How do I learn to be less squeamish about meat?
November 9, 2013 1:18 AM   Subscribe

I love meat, but I hate its squishy, rubbery, gummy bits.

I was raised a vegetarian and didn't start eating meat until I was 23. Now, six years later, I've learned to cook different kinds of meat in many different ways (I have made almost every recipe in The River Cottage Meat Book), and I eat meat-based meals two or three times a week (mostly chicken or beef, sometimes rabbit and lamb). I love the taste of meat and I love cooking it, but I cannot get over the fat, tendons, cartilage, veins, and other unidentifiable grisly bits. They gross me out, and seeing a vein in a piece of chicken or getting a chunk of gelatinous fat in a mouthful of beef stew will completely ruin the meal for me. I find myself spending so much time performing surgery on my meat to excise the nasty bits that it goes cold before I can start eating it.

How can I get over this? I am looking for any advice, either how to get over/ get around this aversion or how to cook so as to minimize the gross bits. I want to start being more adventurous in my meat-eating habits, but there is no way I can start to explore the wide world of offal with my current sensitive palate.

My next Ask will be about fish and all their fiddly tricksy chokesy bones. Ugh.
posted by lollymccatburglar to Food & Drink (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
The solution is to embrace quality cooking: to be picky when buying, and to perform the surgery before preparing the meal, and for the remaining part to make long-slowcooking stews/roasts/bbqs where the fat and connective tissue dissolve into a delicious sauce.

(Offal is maybe trickier: one can (and ideally should) clean liver of all its membranes anyway, for instance, but it's an enormous job, and in and of itself not for the squeamish, so I don't know what to say here. I saw a TV chef once who made thin slices first and cut away the skin and vein-cross sections with the slice flat on the plank. I tried and found that fiddly too; I usually skin the entire piece with a sharp knife and then try to cut out as many blood vessels as I easily see. May not be your thing.
And kidney - brains -- well one can only do so much in preparation, I fear…)

To answer the fish question: some fish are much worse than others, so think in 'categories of ugh', and/or buy fillets and be really careful about extracting any remaining bones with a pair of pliers before the piece goes into the pan.

Others will be better at strategies for getting less squeamish.
posted by Namlit at 1:41 AM on November 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

What Namlit says - when the nasty bits are on your plate it's too late. You will only have nasty bits on your plate if you didn't spend enough time on meat preparation. Be prepared to got to a butcher as opposed to the supermarket, buy a nice cut, suitable for the dish and method of cooking you want to use it for. If you see anything on the cut you don't like ask the butcher to trim it right then and there. When you get home be fastidious when cutting and prepping your meat for cooking > very greatly reduced likelihood of any nasty bits on your plate.

But please don't get carried away - some cuts of meet are meant to have fat on/in them, which the appropriate method of preparation will turn into your pan juices and eventually gravy. Don't trim these bits or you'll end up with nasty, dry, lumps of meat on your plate....
posted by koahiatamadl at 2:06 AM on November 9, 2013

I can't say I've ever noticed a recognizable vein in a piece of chicken, but certainly there will be pieces of cartilage, tendon and sometimes fat. I don't quite understand the suggestion that there's something wrong if some of this stuff makes it to your plate. Sure, you can trim it all away if you're making a stew, soup or stir-fry, but a roasted or grilled chicken, or a piece of KFC or a basket of wings at the bar, is going to include some non-bone, non-skin tissue.

How can I get over this?

Eat some intentionally, so at least it's not a surprise? The feeling that these parts are 'gross' is mostly culturally instilled. You'll find them in non-Americanized Mexican, Chinese and Vietnamese restaurant dishes (and other cuisines as well, I'm sure). My wife and I share food in restaurants, and sometimes what we'll do is that one of us orders the scarier food and the other gets something less adventurous, and we swap dishes repeatedly as we eat. Between talking about the New Food, a bit of humor about our reactions to it, and soothing our palates with the less-adventurous dish(es) as needed, we have managed to enjoy some things we once might have cringed at.

Except the crispy-fried pork intestines. Those I just couldn't handle.
posted by jon1270 at 4:05 AM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think the advice to -- a) prepare meat so the gristle and fat is either pre-excised or melted into saucy deliciousness b) eat out with a more adventurous diner who can help you get accustomed to the texture -- are both excellent suggestions. I also will offer the possibility that you may just always have a hard time with certain textures. I come from a culinary tradition (Korean) that loves chewy bits and I have never been able to get down with tendon, tripe, or trotter. I am embarrassed that I can't handle the whole meat (I joke that I used to think chicken was a fruit because I so rarely ate it on the bone and mostly got it as gristle-free pieces of white meat) but I don't think I need to force myself.

