PM   Subscribe

All my protein cooking is either baking or slow-cooking chicken breasts, or things made with ground turkey (chili, meatloaf). Help me learn how to cook other meats!

I don't know how to pan fry or broil, I don't know what I'm looking for at the supermarket in the meat department, I never use beef or pork, I don't know what to ask for at a butcher counter - educate me! I also need to start saving money and cooking at home way more, and it would be nice to branch out and have more variety in our repertoire. My preference is to use my beloved slow cooker and make something with lots of leftovers that I can take for lunch and/or freeze, but I can try other methods. Mr. Booksherpa and I are omnivores, I'm adventurous, he's mostly a meat and potatoes kinda guy.

  • I seem to recall hearing that you can take a cheaper (and tougher) cut of meat and throw it in the slow cooker to tenderize it. Perfect! What cuts of meat should I be asking for, and do you have any favorite recipes? I'd love a variety, but a slow cooker pulled pork recipe in particular.
  • Should I find a local butcher, or will the guy behind the counter at the supermarket be okay?
  • What special equipment might I want? I've got a broiling pan that came with my stove, I think. Haven't used it in years.
  • I'm only cooking for two, but leftovers are fine (see above). Recipes that reheat well from frozen?
  • What do I do with the meat once I get it home from where I bought it? Take it out of the package? How crazy do I go trimming it?
  • I've got Bittman's How to Cook Everything already, so if there's specific recipes/pages in there you recommend, point me at them. Other cookbook suggestions or relevant websites also welcomed.
Seriously, I need explanations like I'm a big 5 year old allowed to use a stove.
posted by booksherpa to Food & Drink (22 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
Buy a thick bottomed stainless steel pan. Use the maximum heat on your stove. If you drop a few drops of water on the pan and they float on the steam, then you know it's hot enough. Rub salt, pepper and some oil on both sides of the meat and drop it onto the hot pan. Make sure you have your oven fan on and probably a window open too, because you don't want your smoke alarm going off. Let it cook for like 4-6 minutes on a side, depending on how thick it is, and how well you like your meat cooked. If you're cooking steak rare, leave it out for 30 minutes both before and after cooking, or the inside will be cold. Don't touch it while its cooking, you want it to stick to the pan. Use metal tongs to flip it over if you have to.

Here's the fun part-- making the pan sauce. After you take the meat out, lower the heat some and throw a little garlic and oil in there first and after the garlic browns, take the pan off the heat and pour a little bit of wine and stock (not broth, if you can avoid it) into the pan. Use a wooden spatula to scrape all the brown stuff off the bottom of the pan and then raise it up till it starts to boil. Add in some fresh herbs, onions, mushrooms, whatever you have around the kitchen. Let it boil down until most of the liquid is gone and it starts to thicken up. Then I take it off the heat and melt in a few tablespoons of butter. Or you can add diced tomatoes and tomato paste, or really lots of different things. The most important thing with the pan sauce is the wine and stock dissolving the leavings from the meat. Everything after that, you can experiment with.

Have fun. It really is almost impossible to screw this up unless you overlook the meat.

This works with steak, chicken, pork chops, sword fish, anything you can sear, basically.
posted by empath at 8:29 PM on March 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

1) Anything labelled as stewing or braising meat is good in the slow cooker with liquid. You want something with lots of connective tissues which dissolves during long cooking and tenderizes. This is covered in detail in How to Cook Everything (in the chapter entitled Meat, subsections for different types.

2) Quality meat is worlds away from low quality meat. It is likely that your butcher has better meat available, but that depends on your butcher and your supermarket. If you can get quality grass-fed beef, go for it. Even better, if you can find somewhere to buy a quarter of a cow or similar from a rancher and put in the freezer, you can get very high quality beef for very little (and similarly for pork, lamb, chicken, etc).

3) A fast-reading digital thermometer is crucial to cooking grilling cuts (cooked quickly with high heat) accurately. A cast iron pan is great for steaks. You definitely want a pan that you can start on the stove and then throw under the boiler. Broiling pans are not particularly useful and are a pain to clean.

