Food Science: Why Tougher Meats Make Good Braises

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We've often wondered why so many recipes for beef braises call for lean cuts of meat like bottom round or chuck and whether a more tender cut might work just as well or better. Since lean cuts also tend to be cheaper in the grocery store, are we just being thrifty? Or is there a reason why lean cuts make for better braises?

As a steer is wandering around looking for tasty treats, the muscles in its legs, shoulders, and hips get the biggest workout -- even in a feedlot. This results in leaner, tougher meats from these areas. Cuts like shanks (from the legs), chuck roast (from the shoulders), and top and bottom round (from the hindquarters) will be lower in fat than those from the relatively un-exercised middle. These lean cuts are also higher in a connective muscle tissue called collagen, and this is what really makes the difference in a good braise.

When you cook any piece of meat, first the raw muscle fibers will start to firm up and the fat begins to melt. As this happens, water molecules get squeezed out of the cells. If you take a bite at this point, a tender steak cut with a lot of interior fat would taste juicy, while a lean cut without much fat would be moist but still unbearably chewy. If you keep cooking, those water molecules will evaporate and leave your steak tough and leathery. In lean meats, however, the collagen comes into play. During long, moist-heat cooking, collagen breaks down into gelatin, which tenderizes the meat and gives it that melting, succulent feel in your mouth.

The moral of the story? Leave your well-marbled steaks for quick-cooking on the grill and give the lean cuts their time to shine in your winter braises.

More on Braising:
Book Review: Braise by Daniel Boulud
Word of Mouth: Braise
Dutch Oven Round Up

Good Braised Recipes
Braised Beef Brisket
Chipotle-Porter Pot Roast
Malaysian Beef Curry

This is by Emma, who is up for one of our new writer positions. Welcome Emma!

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Faith is the executive editor of The Kitchn and the author of three cookbooks. They include Bakeless Sweets (Spring 2013) as well as The Kitchn's first cookbook, which will be published in Fall 2014. She lives in Columbus, Ohio with her husband Mike.