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Tips and advice when cooking meat

Even if you're not a novice in the kitchen, cooking meat can sometimes be a little intimidating. Between timing, temperatures, cuts, and cooking techniques, it can feel like there’s a lot required to roasting lamb or grilling the perfect steak. Here is some simple advice to get you started.

The aims of cooking meat

  • Develop or improve flavour, colour, aroma
  • Make it delicious and appetising to eat
  • Make it more tender
  • Make it easier to digest
  • Make it safe to eat - kill any harmful bacteria it may have picked up during handling

In the process of cooking, many changes occur, affecting the appearance, taste and texture of meat.

How meat changes during cooking

Muscle proteins shrink and moisture is lost - as meat is heated, muscle proteins coagulate and shrink, squeezing out water. The longer you cook meat, the more water is forced out.

The loss of juices through evaporation and cooking determines the meat’s juiciness, the amount of shrinkage and the final cooked weight.

Prolonged or overcooking can result in dry meat that is tough to eat.

Colour changes

Heat affects the pigments and changes the colour of meat. The red colour of uncooked beef or lamb changes to light pink, and finally to a brown/grey shade as the degree of doneness increases.

Connective tissue softens

For slow cooking cuts, some of the connective tissue softens and gelatinises.

Fat melts, browning occurs and flavour develops

Heat causes fat to melt. Slightly browning fat develops flavour, the more you brown it, the more flavour is developed.

Searing develops flavour

Searing or browning the outer, lean surface of meat, usually at a fairly high temperature, develops flavour and colour through caramelisation. It is an important step in several cooking methods, producing tasty meat.

Dry and moist methods of cooking beef and lamb

There are two basic types of meat cookery:

  • Dry heat methods
  • Moist heat methods

The cooking method you use depends on:

  • The natural tenderness of the meat cut
  • The amount and type of connective tissue
  • The leanness of the meat
  • Size and thickness of the cut of meat

The myth about searing

The myth about searing: Searing meat does not seal in the juices.

A browned surface will not stop the loss of juices from meat as it cooks. As meat is heated, bundles of muscle fibres contract and force out moisture, especially from cut surfaces.

The sizzle you hear when meat hits the hot pan is water turning to steam. Of course melting fat can sizzle too. Lean meat, totally trimmed of all visible fat, sizzles and spatters as its juices evaporate and the longer it cooks, the more water it loses.

When cooking meat, sear it to a good brown colour to improve appearance and flavour, and keep in mind overcooked lean meat will be dry meat, and therefore not as enjoyable to eat as correctly cooked lean meat, which is succulent and juicy.

Tenderising meat

It goes without saying the best way to ensure the meat you cook is tender is to choose a cut you know to be tender, from a reliable source. By selecting Quality Mark meat from your butcher or supermarket, you are guaranteed meat which is lean, tender and safe to eat.

It is also true that meat toughened during processing can never be made edibly tender.

However, less tender cuts can be made more tender by the following means:

Chemical tenderising
  • Acids: Marinades containing a mild acid ingredient such as lemon juice, wine or wine vinegar help to tenderise meat. The meat may be soaked in the marinade for several hours or a day in the fridge. The use of a tenderising marinade is more effective on thinner cuts of meat.
  • Enzymes: Some raw fruits contain protein-splitting enzymes, which act on raw meat to tenderise it. Examples include paw paw, kiwifruit, pineapple and figs. The enzymes break down and soften muscle tissue. Mashed raw fruit, liquid or powder may be spread over the meat, or mixed with other marinade ingredients to coat the meat some time before cooking.

The tenderising effect acts mainly at the surface, so a marinade or powder works better on small, thin cuts of meat.

If left too long on raw meat, marinades containing these tenderising enzymes spoil the texture of meat, causing it to become mushy on the surface. Note: not all marinades have a tenderising effect. Many marinades have no acid or enzyme ingredients and are simply used to add flavour and colour to the meat.

Blade or mechanical tenderisers
  • Mincing, chopping or grinding: Meat is put through a chopper, mincer or grinding machine to break up connective tissue and muscle tissue into small pieces.
  • Batting out, or hammering: Meat is pounded with a meat mallet (the mallet may have a rough, toothed surface) to break down muscle and connective tissue. This method is used for individual portioned cuts, steaks or schnitzels, not whole joints.
  • Cutting or needling by machine: Steaks can be tenderised using a revolving machine with tiny blades, which make very fine cuts in the meat, breaking up less tender tissue. This may be used on boneless beef steaks such as topside, silverside, thick flank or blade.

Posted by Shawn Moodie

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