Cooking School Day 6: Meat

(Image credit: Christine Gallary)
(Image credit: The Kitchn)
  • Today’s Topic: Beef, Pork, Lamb & Other Meat
  • The Goal: 20 lessons, 20 days to become a better cook at home
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What do you really need to know about meat in order to easily cook it for dinner? That’s the topic of today’s lesson. Let’s take a look at quick-cooking cuts versus the slow-cooking cuts (and how to tell the difference), safe cooking temperatures, and other important things to know about cooking meat. (Hang tight, vegetarian cooks! We’ll be back to veg-friendly topics Wednesday!)

(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

Day 6 Lesson: Meat

Basic Anatomy: We can cook the meat from almost every part of an animal, nose to tail. Whether we’re talking about cows or goats or pigs, the major cuts are generally the same and cook in similar ways. These are as follows:

  • The shoulders and legs (or shanks)
  • The middle area (loin and ribs)
  • The haunches (back thighs and legs)

These main cuts break down into lots of smaller cuts — too many to mention individually! — but these are the major pieces usually found in American meat cases. And then there are the other, less common-cooked, cuts, like organ meat, tongue, tail, head, cheeks, and sweetbreads.

Tough Versus Tender Cuts: Picture a cow or a pig wandering around a pasture looking for food. The shoulders, haunches, and legs are getting all the workout — these big cuts are tough and lean as a result. The back gets much less of a workout, so the cuts from this middle area are generally more tender and fattier. Neither of these cuts is better than the other, but they do cook differently so it’s important to be aware of the differences.

Tender, Quick-Cooking Cuts of Meat: Tender cuts from the back (loin) region of cows, pigs, and other animals are quick-cooking cuts. These are things like ribeye steak, sirloin steak, pork chops, and pork tenderloin — generally small, thin cuts that would serve one or two people. These cuts already tender and full of flavor, so they don’t need much cooking to make them taste awesome. In fact, cooking these cuts too long makes the fat melt out and the muscle fibers seize up, making the meat dry, chewy, and tasteless. Use these quick-cooking cuts for fast preparations, like simple searing, stir fries, and other stovetop preparations.

Pro Tip!

There can be a fine line between a rare and medium rare steak, but instead of cutting into it to find out doneness, did you know that your hand can be a great reference instead?

Just touch the tip of your thumb to the tip one of the other fingers on that hand, then feel the fleshy part right under your thumb with your other hand. Starting from the fingers closest to your thumb, what you’re feeling is similar to what steak feels like as it cooks: rare (index finger) to medium-rare (middle finger) to medium (ring finger) to well-done (pinky). Give your steak a poke, then compare to your hand. No thermometer needed!

Tough, Slow-Cooking Cuts of Meat: By contrast, tough cuts from the shoulders and rear of the animal will taste dry and chewy if you don’t let them cook long enough. These are cuts like beef chuck, beef round roast, pork shoulder, and pork butt, and they are generally large cuts serving multiple people. These cuts need long, slow cooking in order to break down tough connective tissues and become tender and delicious. (We’ll talk about this process in much more detail when we get to the lesson on Braising in a couple weeks.) Use these tougher cuts in braises, soups and stews, and roasts.

Your Friend, The Butcher: If you are unsure whether a particular cut is meant for quick cooking or slow cooking when you’re at the meat counter, or if you don’t see the specific cut called for in your recipe, ask the butcher. They are your best resource for knowing how cuts will cook, what can be substituted, and many other meat-related questions. Don’t be shy!

This video shows how quick it is to brine small cuts of meat.

Preparing Meat for Cooking: Small tender cuts are generally ready to go straight from the package. Larger cuts often have a layer or patches of fat on the outside; you can trim these away with a sharp knife. Leave any fat marbled through the middle of the meat — that’s where a lot of the best flavor comes in!

Searing Meat Before Cooking: Searing is almost always one of the first steps when cooking meat. In the case of steak, it’s the only step! We sear meat for one purpose only: to give it flavor. Contrary to what you may have heard, searing does not seal in moisture or anything else — it simply caramelizes the outside of the meat, adding deep and roasty umami flavors to your dish. Use high heat and sear until you see a deep golden-brown crust on the outside of the meat.

Read more about it here: How To Properly Sear Meat.

Resting Meat After Cooking: Most meat also needs a period of resting after it’s taken off the heat and before you slice into it. Usually, resting for 5 to 10 minutes is fine. During this time, moisture that was pulled to the surface during cooking settles back into the muscle fibers, keeping the meat juicy instead of tasting dry.

Safe Cooking Temperatures: Safe minimum cooking temperatures as set by the US government are as follows:

  • Ground Beef, Pork, Lamb, and Other Meat: 160°F
  • Whole Cuts of Beef, Pork, Lamb, and Other Meat: 145°F
(Image credit: Henry Chen)

Every lesson has three homework options. Maybe you’ve already got one down, or you just have time for a quick study session. So pick one, and show us by tagging it with #kitchnschool on Instagram or Twitter.

(Image credit: Henry Chen)

Study: Spend some time reading through these posts on the different kinds and cuts of meat to familiarize yourself with them:

(Image credit: Henry Chen)

Practice: Let’s keep it simple here — and tasty! Cook yourself steak or pork chops for dinner tonight using our easy tutorials. If you normally cook steak, try pork, and vice versa. Here are the tutorials to follow:

(Image credit: Henry Chen)

Improve: Have you ever tried brining your pork chops or making a quick pan sauce for your steak? These are two ways to take the whole meal to the next level. Give it a try tonight following these directions:

Southwestern-Spiced Pork Tenderloin(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

The Kitchn Cookbook & Meat

The Cooking School was inspired by our new book, The Kitchn Cookbook and there’s plenty in the book to help your Cooking School experience.

Today’s tip: See page 101 for our thoughts on how eating meat fits into our diets and our cooking, and our philosophy on buying good meat.

5 Recipes to Practice Working with Meat

The Kitchn’s Cooking School

The Kitchn’s Cooking School is 20 days, 20 lessons to become a better cook at home. Every day we’ll tackle an essential cooking topic and explain what you should know. Each lesson has three different homework options, so you can choose the one that teaches you what you need. Whether you want to refresh your skills or start from scratch, come to school with us!