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The secret to making cheap meat tender and tasty

By Hilary Meyer, August 8, 2012 - 12:48pm

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The secret to making cheap meat tender and tasty

A few weeks back I pledged to spend less on food, meat in particular. I’ve done well on my promise, and I’ve gotten to really enjoy some under-appreciated cuts of meat.

But I’ve realized that you do need to be careful about how you cook these budget-friendly cuts. Cheap cuts of meat (red meat in particular) can be either a) flavorless and/or b) very tough. So here are a few tricks to end up with tender, great tasting meat every time:

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1. Cut it across the grain:
One way to make tougher meats tender starts with your knife and fork (or on your cutting board). Cutting meat “across the grain” simply means cutting crosswise through the long muscle fibers in the meat. Breaking them up makes meat more tender. So when you’re carving a steak for serving, take note which way the muscle fibers are running and cut across them.

2. Cook it to the right temp:
Plenty of issues with tough meat can be dealt with simply by cooking it correctly. Overcooking meat will almost certainly end in culinary disaster. Arguably, so can undercooking it. Both can leave you chewing. And chewing. And chewing some more. So have a thermometer handy and make sure you take your meat off the heat when it’s ready. Depending on the cut of meat you’re dealing with, taking most quick cooking steaks (sirloin for example) to medium (or 140 degrees) is a good bet. The exception to this rule are tougher cuts of meat like brisket that need to be cooked for longer to become tender.

3. Cook it slowly:
You know the old saying “good things come to those who wait”? This is certainly true when it comes to notoriously tough cuts of meat like beef brisket and pork shoulder. Cooking these cuts of meat slowly, either by braising, stewing or grill roasting, is the best way to get these tasty cuts of meat meltingly tender. Cuts like this come from active muscles in the animal such as the shoulder or the chest area, which get more of a workout (making them quite tough). Cooking them slowly breaks down the connective tissue so they’re ready to eat without breaking your jaw.

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4. Try pounding:
Ever heard of cube steak? It’s super cheap, quick cooking and can be quite tender. But it doesn’t start out that way. Cube steak gets its tender characteristics only after taking a beating with the jagged edge of a meat mallet. It’s just another way to break apart muscle fibers that would otherwise be keeping meat tough. You can buy cube steak, or make your own version at home by pounding a tough cut of meat (like chuck steak, for example) with a meat mallet until it’s about 1/4 inch thick or so.

5. Marinate:
Is your meat lacking in flavor? Give it a boost by marinating! Not only does marinating infuse flavor, but it can tenderize too. A key ingredient in most marinades is acid (in the form of vinegar, citrus juice or yogurt) that starts to “cook” or break down the meat before it hits the heat. Just don’t let it marinate too long or you can over-tenderize and end up with mush. For chicken, pork and beef, 2 hours to overnight is a good range to be within.

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What are your tips for making tough meat tender? Tell us what you think below.

TAGS: Hilary Meyer, Food Blog, Cooking tips

Hilary Meyer
EatingWell Associate Food Editor Hilary Meyer spends much of her time in the EatingWell Test Kitchen, testing and developing healthy recipes. She is a graduate of New England Culinary Institute.

Hilary asks: What are your tips for making tough meat tender?

Tell us what you think:

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