General Advice on Choosing and Buying Meat

General Advice on Choosing Meat

When choosing meat, one of the most important things to check for is that it looks appetising. Meat should have a silky (not wet) appearance and it should be neatly and thoroughly trimmed with any excess fat removed. Any bones should be sawn smoothly, not jaggedly chopped.

If you are buying a boned, rolled joint, make sure that it is neatly tied (not skewered); piercing meat can cause a loss of moisture during cooking and may also introduce bacteria into its centre.

Tenderness of Meat

There are many factors that affect the tenderness of meat, and it can often be difficult to distinguish between tender and tougher cuts. Factors that can influence tenderness include:

  • the age and breed of the animal (the younger, the more tender)
  • the way the animal was handled before slaughter (relaxed animals produce more tender meat)
  • the temperature to which the carcass was chilled
  • the length of time the carcass was hung (an aged carcass will be more tender)
  • the part of the animal the cut was taken from (the less exercise the muscle received, the more tender it will be)
  • the way the meat was cut

The tenderest meat comes from younger animals and from the parts of the animal that has received the least exercise. Exercise develops muscle fibre and the connective tissue that holds the muscles together, making the meat coarser and tougher. In this way, the leg, neck and shoulder cuts tend to be less tender than those taken from the rump or loin.

Tender cuts with little connective tissue respond well to dry heat (grilling, roasting and frying), whilst fibrous cuts with more connective tissue need slow, gentle cooking in moist heat (stewing, braising or boiling). This breaks down the connective tissue into gelatine, producing meat with a soft, sticky tenderness.

Tougher meat can also be prepared to make it more tender by marinating it in wine, lemon juice, vinegar, yogurt, or pulped tomatoes before subjecting it to slow cooking; the acid in these marinades help to break down connective tissue. Oil is often added to the marinade to add succulence to the meat.

Meat may also be pounded or scored to break up connective tissue, to make tough meat more tender; this can be done at home by chopping the surface of the meat first one way and then the other with a sharp, heavy knife, or by pounding it with a rolling pin or a meat tenderiser.

It is important to bear in mind that although cuts from young animals or from parts of the animal that have received little exercise are usually more tender, this is often at the expense of flavour. For example, although a rump steak may be less tender than a fillet steak, it is far more flavoursome.

Ageing Meat

When carcasses are hung in a refrigerated store (at around 2°C/35°F), the enzymes in the meat begin to break down the tendons and tough tissues. Beef should be hung for at least a week (3-4 weeks being more preferable), whilst lamb should be aged for at least 4 days. Pork, veal and kosher meat are not aged.

Because of the weight loss during storage due to the evaporation of moisture, and the cost of storing carcasses, meat that has been hung correctly tends to be relatively more expensive. However, the benefit that aging gives to the tenderness and flavour of the meat is usually well worth the additional cost, and it can be well worth your while to hunt out a butcher that can supply you with well aged meat.

Organic Meat

Organic farms carefully supervise their animals' diet, and as a result, can offer the healthiest meat. All beasts are rested before slaughter, not only as a kindness to the animal, but also to provide more tender meat. In general, the more care that is lavished upon the animals, the tastier their meat is.