For braising cuts (cooked slowly with liquid), the slow cooker is a good. A dutch oven is nice too, though it mostly performs the same function.

If you want to have some fun with it (depending on your definition of fun), try out sous vide (which can be as simple as a cooler full of warm water and some steaks in ziplocs.

4) Most meat sold these days doesn't need much or any trimming. You can trim a little fat off steaks that have a lot on them, but this is best done after cooking. Otherwise, don't worry about it. Leave your meat in the package it came in.
posted by ssg at 8:31 PM on March 10, 2013

Oh, and that method of cooking is perfect with some thin cut French fries. You can dip the fries in the sauce, it's amazing.
posted by empath at 8:33 PM on March 10, 2013

I had very good luck with this primer from The Kitchn on how to make beef stew the other day.
posted by maryr at 8:40 PM on March 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

It hurts my BBQ soul a little to call it "pulled pork", but it is tasty: pork butt/picnic/shoulder in the slow cooker. (Do NOT use loin.) You should pay $2 or less per pound. Add most of a decent bottle of BBQ sauce (not Kraft: lack of HFCS is a decent marker of quality). Cook all day. shred, mix, and add more sauce. Bam. Serve on potato rolls or white bread topped with coleslaw* and pickles. (* Bag of pre-shredded slaw mix, homemade mayo -- makes all the difference and takes 30 seconds -- vinegar, salt, pepper, sugar.)

For stews, you can go wrong with stew beef and a bottle of red wine (Burgundy preferably) or Belgian beer, with onions, carrots, garlic, and a bouquet garni. It's best seared on a ripping hot skillet first (with salt and pepper liberally sprinkled on the beef) but that kinda defeats the super-simple purpose.

Try slow cooking chicken thighs instead of breasts. Much more forgiving. You can do the same faux-BBQ thing, or a jar of salsa, or Indian curry "simmer sauce", or hoisin/soy/mirin/miso.

Definitely get a probe thermometer. Thermapen is best, but this one works very well (just takes 10 seconds instead of 1-2).

All of this reheats brilliantly. Anything not in a dairy sauce or made out of seafood is perfect out of the freezer. (Generally, the meats that are best slow-cooked are also the best reheated from frozen. Nice how that works out.)
posted by supercres at 9:03 PM on March 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Just missed the edit window. You can't go wrong with stew beef and a bottle of red wine etc etc.
posted by supercres at 9:09 PM on March 10, 2013

Delia Smith's Complete Cookery Course taught me all the things my mom left out or never knew about classic meat-based dishes, and people have lots of good tips, I find, on the forum.
posted by nelljie at 9:38 PM on March 10, 2013

Check out this thread. I started to type a lot of stuff but realized it's all in my previous comment there.
posted by librarina at 9:47 PM on March 10, 2013

I made this slow cooker pork loin with apples and cranberry sauce recently and it was fantastic.
posted by jacalata at 9:53 PM on March 10, 2013

The coconut & lime blog has a lot of slow cooker recipes that sound healthy and yummy, including pulled pork, and she specifies what meat to get.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:54 PM on March 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Texas brisket. Get a big piece (like 10 lbs or so). There are recipes on the web for rubs. Use the fat for the sauce. Cook for 1 hour per pound at 250 F. Put the fat side on top. Be careful not to use Jewish brisket versus the whole brisket- Jewish brisket trims the fat. For pork, check out Hawaiian kalua pig recipes- i spice them differently, but stick to the hour per pound rule. Just keep them sealed (no peeking) and you will be a BBQ star!
posted by kamikazegopher at 10:01 PM on March 10, 2013

This is actually a much bigger (and somewhat simpler) task than you laid out.

#1 - Where are you located? Do you have any REAL butchers nearby? Or only supermarkets?

Meat of all species from supermarkets is shite. No. Really.

Go to a proper butcher.

In my neighborhood we have Lindy and Grundy selling totally overpriced pasture raised and grass fed meats - or - you can go to your local farmer's market on their designated day and (hopefully) get the same quality for a better price.

