Beef: an interactive buyer's guide
1st February, 2010
Do you know your clod from your foreshin? Learn more about rare, cheap cuts of beef (and why local and well-hung meat is best) in this interactive guide from chef Darina Allen
Why buy meat from a local butcher?
Meat sourced locally is a win-win scenario for the consumer, the producer and the animal, in that the animals are born and reared in the locality, their meat is directly traceable to a particular farm or region, and the animals are less stressed before slaughter, unlike those that have to travel long distances in less-than-ideal conditions.
All of these factors impact on the quality of the meat sold to the consumer. There are still many good, craft-style butchers left and these are people who know their meat.
Some even have their own farms and can offer total traceability. These butchers are treasures and should be supported. Many will be happy to enter into discussion with you about the meat and its good qualities.
Give them feedback next time you visit. Some butchers buy from local farmers but have their own abattoir and this, again, can be very reassuring. They too identify with their product and are not going to sell anything that reflects badly on them. Wherever you buy you should ask questions: the breed, feed and hanging time are essential issues that you should investigate.
When buying meat I always look for dry-aged meat. Hanging meat is becoming a forgotten skill. The animal is slaughtered, and nowadays, within a very short time it is butchered, put into plastic vac-pacs and 'aged' there, so it retains its moisture and thus its weight.
In dry-aging, on the other hand, the prime cuts of meat (those with adequate marbling, or in other words, evenly distributed fat) are allowed to begin to deteriorate slowly at cold temperatures, and the enzyme action in the meat breaks down the connective tissue in the muscles, thus tenderising the meat. Plus, as moisture evaporates, the flavour is concentrated. The fungal genus Thamnidia apparently makes for particularly tender and flavourful meat.
Traditional butchers still know about hanging, but they're in a dilemma because hanging the meat as long as they'd like to is a costly process, since it causes meat to lose as much as a third of its weight. Plus, the fungal crust that develops on the outside of the meat must be trimmed off.
Dry-aging takes much longer (15-28 days) than wet-ageing, which only takes a few days. Most customers are not aware of this issue and don't understand why they should have to pay more. If, however, we want well-aged meat, we need to be prepared to pay for it.
Well-hung meat will be a crusty dark brown, or even almost black, rather than rosy pink, which puts people off. But it's actually a sign of quality. It could even grow a little mould and still be okay; you can just trim that off.
Cuts of Beef
1 Cheeks: stew, slow cook or braise.
2 Neck: a very muscular cut with a high proportion of connective tissue. Mince or cube and use in slow cooked dishes.
3 Chuck or rib steak and Blade: mince or use for stewing. Braise and slow cook the blade.
4 Clod: mince or cube for slow cooking. Texture is similar to neck.
5 (a) Foreshin: long slow cooking breaks down the collagen. Great for stews and for consommé.
(b) Hindshin: tougher than the foreshin and not as meaty but can be cooked in the same way.
6 Brisket: use for corned beef or mince.
7 Toprib or topside or housekeeper's cut: braise or slow roast.
8 Flank: a thin strip. Roast when well hung. Braise, stew, mince or use for spiced beef.
10 Ball of round or top rump: there are different muscles in the leg and all need to be slow cooked or braised.
11 Rib roast great on BBQ.
12 Prime rib or fore rib: roast on bone or off bone or cut into rib steaks.
13 Sirloin - strip loin: roast whole in a piece or cut into sirloin or minute steaks, fry or grill.
14 Fillet: roast whole or cut into fillet steaks, tournados 1cm (1⁄2in) thick or medallions 5mm (1⁄4in) thick.
• Chateaubriand steak is cut from the thicker part of the fillet at the leg end.
• For beef stroganoff - use chain off the fillet.
• For carpaccio - use thinly sliced fillet.
• For steak tartare - use minced fillet.
15 Rump: grill or slow roast rump steak or roast the whole joint.
16 Silverside: very lean cut. Use for corning and spiced beef.
17 Topside or eye of round: slow roast or braise.
18 Leg: braise or slow cook.
19 Oxtail: stew or slow cook.
NB the highest percentage of 'best' cuts come from the hind quarter.
Roasting is a very traditional way to cook meat, but today's ovens vary enormously in efficiency. In addition, thermostats are not always accurate and some joints of meat are much thicker than others, so the figures for roasting times below must be treated as guidelines rather than rules. The times below include a 15-minute searing time at a high heat.
For beef on the bone:
Rare 10 minutes per 450g (1lb)
Medium 12 minutes per 450g (1lb)
Well-done 18 minutes per 450g (1lb)
For beef off the bone:
Rare 8 minutes per 450g (1lb)
Medium 10 minutes per 450g (1lb)
Well-done 15 minutes per 450g (1lb)
Is it cooked?
When roasting meat, there are various ways of checking when the joint is cooked to your taste. I usually insert a skewer into the thickest part of the joint, leave it there for about 30-45 seconds and then put it against the back of my hand, if it still feels cool, the meat is rare, if it is warm it is medium rare, if it is hotter it is medium and if you can't keep the skewer against your hand for more than a second then you can bet it's well-done. Also, if you check the colour of the juices, the meat is well done if they are clear, as opposed to red or pink for rare or medium.
If you own a meat thermometer, it will eliminate guesswork altogether, but ensure the thermometer is not touching a bone when you are testing the internal temperature.
Calf: the young offspring of a cow and a bull.
Veal: the meat from a calf. More often, these are the male animals of dairy breeds, because they don't fatten as effectively as beef breeds and will never give milk.
Heifer: female animal who hasn't had a calf yet
Cow: mature female animal of the family Bovidae. Raised for dairy, beef or both.
Bull calf: young male animal.
Bullock or steer: a castrated bull.
Bull: mature male adult of the family Bovidae. Raised for beef or dairy breeding.
Ox: a bovine animal used as a draught animal, often an adult, castrated male.
This is an edited extract from Darina Allen's 'Forgotten Skills of Cooking: The time-honoured ways are the best - over 700 recipes show you why (Hardcover, £30, Kyle Cathie)
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