A few things that have helped me get more conceptually down with animal fat
1) learning how to make soup dumplings. ye gads, my Shandong classmate marched straight up to the butcher and asked for 2 pounds of pork fat. Just the fat. I had no idea that's the soupiness in soup dumplings.
2) hanging out with friends/family who really love all the bits and watching them eat all the bits. double points if they are under the age of six and can dismantle a whole chicken. That said, they don't actually eat all the bits. My spouse spits out the undigestible unchewable gristle and then just moves on.
3) cooking samgyupsal (pork belly, Korean grill-style) until everything is more crispy than gelatinous and then cooking the kimchi in the fat. Oooh. Fat makes everything delicious.
posted by spamandkimchi at 4:31 AM on November 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

I was a vegetarian from 18 to maybe 40, then I really wanted a steak. And then some burgers. And all of a sudden, the world of chicken and fish and lamb was opened up to me.

And you know what? I never got over being squicked out by eating red meat or anything that had discernable veins or cartilage, like you mentioned. Never. I tried to force myself but I just ended up being grossed out (and I am in no way a person who criticizes the food choices of others; I just know that I get squicked out...I serve the Thanksgiving turkey but I ask my kids to cook it).

I decided that for whatever reason, the only non-vegetarian protein I could successfully handle was fish and even then, I can't cope with the bones.

I've made my peace with this fact. Trying to force myself to eat something that I find's too short.
posted by kinetic at 5:12 AM on November 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Like others have said, do your prep ahead of time to remove things like silverskin and tendons and the like. The other part of the equation is how you cook the meat. For that, you need to know what you have in front of you. If your meat is old or tough, you're going to want long, slow cooking over a low flame. That will "melt" the collagen that your mouth identifies as gristly bits into liquid, which then become part of the gravy.

Personally, I love chicken roasted till it's falling off the bones, precisely for this reason. I hate dealing with the squidgy bits. And I used to work in a butcher shop!
posted by LN at 5:40 AM on November 9, 2013

I think the only way to get over it is to get used to it. Maybe you should start exploring the world of offal and then the odd wobbly yellow bit won't seem so bad.

IMO it would be a shame to go the other way and confine yourself to carefully filleted and trimmed stuff.
posted by Segundus at 6:18 AM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm exactly the same: my personal joke is that I love meat but hate any reminder that it was part of an animal. This does limit me: I generally eat mostly boneless chicken breast and well-trimmed beef (nthing that you should trim before cooking). But I don't find myself really missing out, just feeling sort of spoiled-suburban-mcnugget-eater self-conscious.

However, charcuterie - sausages, bacon, salami, prosciutto, etc. - is my meat gateway drug. I know they frequently contain things like solid wads of fat and, uh, "natural casings," and that sometimes still grosses me out, but I get over it because the stuff's so delicious. I'd recommend starting from there.

I'll also loosen my pickiness for meats I won't find every day, like quail or frog legs. I'm not likely to find these in tidy cutlets at my supermarket, so my curiosity wins out over my aversion.

If you already eat a diverse range of foods and get the nutrients you need (and aren't a jerk when turning down proffered dishes you won't eat), there's no harm in having an aversion to some foods. Cuisine should be about finding things you love to eat, not forcing yourself to acclimate to things that gross you out.
posted by Metroid Baby at 6:38 AM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure how to get over it, but it's certainly possible to reduce your exposure to it. In addition to the suggestion of finding a good butcher, try more "Americanized" meats, like boneless, skinless chicken breast (maybe even the flash-frozen, more-processed versions you can find at places like Costco and Trader Joe's). For beef, stick with steaks that are visibly lean and free of "chewy parts," and trim off the outer fat. For fish, well, buy fillets, not whole fish.
posted by maxim0512 at 6:43 AM on November 9, 2013

I am reformed vegetarian who leans toward vegetarianism USUALLY on my own.

Tissue comes with baggage in the form of supporting structures. There are some fake meats which will come on the market in the next few years.... lab grown meat with no animal substrate. I think that will help out a lot of people who have ethical or squeamishness issues, but it's all in the future at this instant. Coming though.