My choice where I am is Huntington Meats Butcher that sells grass fed, grain finished, Harris Ranch beef - because it is USDA PRIME, and tastes better than some/all of the grass fed beef that I've had.

#2 - You want a single piece of meat, not bits and pieces of multiple animals put together.

This is why you want a proper butcher shop. You can buy a piece of meat and have them grind it while you wait, for use in hamburger, chilli, or what have you. Do this.

#3 - Anything NOT labeled "sirloin" or "filet mignon" is suitable for your slow cooker. Learning how to cook tasty but tougher cuts like flank, breakfast steak, shanks, flat iron, london broil, brisket, round, and the like - is above your pay grade at the moment. Don't attempt it. You can throw any of these in a slow cooker for 8 hours with a bit of liquid and spices and get something passable - but you will be by-passing excellent uses of these cuts.

#4 - Do slow cooker ground beef for Chili at your level, or anything labeled "round" or "chuck." Otherwise, stick to mastering proper cuts without this crutch.

Here is how to make a $10 per lb cut of Top Sirloin taste AWESOME.....

Salt very liberally with sea salt or kosher salt a 1 inch thick (or thicker) steak on all sides. Let it sit on the counter re-wrapped in the butcher paper. (Please please don't buy beef from the supermarket or even a Trader Joe's if you have one nearby. Please. Just don't.)

A lot of moisture should come out of your meat! This is good!

The salt will prohibit the formation of bacteria. It is better to cook your steak at room temp - so you are good here.

Don't go longer than 45 minutes with the salt, or your steak will be over salted!!!!

Rinse your steak under cold water and pat it completely dry with paper towels.

Do not salt your steak again after cooking. The salt has gone into the meat, seasoning it, and leeched out moisture, performing a quick version of dry-aging. This is GOOD.

Set a cast iron (preferable) or stainless steel heavy-bottomed pan on the heat, dry, until it is screaming hot.

Dop your steak onto that. Pre-heat your oven to 450 degrees.

Wait 4 minutes for cast iron, 6 minutes for stainless steel.

Flip your steak, and finish it in the oven by putting the cast iron or stainless steel pan in there. Wait another 5 minutes.

Let your meat rest outside of the pan for 10 minutes.



I have recipes for slow cookers that will knock your socks off, but for sure, get good at cooking a basic Sirloin Steak before attempting the rest.

Again. Enjoy!
posted by jbenben at 1:00 AM on March 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Is grilling an option? A basic Weber grill is inexpensive. You can go to a butcher OR a high-end supermarket -- I like my neighborhood Balducci's -- and get a decent strip or ribeye. Take it out of the fridge a couple of hours before you're going to start cooking, season it, and leave it on the counter. No trimming necessary. Throw it on the grill once the charcoal is not aflame, leave it for two minutes, turn it 90 degrees for another two minutes, then flip it for another two-and-two. Then cook further depending on whether you want it more done than rare/medium rare.

If grilling isn't an option, this will make you a delicious steak.
posted by troywestfield at 7:01 AM on March 11, 2013

Pork tenderloins are the "chicken breast" of the pig - tender, low-fat, pre-trimmed, easy. And tasty! Don't get confused with pork loin though, which are much larger - tenderloins are about 1.5 lb, 2.5-inch diameter cylinders, maybe a 10" long, tapered on one end.
If you're trying to do "easy" meat, pork tenderloin is a great place to start. You can cube it up and use it in any recipe you'd use cubed chicken breast (stir-fry, fajitas, tacos, etc). You can slice it into medallions and pan-sear it. You can cook it on the grill if you want something more interesting than burgers... My favorite is just to oven-roast it. It takes about half an hour, so if you want roasted vegetables also, get those started first.

1. Take a cookie sheet (line it with aluminum foil or plan on scrubbing it clean). Place on top, some kind of rack (a meat rack, or a cooling rack, or a lot of disposable chopsticks laid out in a grid) which should be well-oiled. You could probably also use your broiling pan, but the idea here is to get the meat off the solid surface.

