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Meat: the ultimate guide

The ultimate guide to meat, including what cuts to buy, how to cook it and myths to ignore

Meat is one of the most expensive ingredients in any shopping bag so you might as well make the most of it. Here are Lulu’s top tips for how to cook meat better.

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How to make meat taste meatier

Fresh raw meat isn’t particularly rich in the flavour we know as umami, but you can strengthen the flavour in several different ways by encouraging the meat to give out the amino acids that provide umami flavour. Meat that is hung will undergo this process, as will meat that is cooked or cured.

Browning meat before you cook it adds flavour as the denatured protein on the surface recombines with any sugar given off during what is known as the Maillard reaction. This adds colour and flavour and if you are making a stew or casserole make sure you do this properly by cooking the meat in small batches so it browns quickly on the outside rather than stewing in its own juices.

Bland meat can be helped to taste richer, more savoury and meaty by adding ingredients that naturally contain chemical compounds called ribonucleotides and glutamates, both of which provide umami flavour. If you’re making a stew you can add dried mushrooms for example, or a couple of anchovies, some tomato purée, a splash of soy sauce or a tablespoon of Taste No 5 umami paste (available from supermarkets and online). Adding a slice of cheese to a burger also bumps up the flavour and there is no better use for a piece of old parmesan rind than adding it to a meat stock. In processed foods either MSG (monosodium glutamate) or disodium inosinate (or both) can be used to achieve the same effect.


How to get over the fear of cooking steaks

If you buy an expensive piece of meat like a steak, you want to be sure you’ll be able to cook it to its best advantage. It’s quite simple really, so just follow these steps:

Step 1 Take steak out of its packaging, salt it (this won’t hurt it at all, ignore all instructions that say it will) and let it dry in the fridge. You either have to put it on a wire rack or turn it over onto a clean, dry plate every so often.
Step 2 Use a decent pan, cast iron or a griddle will retain heat well.
Step 3 Cook no more than two steaks at a time or you’ll cause the temperature to drop when you first put them in the pan.
Step 4 Cook the steak for the length of time you like; if you’ve got a thin steak, give the heat a bit of welly and cook it quickly, if the steak is very thick then start the temperature high and then turn it down to give the meat a chance to cook though. Don’t forget the fat, turn the steak on its side and hold it against the hot pan surface.
Step 5 Rest it.
Step 6 If you’re worried about cooking two steaks well, cook one big one and carve it. Click here for more steak recipes.


Tender to tough cuts

Highly active muscles are tougher and need to be cooked for longer, at a lower temperature. They also contain more collagen to hold them together and to attach them to bone. Those that work less hard are much more tender (shown in grey, above), can be cooked quickly and at a higher temperature. Collagen cooks to gelatine if it’s given enough time, and this gives an unctuous quality to the gravy it produces. This is true for all animals with four legs: the front and back and underside muscles work hard, and those in the back work less hard.


Braising vs stewing

Braising means you are cooking the meat slowly in a ‘wet’ environment, the meat doesn’t have to be completely covered, if it is covered then you are stewing, but you need a lid to keep the moisture in. A pot roast is a braise. For optimum results you should braise in the oven to keep a constant temperature and so the meat at the top of the pot cooks at the same rate as that at the bottom.


How brining and marinating work

The acid ingredients in marinades (vinegar, lemon juice etc) add flavour by opening up the meat protein a little and penetrating the surface, If you don’t have any acid then this won’t happen at all, the flavour will only sit on the surface, however too much acid will ‘cook’ the surface of the meat and toughen it up. Marinades work less efficiently on dense meat than that with looser meat fibres such as chicken. They work even better on fish.

Brining helps drier meat such as chicken and turkey or some pork cuts lose less water when they cook. In wet and dry brining the salt draws water out of the meat, dissolves in it and then is drawn back in. Once inside the meat it dissolves some of the meat proteins so there are fewer of them to tighten the meat fibres up as it cooks and less water is squeezed out. In wet brining, water is also absorbed which may weaken the flavour of the meat so for a more flavourful piece of meat use dry brine (essentially you are salting the meat). Adding flavour to wet or dry brine will have no effect whatsoever, so don’t bother.


3 meat myths to ignore

1. Salt meat after cooking. No, salt it first, that way you’ll add flavour. A few hours or even a day ahead will add even more flavour.

2. Don’t stick a fork in meat when you turn it over or the juices will run out. The moisture loss when you do this is negligible – go ahead.

3. Don’t flip steaks and burgers more than once. It doesn’t make much difference to the way they cook, but do leave them long enough to get a good crust.


Can you serve pork cooked pink?

You’re more likely to find pork that’s slightly pink in restaurants, as recipes still recommend cooking pork thoroughly – as does the NHS. However, the parasite this advice is designed to kill, trichinella, is believed to have been eliminated in pigs farmed in the UK (there have been no cases of trichinosis linked to UK produced pork for 30 years*).
In Europe, most recent cases are linked to wild boar or pigs that forage. *pork.ahdb.org.uk


Why you should rest meat

The resulting flavour and texture will be much better. As just-cooked meat cools it sucks the moisture it squeezed out of its fibres as it got hot back in. Rest a single small steak for 10 minutes and a joint of meat for an hour. If you don’t rest meat for long enough it will give off lots of juices as you cut it, but these will be running onto your plate rather than making the meat juicier.


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Quick tips: how to brown meat in a pan

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