Selecting the Proper Cut of Meat
Although most of us spend quite a bit of time both cooking and shopping, many of us don't realize that we can achieve better results and save time, effort, and money if we were to focus a little more attention on the selection of the proper cuts and the appropriate cooking methods for the job at hand. Applying the wrong cooking method to the wrong cut of meat will often yield a product that is over- or undercooked, mushy, stringy, or tough, or cooked out of synch with the accompanying ingredients (stuffings, vegetables, etc.).
At the same time, having only one or two cuts in your cooking repertoire will often mean that you are over- or underpaying for your meat, if you’re either forcing a tougher cut to do something it can’t, or if you’re using a more expensive cut than you need to. The thriftier cuts are actually better suited for some applications than their more expensive steak and roast counterparts.
First some anatomy:
Muscle fibers on their own do not differ much at all throughout the carcass. If they were the only component of muscle meat, there would be no functional difference between the rump, the cheek, the tongue, the brisket, or the tenderloin. (Nor, for that matter, between the flavor of beef, goat, and lamb.) Where most cuts do differ - and drastically, at that - is in the amount of silverskin (collagen-based connective tissue) around groups of muscle fibers or in between muscles or layers of muscles.
The general rule is that the harder the muscle works, either in terms of repetitive contractions or in terms of the energy exerted when contracted, the more connective tissue is necessary to keep the fibers and bundles of fibers all pulling in the same direction. Think of the head of a mop, where a knot or mechanical fastener keeps the rope strands that make up the mop from flopping all over the place. If you picture an animal in its grazing stance (head down and legs apart), the closer a muscle is to the ground, the more weight it needs to bear. The more weight it carries, the harder it needs to work, the leaner (and more flavorful) it will be, and the more connective tissue it is therefore likely to contain.
The shins, shanks, and heels carry nearly the entire weight of the body when they are flexed, so it is reasonable to assume that they are full of connective tissue and need to cook for a long time. The tongue and cheeks are constantly working in ruminating animals, who spend half their day chewing, and so they fall into the same category as well. The neck, arm, and thighs all carry heavy loads, but they are distributed over more and larger muscles, so they are medium- to slow cooking cuts, too. The shoulder, spine, rump, and belly don’t flex nearly as hard or as often, so they are where you will find the faster cooking roasts and steaks. The tenderloin (psoas major) carries nearly no weight at all and flexes rarely, which is why it is incomparably softer meat than that found anywhere else on the carcass.
If you intend to cook your meat for a long time, whether because you enjoy its flavor or texture that way (well done), or because of Shabbat or Yom Tov restrictions, or because you can’t be bothered to tend to it too closely when multitasking, what you need is one of these “tougher” cuts of meat, rich in connective tissues that will collapse and dissolve into gelatin when cooked for long enough (4 to 8 hours is where most of it will happen, though there are exceptions). If this is the case, you are literally wasting your money buying steak or roast meat. Those cuts will dry out, as they are generally lean, and they will toughen up over a long cooking time to mediocre effect at best. Cuts richer in collagen tissue will break down once the collagen disintegrates into a jelly-like layer in between the layers of muscle, and their flavor will improve along with the thickening of the texture of the sauce inside the pot.
The opposite is true of steaks. A steak will never get any more tender than it is raw. The only changes that take place are a slight stiffening of the muscle fibers (which will make them easier to chew, up to a certain point) and the collapse of whatever minimal connective tissue is present - which should not take long at all. Cook them for too long or at too high a temperature, and they will lose whatever fat or marbling they contained, stiffen up, and dry out. The only drawbacks to steaks are that they are expensive and that they need to be cooked carefully and timed right, lest they be ruined by overcooking. This is not the type of dinner you want to plan if you’re busy or too distracted to be on top of your timing. Steaks require focus and concentration in order to reach the proper finish and to give you your money’s worth in flavor and texture.
Roasts fall right in the middle; they aren’t quite as tender as steaks are, due to the nature of their muscles and the higher amount of connective tissue surrounding the bundles of muscle fibers in them. At the same time, they are easily ruined by excessive cooking times or temperatures, which will cause them to stiffen up, dry out, and lose their appeal unless drowned in sauce. The ideal timing on your roasts will depend on their size, how long they need to cook in order to soften the connective tissues, and to an extent on your desired degree of doneness (they are tricky to time for rare, and they can’t always be enjoyed well done; medium-rare tends to work best).
Pricewise, the general rule is that the faster it cooks, the more expensive it is. There is always high demand for convenience and speed, and your patience will very literally be rewarded if you can afford some prep time before you need to serve it. Stew meat and slow cooking cuts, such as shins, shanks, heels, tongues, and cheeks, are fairly inexpensive. Roasts tend to be larger and to make for prettier presentation (more impressive slices), and their prices are generally in the medium range, which makes them a great choice for feeding a crowd.
The ultimate decision will be a function of how much time you have at your disposal - where the faster cooking cuts actually require more of your time and concentration than the set it and forget it slow cookers, how many people you intend to feed, and your budget. Steaks are by far the most expensive cuts, and although hard to replace, other muscles can be cooked to similarly tender results with enough time, patience, and the proper method - and at a more affordable price. Try out different cuts and different cooking methods - they will save you time and money in the long run.