2. Take any kind of spice rub (season-salt, spice blend, herb blend+salt, etc) or any of your favorite sauces (bbq sauce, buffalo wing sauce, asian peanut sauce, etc) and smear it all over the outside.

3. Bake at 375 for 30-40 minutes. It is perfectly okay for this cut of pork to be slightly pink in the middle - in terms of health/safety, anyway; how you like to eat it is up to you.
If you have a meat thermometer it should read 140 (medium-rare) to 150 (medium-well) in the very center. If you don't have a thermometer, don't be afraid to just take it out when you think it's done. Start slicing at the ends, and if it's underdone over a section in the middle, just set that aside on the first night, and let it cook a bit more when you heat it up for leftovers.
posted by aimedwander at 8:12 AM on March 11, 2013

a slow cooker pulled pork recipe in particular

This is the recipe I use, cobbled together from various sources. This can be made from a pork shoulder/picnic shoulder/fresh calli or a Boston butt/blade shoulder. You may have to get these from a butcher/meat shop. This is set up to be made from a boneless half shoulder though if you have a big enough slow cooker it could be made with a full bone-in shoulder. It also makes a lot and reheats well (gently).

Eastern North Carolina-style Pulled Pork, Slow-Cooker recipe

6 pound (half) pork shoulder (boneless)
2 t black pepper
2 t white pepper
3 t salt, divided (2 t for rub, 1 t to stock, to taste/dependent upon saltiness of stock)

1 C vegetable stock
1 C barbecue sauce (Eastern NC-style)
Several spears fresh pineapple

1 T chili powder
1 T cumin
1 t cayenne pepper
1 t paprika
1 t garlic powder

QS vegetable stock or water

Trim excess fat from the pork shoulder. Cut into three or so manageable chunks. Rub each chunk down with black and white peppers and 2 t of the salt. Add to a hot pan and brown (it is not important to brown every surface.)

Add one cup stock and one cup barbecue sauce to the slow-cooker. Add fresh pineapple. Add remaining powdered spices (including the remaining 1 t salt unless the stock is already salty enough.) Add pork to slow-cooker. Add additional stock or water to bring liquid level half way up the meat.

Cook on low heat (likely over 8 hours) or high heat (maybe 6 to 8 hours?) until meat is just falling apart/approximately 190 F. Overcooking will result in stringy, drier meat. [If you have a bone-in shoulder, near when the meat is done the bone will wiggle free and should come out easily.]


1 C white vinegar
1 C cider vinegar
2 T brown sugar
1 T cayenne pepper
2 t salt
1 t ground black pepper
1 t ground white pepper

Combine in jar, shake. Leave for a day or two before first use; store up to two months.
posted by mountmccabe at 9:51 AM on March 11, 2013

Austrian goulash:

The best!
posted by corn_bread at 9:56 AM on March 11, 2013

Cooking mammal meats is about a few things:
A) Tenderness. Cuts with short muscle fibers and low gristle are tender. Tender cuts can be cooked with high, dry heat (roasting/grilling) because they're already tender. Anything you're likely to slice to make it more tender is a roast (even flank and skirt steaks are technically roasts-- the slices you make are steaks). Learn to recognize the grain of the muscle fiber and cut against it, or else you'll be chewing forever.
2) moisture content. this comes from fat and connective tissue (gristle, tendons, but not the so-called "silver-skin" which never melts or softens) melting and distributing itself through the muscle fibers. Tender steaks can take high-heat cooking for the short time it takes to cook them will melt what little fat they have without running it out. Fattier cuts should be slow-cooked, but can be dry-cooked. Cuts with lot of connective tissue require slow cooking in liquid to really melt all that stuff down.
3) Browning. Browning is flavor. Anything meant cooked in a liquid should be browned first, generally in a thin layer of hot oil, unless there's an opportunity to broil it at the end of the cooking cycle. Broiler done with browning but the meat isn't cooked? Cover the meat with foil. Brown bits in the pan, the fond, can make a good sauce. Cubed beef should be browned on all sides.

