As Chefs it is our job to know everything there is to know about food. Today we are talking about meat. Before we can go further, let us clarify what comes under this umbrella term of “meat”- it includes lamb, beef, mutton and flesh of any other animal, each of which has specific tastes and textures. We learn to cook through the quality of our ingredients. Hence understanding the quality points of meat is essential for the good outcome of the dish.
My passion towards this carnivore lifestyle is in gratitude to my family, specifically, my dad who taught me a lot about butchery, cattle rearing and cooking while I was growing up. Understanding the best meat to make use of for a particular dish is not difficult for a new bee in the kitchen today, as supermarkets sell meat cuts that are required for specific dishes. The concept of a butcher’s shop has taken a back seat but there are a number of butchers in supermarkets to assist you with any kind of queries that you may have.
We need to keep in mind certain factors that govern the quality of meat. They are as follows:
1) Marbling of the Meat
Marbling is referred to the intermittent dispersal of intramuscular fat in between the lean muscle tissue giving it the effect of a marble. The more the meat is marbled, the juicier it is and also tenderer with better flavours.
Meat is graded according to the distribution and texture of visible fat flecks within the muscle fibres using a scoring range from 0 to 9. The more the marbling, the higher is the grade. Marbling potential is determined by both genetics and nutrition. The Wagyu, a breed from Japan is the most priced beef because of the intense marbling.
Climate and weather changes have a direct effect on the hydration of organ tissue and metabolism of the animal, which in turn affects the produce.
3) Diet / Food of the Livestock
Grass fed cattle will have a different colour and flavour vis-a-vis a grain fed animal. In industrial slaughterhouses, the cattle are fed with controlled diets with added or manipulated nutrients to produce meat of a certain quality and grade.
4) Gender, Age & Weight of the animal
The above determines the bone-muscle ratio, as also the redness of the flesh. The younger the animal the tenderer is the meat.
5) Muscle usage
Sedentary animals relate to more fat content and muscle fibres that are not as hardened as compared to cattle that are made to walk or work, in which case the meat is tougher. Also, each muscle tissue is different depending on the anatomy. For example muscle tissue of the rump, silverside, shin, topside, etc. are all different in their structure and composition.
6) Cattle Management
The environment around the animal, feeding spaces, comfortable lying spaces, whether they live in groups and develop relationships amongst themselves, all affect the health and well-being of the ruminant. Disturbances may result in a biological loss to the animals.
7) Pre and Post-Slaughter conditions
Slaughter conditions as also the slaughter method, the post-handling and storage, all determine the meat quality at the time of cooking. Stress during slaughter must be avoided as it causes the muscles to tighten releasing certain hormones that infuse the muscle fibres altering the taste. Halal slaughtering is the preferred way as compared to stunning as the latter may leave blood in the muscle tissues which breed bacteria.
8) Ageing of the meat
Aged meat is higher in tenderness due to the enzyme activities which produce myofibrillar degradation. Also, the flavour intensity is enhanced in aged meat as compared to the fresh meat owing to the biological peptide breakage post slaughter.
9) Cooking time
It is important to know that tough cuts of meat are glorified when cooked longer and slower which allows all the tissues and muscles to relax, the fat melts out and enhances the flavour even further. However lean cuts of meat shouldn’t be over cooked as it would be tasteless and rubbery.
You may not have all the information about the animal protein that will go on your plate, but you can always chat up with your local butcher or meat store to get to know more. I would like to conclude by saying, don’t be afraid of the variety and types of produce available in the market. Experiment, get out a recipe and try it. Only through trial and error will you understand the ingredients and how they react when cooked with. That being said always cook with love and respect the meat you cook with, it is a very forgiving ingredient.