Oh Puns, how you sustain me.
Alright, lads and ladies, I’ve spent the last three weeks talking to you about Grilling, and barbecue, what makes them good, and so on. This note isn’t TECHNICALLY about either of those things. It is, however, USEFUL to both of them . So today, we’re going to talk very generally, and fairly briefly, about CUTS and STEAKS.
This post came about due to a brief conversation I had with Alan, where I happened to mention that my family was using flank steak for some steak tacos, and somehow, it ended up with Alan asking me to explain what made one kind of steak better for tacos than another. Caught a touch off-guard, I gave him a very basic rundown, but I later felt like I had failed to properly explain it to him. Further, I realized that this question tied to a fundamental idea of barbecue: proper cut usage.
Now, I’m not counting this as one of my ongoing barbecue posts, nor as another dictionary post, despite, as you’ll see, edging close to both of those territories, because this information is just generally useful for a lot of cooking, and because I’m not going to touch on each type of cut for every animal. Heck, I’m barely going to touch on pork or chicken at all, because, well, I’m quite lazy. Also, because no one wants a 2,000 word thesis on ham hocks. Except Georgia State, but they named their mascot “Pounce” the blue panther, so their opinion can be safely discarded. (“Butch” Cougar is clearly a better Big-Cat name, even if your guy got knighted in Game of Thrones.)
So, let’s cut this topic down to size.
CUT MY LIFE INTO PIECES
First, the basic understanding of what we’re talking about. “Cuts” are just the preferred term for “specific regions of meat”. “Steaks” are “cuts of meat typically perpendicular to the muscle fiber, sometimes including a bone”. Those are the basic definitions of those words in a culinary sense.
Now, let’s get some relevance: Why is this important? Well, here’s the basic summation: the more a muscle gets used, the tougher it gets. So, parts of animals that get used a lot are tougher than the parts that don’t move much at all. Further, where the muscle is determines how much connective tissue and collagen runs through it. Let’s take a look at a cow for a quick example.
Yep, that’s a cow. Holstein, from the look of it. Your standard Dairy cow.
Now, the softest cut of meat on a cow is the tenderloin, which comes from the back. Because, surprise, cows don’t do many crunches. The toughest is the shank, or shin. Because what cows DO do is stand around all goddamn day, occasionally broken up by walking. Both of which use the shank. And no, before you ask, cows do NOT spend most of the day “shanking”. That’s a completely different thing, mostly done by Colombian Mules. HEYO.
So, yeah, if an animal moves that part of their body a lot, it’s going to be tougher. So, easy peasy, cuts make sense, right? Sure, kind of, except we also use a bunch of funny words. For instance, cow butt meat is the “Round”. Pig Butt Meat is a “Ham”, while the Pig SHOULDER is called a “Butt”. This is because Butchers are tricky beings of myth, with riddles and pots of…I’m being told I was thinking of leprechauns. Nah “Butts” are called that because they got shipped in giant barrels called “butts”.
This is also where the term “buttload” comes from. A “buttload of wine” is 80 gallons. Meaning that frat guy you knew drank 80 gallons of Coors Light that Homecoming Friday.
And while the various names may sound like too much to process, they’re really a simple google search away. Heck, A lot of butchers will have charts or pamphlets on hand that show you where each region is, helping you pick out what you want for whichever cooking style you’re using. And the cooking style can be quite important.
Burning Down the House
We touched on this in our BARBECUE 2 post, with the idea of gelatinization: Basically, any meat that really tough? Cook it wet, low, and slow, and you get good food. Any meat that’s soft? Cook it high and hot, and it’ll be fine. This is a general rule that completely ignore the various QUALITIES of meat, but let’s not open that can of worms. Actually, I can sum it up in one sentence: The lower your quality, the lower you should cook it.
For instance, if your meat might be possum, best not to cook it at all. Though, in the interest of research, I now know actual possum cooking tips. You people make me learn weird shit.
The rule also has a couple interesting little exceptions. Flank Steak, for instance, is a fairly tough piece of meat, but it LOVES grilling, being one of the primary choices for steak tacos. Why? Well, basically: It’s too thin. In order to get a good browning on the outside before you overcook the inside, you NEED the highest, driest heat you can get. (Flank steak also likes marinade, because it’s got thick muscle fibers, allowing for more “gaps” for the marinade to soak into.)
Now, I keep talking about grilling and barbecue, but said this note wasn’t about that. And that’s more of a need to conserve space than ignoring the issue. While I keep using Grilling as an example of high heat, and barbecue as low, ANY cooking methods that use those relative values remain viable. Braising, for instance, which is basically in-oven simmering, is fantastic for many tougher cuts. Beef Stew is MADE for the cuts you can’t sear and serve in 10 minutes. Coq au vin, a classic French dish, was invented because older roosters are naturally tougher, so you need an acidic broth and low slow cooking to soften up the tough old bird.
What did you just call me, motherclucker?
So the next time you’re at the meat department, and see a name you don’t recognize, take out your phone, or just ask the butcher, “Hey, what part of the animal is this?”, and you’ll have an idea how to cook it in just two minutes. Don’t say I never did nothing for you. Please, don’t, it’s like, a triple negative. Learn some grammar. Jesus.
NEXT TIME: JON BURNS ONE OF HIS FAMILY’S TOWELS, AND HOPEFULLY NOT THE WHOLE HOUSE.