Ground beef: Moisture is an issue with ground beef-- the fat has every opportunity to run out of it. You may think that's good, but it makes the worst meatloaf. A Meatloaf or meatballs is a lattice of meat with fat in between. If the mixed is perfectly mixed, the fat will run out of the lattice. This is bad. Do not perfectly mix your meatballs/loaves. just combine the ingredients. If you want to make your own ground beef, use a mix of chuck (cow shoulder) and round (cow rump).

barbecue: I'm not talking about grills (direct, high head, short cooking time), I'm talking about barbecue, which is indirect heat, lower temperature (still hot to the touch) and long cooking times. Barbecue has two effects: it cooks the meat to the point at which the muscle fibers start to break down, and it turns most of that connective gristle into a puddle of deliciousness which saturates the meat.

Finally,this rule applies to chicken too: cook your meat starting with it at room temp. Always let it rest after cooking, but don't seal in the steam.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:02 AM on March 11, 2013

I seem to recall hearing that you can take a cheaper (and tougher) cut of meat and throw it in the slow cooker to tenderize it. Perfect! What cuts of meat should I be asking for, and do you have any favorite recipes?

Cheap cuts of beef also come out well in the slow cooker. Look for bottom round (back leg) or chuck roasts (front leg).

I make something like this shredded beef recipe and when it's done the pieces can no longer support their own weight.

This freezes and reheats well.
posted by mountmccabe at 10:24 AM on March 11, 2013

Response by poster: Wow! Thanks for all the tips, tricks and recipes. I'm looking forward to trying them.

supercres: Try slow cooking chicken thighs instead of breasts. Much more forgiving. You can do the same faux-BBQ thing, or a jar of salsa, or Indian curry "simmer sauce", or hoisin/soy/mirin/miso.
This describes a lot of what I make. I'll sometimes use thighs instead of breasts, and dump in a few jars of things. Trader Joe's Tomatoless Corn & Chile Salsa, a can of rinsed black beans, diced onions, a jar of tomato salsa, a can of condensed soup (chicken or cheddar) and spices is our favorite combo.

jbenben: #1 - Where are you located? Do you have any REAL butchers nearby? Or only supermarkets? Meat of all species from supermarkets is shite. No. Really.
Central Jersey. I know of a real butcher near me, as well as a grass-fed cow farm, and my regular supermarket is Wegmans, which seems decent. Is supermarket meat really that bad? I get that butcher or farmer's market meat might be better for me, and taste somewhat better, but part of my goal is to save money. I'd rather branch out with cheaper meat, so I'll feel less bad (and be out less money) if an experiment goes wrong.

troywestfield: Is grilling an option?
Sadly, no. Ah, apartment living. Electric stove and a slow cooker.

I'm looking forward to trying some new recipes and techniques. Browning meat in a pan seems to be a common technique to bump up the flavor, and one I haven't done before. Anything I should know as a first timer?
posted by booksherpa at 3:12 PM on March 11, 2013

Grilling is an option for you. Your oven probably came with an adequate grillpan, but your broiler is a flame upside-down. You adjust your oven rack to one of the top rungs and then put a pan or grillpan on there. You won't get grill-marks, but you will get browning and roasting.

Grilling is direct heat, and intense heat at that, so you can only use it on things that're already tender: poultry, rib- and loin-chops under 1.5", tenderloin, flank and skirt and flatiron steak (all of which are actually roasts, as I said), and blade steak with the gristle removed. (Blade steak is a cheap cut and great for stir-fry-- flatiron steak is the exact same meat, but parceled out of the cow differently. Flatiron was cheap relatively recently, but it has been discovered and its price normalized.)
posted by Sunburnt at 10:05 PM on March 11, 2013

Meat: A Kitchen Education
posted by JABof72 at 5:44 AM on March 12, 2013

"Anything I should know as a first timer?"

Yes. If you try Alton Brown's recipe to cook a steak in a cast iron skillet, it will smoke up your apartment. But it will also be worth it.
posted by troywestfield at 6:30 AM on March 12, 2013

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