What I would do is to concentrate on cuts that had minimal supporting material. Filet before cooking, to eliminate things you don't want to deal with, then you aren't fiddling during dinner. Breasts, steaks, chops... large muscle masses. Cubed meats, shredded might work.

And... if you stick with 1 meat based meal every day or two, you have a more manageable problem.
posted by FauxScot at 7:49 AM on November 9, 2013

In my mind, the majority of the "not muscle" bits in meat get categorised into either "not worth it to chew, so gets cut out / eaten around and spat out" or "special tasty part which might require a bit of extra effort".

Maybe a combination of learning what all the different bits are so that they're never mysterious and finding recipes which specifically spotlight the bits that are worthwhile would help. (Obviously where that line gets drawn is up to you - I don't mind working on most of the odder bits of a duck, but I'm not really into duck tongue.)
posted by lucidium at 7:53 AM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Chicken legs and wings, working at them slowly picking the bits you can eat. You get less picky as you get lazier. Step after that is chicken thigh fillets in your casseroles and stirfry. Then you an move onto braised lamb shanks.
posted by Iteki at 9:49 AM on November 9, 2013

Repeating people's suggestions about getting used to it. Work your way up. Try to "savour" the nasty bits, chew them, roll them across your tongue..... and if that doesn't work, use tons of sauce.

If that still doesn't work, well, there's not much point. I've enjoyed a good testicle or two in my time, but never enough to want to repeat the experience (both times were curiosity).
posted by omnigut at 10:16 AM on November 9, 2013

Veins in chicken grossed me out to no end so I stopped eating anything that was chicken breasts. Eventually I stopped eating meat entirely, which is where I am now. I have one exception though: bacon. For some reason, as long as it is crispy, I can still enjoy bacon. So I recommend bacon. But if it's not crispy, the gummy pieces of fat are horrifying. (I was off bacon for about a month after an experience with soft bacon. Shudder.)
posted by AppleTurnover at 11:38 AM on November 9, 2013

Also, any sort of ground meat was always easier for me. I am mostly a vegetarian but I have tasted people's meatballs, bolognese sauce, chili and cheeseburgers and I can get away with that. You might still get fat pellets, but you could use very lean meat and let other ingredients be the fat (like in the case of meatballs, mixed the ground beef with eggs, milk and bread crumbs). Pepperoni is also fine for me.
posted by AppleTurnover at 11:49 AM on November 9, 2013

I eat offal, initially because as a former vegetarian I believe that using an entire animal is more ethically responsible than throwing away perfectly edible bits, and now because it really can be amazingly good. A lot of offal is not really like the unappealing bits of fat and gristle and sinew. Tongue, liver, and brains can be ethereally delicate in texture and flavor. For me, a lot of what is appealing or not comes down to preparation. A giant lump of pork fat in a burrito is a lot less attractive than seared pork belly, though they are much the same thing. I eat a lot of meat bits that many people don't, but that doesn't mean I enjoy a chewy piece of gristle in my steak. Crispy chicken skin is amazing, but flabby, white chicken skin in a bowl of soup I don't find appetizing. Texture is a big part of food enjoyment to me, and I don't think that's ever going to change. However, eating more unusual cuts is separate from that. I find it easier and funner to try things out if I have prepared them myself or if I am with a group of other adventurous eaters. After eating things like brains or ears or nerves, veins are not really an issue.
posted by oneirodynia at 1:29 PM on November 9, 2013

Maybe the solution is don't? I'm not preaching vegetarianism, but if it squicks you out, maybe you should listen to what your inner voice is telling you?
posted by alona at 1:58 PM on November 9, 2013

I got a lot less squeamish about chicken parts after I started roasting entire birds. Cleaning out a chicken you're about to roast is so gross, it's almost ridiculous—you have to reach into the carcass and fish out all the organs and whatever other treats the butcher left in there for you. It really brings home the idea that, yup, you're eating a once-living creature.

Of course, this full-on approach might send you screeching in the other direction towards veggies, but somehow it was exactly what pushed me over the edge of no longer caring about stray parts—as others have said, it's part of the deal when you eat animal meat, and for me the process actually gave me more respect for the creature.
posted by saramour at 2:27 PM on November 9, 2013

Thanks everyone! There are a lot of good suggestions here. I think my first step will be having a heart-to-heart with my butcher, then looking for some suitable recipes.
posted by lollymccatburglar at 1:44 AM on November 11, 2013

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