Ellen on Edibles
Marbling has nothing to do with stone, but the patterns that swirl through some polished sheets of marble are echoed by the fat patterns in cuts of meat. Although marbling is not wanted in lean cuts of meat like a tenderloin, the fat, which leaches out of the meat during slow cooking, is desirable for cuts destined for the slow cooker. It's this fat that punctuates the strong muscle fibers and makes the food tender after cooking.
If you've bought a larger piece of meat than you need for one recipe, cut it all and freeze any you don't use. Freeze the pieces on a plastic-wrapped baking sheet until solid. Then place the frozen pieces in a heavy plastic bag and then pull out just the quantity you need to defrost for your next recipe.
It's a happy coincidence that the cuts of meat best suited for slow cooking are also the least expensive ones. Even when set on High, a slow cooker is still cool enough to slowly convert the meat's connective tissue from collagen to gelatin. (That's why slow cooked meat is described as "fork-tender.") The well-marbled meat with the collagen comes from the parts of the animals that get the most exercise.
Picking Your Parts
Imagine that you're running around in a field. Your leg muscles are getting much more of a workout than your back muscles are. And if you're running around on four legs, you can count your front legs and shoulders amongst those well-used muscles, too.
When shopping in the supermarket for meat destined for your slow cooker, here are the cuts to look for:
Even if they are not labeled as such, you'll know you've selected the proper slow cooker cuts when you compare the price of these cuts with cuts such as tenderloin, sirloin, and rib. And there is no need to go for the high-priced Prime grade meats. Choice and Standard quality are just fine.
Stew meat is usually cut from the chuck, and you pay a premium price to buy it already cut up. Save some money and instead, spend a few minutes to cut it yourself. In addition to saving money, there are many advantages to cutting meat yourself:
- You can trim off all visible fat.
- You can make the pieces a uniform size or the size specified in the recipe.
- If cutting up beef or veal, you can save the scraps for grinding into hamburger or making stock.
For slow cooking, make the cubes about 1 inch square, unless instructed other-wise in the recipe. At this size, the meat will finish cooking at the same time as your vegetables.
Although you can prepare many ingredients in a slow cooked dish the night before, meat cannot be browned in advance and then refrigerated. Once it has browned, it should be cooked immediately to ensure that no bacteria are growing.
Benefits of Browning
Whether or not to brown meat before putting it in the slow cooker is a matter of choice. I suggest it for all ground meat, because browning also rids the meat of inherent fat and keeps it from clumping. This has to be done in a skillet on the stove. If you're preparing a stew or roast, the meat can be browned under a preheated oven broiler in a broiler pan lined with aluminum foil. Turn the meat so it browns on all sides. The juices that seep out go into the pot and add flavor to the dish.
All beef and lamb should be browned before slow cooking. Browning adds a rich color to both the meat and the finished sauce. Browning is optional for pork, veal, and chicken. These lighter foods absorb color from the sauce.
Here's the Beef
The terminology for the major cuts of meat is similar for beef, lamb, pork, and veal. Beef is usually also broken into more portions. The cuts good for slow cooking are the short ribs (also called flanken), brisket, and chuck (which is part of the shoulder). You'll also find oxtails, which are really from cattle, not from oxen.
Other Grazing Greats
Veal cooks in less time than other meats, but beef, lamb, and pork are about even. Feel free to substitute one meat for another in any stew recipe.
Pork, lamb, and veal have all the same parts as cattle, and once they are butchered, are usually labeled the same way. There are some names unique to each animal to watch for, however.
When you're buying pork, the shoulder is sometimes called the Boston butt, and the upper leg can be called the picnic shoulder. Although some people do slow cook spare ribs, I think they are better served by oven baking or grilling. Country ribs, cut from the blade end of the loin, are best suited for slow cooking.
Lambs don't run around the way cattle do, so there are fewer cuts of meat that are enhanced by long hours of slow cooking. The shanks are my favorite and remind me of the lusty, raucous eating scene from the film Tom Jones. They are so large that it looks as if there's a whole roast on the plate, although they are mostly bone. The other good cut for roasts and stews is from the shoulder.
Veal are young cattle, so the same cuts apply as for beef.