How to Cook Beef

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Perfect Pot Roast. Linda Larsen

If you're like me, you are probably intimidated by a big chunk of beef. Did you purchase the right cut? How should you cook it? What happens inside the piece of meat while it cooks? And how can you best bring out the flavor and juiciness? Read on to learn how to cook beef.

Most people serve large cuts of beef only on special occasions. A standing rib roast, a beef tenderloin, or pot roast is expensive and merits a formal occasion like a holiday or birthday.

Your beef entree will be a huge success once you understand a bit about meat structure and how it cooks.

Location, Location, Location

Meat is a muscle. Whether it has a lot of fat or a little, needs wet or dry heat to cook it, and is light or dark colored depends on its location on the animal. Fat, collagen, protein, sugar, and water behave in specific ways inside the beef muscle as it is prepared and cooked.

For beef, there are eight 'primal cuts'. At the top of the animal, starting near the head and going back toward the tail, they are chuck, rib, short loin, sirloin, and round. Underneath the animal, from front to back, they are brisket, plate, and flank. The tenderness or toughness of the cut depends on how much the animal has had to use the muscle. Therefore, cuts near the shoulder or leg, which are used often for movement, are going to be tougher. The muscles that are not used as much, in the center of the animal, include the rib, plate, and loin.

These cuts are cooked in different ways to maximize flavor and tenderness.

A big problem with describing cuts of meat is that many butchers and grocers have their own names. For instance, a New York strip steak can also be called a Kansas City steak, Delmonico steak, boneless club steak, and shell steak.

If you're unsure about the cut of meat that you're buying, ask the butcher. He or she will be happy to tell you where the cut came from. And as long as the 'primal cut' word is in the name of the cut, you can be pretty sure you know where the meat was located on the animal.

The Components of Meat

Beef is considered 'red meat' because the animal's muscles need so much oxygen as they work keeping the cow upright and moving it around. Myoglobin is the molecule that transports oxygen around the body; it is red in color, therefore the muscles which are used a lot contain a lot of myoglobin and will be deep red.

Protein, Water, Fat, Sugar, and Collagen

  • When meat is cooked, protein molecules, which are tightly wound and connected to other molecules, first unwind. This is called 'denaturing', and all it means is that the proteins are relaxing and separating. Because proteins are attracted to each other, they almost immediately pair up with other proteins, forming bundles. This is called 'coagulating' or cooking. As more heat is applied, the bundles of protein shrink. Up to 120 degrees F, the bundles shrink in width. After 120 degrees F, the bundles begin to shrink in length as well.
  • Water is also present in the muscles. Some of it is bound up with the proteins, fats, and sugars, and some is 'free water'. The amount of liquid left after the beef is cooked is directly related to the juiciness of the finished dish. As the protein bundles shrink and fat melts in the muscle, water molecules are squeezed out. Not too much water is squeezed out as the protein shrinks in width. But as the temperature increases over 120 degrees F and the bundles become shorter, more and more water is squeezed out and evaporated. That's why a well done piece of beef is so dry. Cooking times and temperatures must be controlled when cooking beef.
  • Fat is flavor! A good cut of meat will have specks of white fat evenly distributed through the meat. Leaner cuts of beef, such as flank and round, have less fat and can benefit from marinades and dry rubs.
  • Sugar plays an important role in beef, its finished color and flavor. Sugar and protein, when heated in an acid-free environment, combine to form complex molecules in a process called the Maillard Reaction. The wonderful crisp crust with its rich caramel flavors that form on a seared piece of beef are all from the Maillard Reaction. High heat is required for this reaction to occur; grilling and broiling are the best methods. You can also brown meats before cooking to start the Maillard Reaction, and you can broil roasts at the end of cooking time to achieve the same result.
  • Other substances in meat include collagen and elastin. These are present in the hard working muscles of the animal. Collagen will melt as it is heated, turning into gelatin and becoming soft and melty. Elastin can only be broken down physically, as when you pound a cube steak before cooking or grind meat for hamburger. These compounds are found in the brisket, shank, chuck, and round primal cuts; in other words, the beef we cook as pot roasts and stews and hamburger.

The Two Methods of Cooking

There are two methods for cooking meat: dry heat and wet heat. Dry heat methods including grilling, broiling, sauteing, roasting, stir frying, and deep frying. Wet heat includes braising, pot roasting, stewing, steaming, poaching, and slow cooking. Most of us cook beef by the dry heat methods, along with pot roasting, stewing, and slow cooking.

You choose the cooking method depending on where the meat was located on the animal. Steaks, cut from the little-used center area of the animal, are naturally tender with little collagen and elastin, so they cook best using dry heat and short cooking times. Rump or round roasts have more collagen so they need wet heat, and longer, slower cooking in order to melt the collagen.

Most solid cuts of beef are cooked in a two stage method. First, high heat produces the Maillard reactions and forms a flavorful crust on the surface. Then, slower cooking at a lower temperature will evenly cook the meat through without overcooking the outer edges. If you are grilling a steak, divide your grill into a hot side and cooler side by controlling the number of briquette. Start the steak on the hot side to form a crust and pull it over to the cooler side to finish cooking. Roasts and stir fries use the same two stage method; first browned over high heat, then cooked with lower heat until the correct inner temperature is attained. You can also cook a roast with low heat in the oven, then turn on the broiler for the final few minutes to create a crisp flavorful crust.

