When it comes to cooking meat, it is quite important to understand what flavor you are trying to achieve. Do you wish to highlight the taste of the meat, or do you wish to have the meat be the vehicle in which you deliver other tastes? These questions are often best answered by the cut of meat that you have.
Lesson 1: Fat, at least when it comes to taste, is good.
Be it duck, pork, beef or salmon, the fat in any meat is what makes it taste the way it does. Oh sure, there are specific tastes ascribed to red meat or poultry, but they are subtle and nearly inconsequential, especially when compared to cuts of meat that are fattier in content.
What this means is that if you want a meaty taste, you want cuts of meat with higher proportion of fat to meat (The proper proportion will change from animal to animal, but you don’t wish to have too much fat either). The amount of ingredients you can add to the meat is minimal, and those that you do add should be used to either highlight the taste of the meat, or compliment it. The manner in which you cook meat should also take advantage of a meat with high fat content. You wouldn’t necessarily want to stew a goose or a braise nice prime rib.
That’s not to say that cuts of meat that are lacking in fat are worthless. A Filet Mignon has far less fat that many (if not all) other cuts of beef. So how do most people traditionally cook it then? Wrapped in bacon, which has lots of fat.
Cuts of meat that have less fat than others can be saved by adding fat to the cooking technique. I’ve seen legs of lamb rotiserred with an entire stick of butter. I’ve seen steaks pan fried in olive oil. And often, the fat is used in combination with other ingredients. In short, the meat is used as a vehicle to deliver other flavors.
So why do people like filet mignon if you have to add fat to it in order to make it taste the way it does? Because the cut of the meat is extremely tender. Which leads me to…
Lesson 2: Tender is good.
I shouldn’t have to use a chainsaw to slice any cut of meat, nor should a break a sweat when using a knife to cut the meat.
Some cuts of meat lend themselves to being tender. When looking for tender cuts of meat, choose meat labeled loin or rib. These cuts come from the central suspension muscles so they are exercised less. The less exercise the muscles get, the more tender the cut of meat. You can prepare these tender cuts using dry heat cooking methods such as grilling and broiling. If you choose cuts of meat labeled chuck or round they will be less tender. These cuts come from the front and rear muscles which are responsible for movement. These muscles are heavily exercised and therefore are less tender. Prepare these cuts using moist heat cooking methods.
But you can also tenderize meat yourself, either physically, or through a chemical reaction of some sort. Physically, you can use a meat mallet to beat on smaller chops or fillets. This is often used when making schnitzel or other similar types of dishes.
Chemically, one could marinate a cut of meat for several hours. Not only does a marinade infuse whatever flavor, but it also reacts to the muscle tissue of the meat, and softens them up.
A dry rub also affect how tender a cut of meat can be as salt is a natural tenderizer.
But that’s not to say that tender is better. It’s just that you have to be careful in what cooking method you choose.
Lesson 3: Moist is better.
However you cook the meat, you want to make sure that the end result is a moist piece of meat. Stewing or braising meat will certainly help. But one can get a moist roast with the help of brining.
And with the proper fat/oil ratio in your meat (either naturally occurring, or added as part of the cooking process), you can actually create a small “seal” that prevents a fair amount of moisture loss of certain cuts of meat.
Give me a stew with the cheap cuts of a cow that gently melt in my mouth, than a high priced steak that’s been cooked poorly.
More on explicit flavor delivery methods on a later date.