In Balance

Cooking meat is all about finding the balance between reducing the moisture loss, and cooking long enough so collagen can melt into gelatin. That's why pot roasts and cuts that are braised are cooked slowly with low heat; you're trying to melt the collagen and reduce moisture loss. On the other hand, steaks have no collagen, so quick cooking at high temperatures creates that nice crust and preserves as much moisture as possible.

Searing meat before a longer cooking time does not seal in the juices. The crust that forms on the surface leaks! Searing is essential for creating the complex flavors that are so wonderful in a perfectly cooked cut of beef. The only way you can control the juiciness of a cut of beef is to control the cooking time and temperature. Other factors are beyond your control, including how the beef is aged and treated during handling and storage, so know your butcher.

The grain of meat plays a factor in its cooking and serving. Flank and flat iron steaks, often sold as 'London Broil', are a single muscle and have a long, distinctive grain running along the cut.These steaks must be cut perpendicular to the grain, or across the grain, cutting across the muscles. They will then be tender. If you cut these steaks with the grain they will be so tough as to be inedible. Put the steak on your cutting board, with the grain of the meat running from right to left. Place your knife on the steak, then tilt it to the left. That will set your knife at a 45 degree angle. Cut the steak into thin slices.

You can marinate meats to add flavor and increase tenderness a little. Marinades contain acids, which break those protein bonds (denaturing the proteins). Marinades will not turn a tough piece of meat into a tender steak, however; it's more important to use the correct cooking method for the cut of meat. Marinades are best used to add flavor. Dry rubs are very good for adding flavor to meat, especially the crisp crust that forms when a steak is grilled.

Finally, standing time is a must when cooking any solid cut of beef. As the beef is heated, water is forced toward the center of the piece as well as evaporating from the edges. This water will be easily squeezed out of the beef as pressure is applied with a knife. By covering the beef to retain heat and letting it stand for 5-10 minutes after cooking, the water will redistribute throughout the cut so it harder to squeeze out water from the pressure of cutting.

The Best Cuts

For grilling, broiling, and pan frying, the best cuts of meat are rib eye steaks, strip or shell steaks, and T bone, which contains both the strip and tenderloin steaks. Sirloin and round steaks will be tough and dry. Flank steaks and flat iron steaks are good when quickly cooked and sliced across the grain, as described above.

For roasting, top sirloin, tenderloin, standing rib roasts, and top rump roast are good candidates.

For stir frying, flank, top round, and sirloin steak are good. These cuts are best cooked quickly, and since elastin is broken because the meat is cubed, they are more tender.

For kebabs, tenderloin is the best bet. This mild cut absorbs flavors easily and it is very tender.

For pot roasting and braising, chuck and rump are the best cuts. These cuts have more collagen and need long, slow cooking in a wet environment to reach their optimum tenderness. Chuck has the most flavor and is the most tender.

For ground beef, chuck is the way to go. It has optimal amounts of fat and is tenderized mechanically by the grinding action. Most lean ground beef is chuck, but if you're not sure, ask!

More Rules

Whenever you start cooking meat, there are two ironclad rules: start with a preheated pan or grill, and once you put the meat on the cooking surface, do not move it. The meat will release when the crust has formed. If you try to move the meat before the crust is ready, it will tear and most of the tasty compounds from the Maillard Reaction will be left in the pan.

Ground beef merits some special considerations. The bacteria present on the surface of meat is distributed throughout the entire mixture as the beef is ground. For food safety reasons, ground beef should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees F. As we have learned, that means most of the water has been squeezed out of the meat. You can get around this by grinding your own beef, but that is such a huge amount of work. I prefer to add moisture and flavor to hamburgers by including other ingredients like chopped vegetables and flavor mixes. That will help keep the burgers moist and flavorful while keeping your family safe.

Here are some of the best recipes for cooking different cuts of beef:

  • Perfect Pot Roast
    My mouth waters just thinking about this excellent recipe. The beef is so tender it falls apart as you serve it, and the flavor is superb.
  • Savory Pot Roast
    The low, moist heat of your crockpot is perfect for cooking the best pot roast. This is a fabulous recipe.
  • Steak House Steak
    This is the method steak houses use; first the steaks are seared over high heat, then they are roasted in the oven to juicy perfection.
  • Rib Eye Steaks with Avocado Salsa
    High heat and quick cooking is the best way to cook these tender, well marbled steaks. Yum.
  • Pesto Stuffed Steaks
    Cheesy and flavorful pesto melts into the meat in this easy recipe. Keep an eye on the steaks so they don't overcook, and don't forget about standing time!
  • Roast Beef Tenderloin
    This super tender cut of beef is perfect for holiday entertaining.
  • Roasted Prime Rib
    Prime rib really is the king of beef. It's very expensive, so make sure you cook it carefully, following the directions explicitly.
  • Beef Stew with Dumplings
    The slow cooker, once again, is the ideal appliance for long, slow cooking.
  • Ground Beef Recipes
    Ground beef is best made from the chuck primal cut. Check with your butcher about the type of beef used in the ground beef you buy.
  • All About Meatloaf
    These delicious recipes for meatloaf plus tips on making the best meatloaf will make you a master.
  • Top 10 Grilled Steak Recipes
    When it's grilling season, turn to these quick and easy, delicious recipes for grilled steak.

There are many charts and resources around the internet with cuts of meat and recommended cooking types and times. I found these sources to be the most comprehensive: