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What Makes Beef Tender or Tough?

With meat, the cut matters as much as how you cook it

Fine Cooking Issue 80
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Illustration: Steve Hunter
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Some years ago, my mother-in-law served a truly memorable roast dinner. Today, whenever the family gets together, we still try to decide what it was we ate—the meat was served already sliced on the plates, and it was so gray and tough that it had become unidentifiable.

The problem was that the meat had been cooked for so long at such a high temperature that its color, flavor, and texture had been destroyed. To be fair, the cook wasn’t entirely to blame for the outcome (this was once a normal way for English housewives to cook meat), but it was a real pity, because such a disaster is easily avoided. The key is to know whether the cut you have is inherently tough or tender and to choose your cooking method accordingly.

Some cuts are naturally tougher than others

All meat—be it beef, pork, lamb, or chicken—consists of muscle, connective tissue, and fat. Most of what you see in a piece of meat is the soft, dense muscle; it’s essentially bundles of protein fibers. Connective tissue is the broad term for ligaments, tendons, and the collagen membranes that hold muscle fi bers together. Fat can appear in thick layers over muscles and also as fine marbling between muscle fibers. When finely marbled fat melts during cooking, it enhances tenderness and adds succulence.

The anatomy of tough and tender

Listed below are some of the most common tough and tender cuts; along with those that are neither exactly tough or tender but somewhere in between. These are versatile cuts when it comes to cooking, working nicely as a  braise but also able to take the high, dry heat of a grill or sauté pan.

Tough cuts:
Chuck roast
Shoulder roast
Shank
Brisket
Rump roast or steak
Top round
Bottom round
Eye of round
Short ribs

Tender cuts:
Rib-eye steak
Standing rib roast
Tenderloin (filet)
Strip steak
Strip loin
T-bone steak
Porterhouse steak
Sirloin steak
Tri-tip

Neither tough nor tender cuts:
Flank steak
Chuck steak
Top blade steak
Skirt steak

If you want to know whether a cut of beef is naturally tough or tender, you need to know two things: how much connective tissue the cut contains, and how much exercise the muscle received.

The toughest cuts have a lot of connective tissue and come from a heavily exercised muscle. (Exercise increases the amount of connective tissue within the muscles, making them tougher.) The tenderest cuts are those that have very little connective tissue and come from a little-used muscle. (For a list of tough and tender cuts, see the diagram on the facing page.)

So which muscles work the hardest and have the most connective tissue? That depends primarily on where the meat comes from on a steer’s body. The muscles that run along the sides of the backbone, for example, don’t work particularly hard, so cuts from that area (filet mignon, for instance, and rib-eye, porterhouse, T-bone, and sirloin steaks)are inherently tender. The large muscles that connect to the hips and shoulders, however, work a lot and have more connective tissue, so meat from those areas (round or rump roasts from the hip, chuck from the shoulder) is generally on the tougher side.

Match the cut to the cooking method

By its very composition, meat poses a challenge to cooks. The more you cook muscle, the more the proteins will firm up, toughen, and dry out. But the longer you cook connective tissue, the more it softens and becomes edible. To be specific, muscle tends to have the most tender texture between 120° and 160°F. But connective tissue doesn’t even start to soften until it hits 160°F, and it needs to reach 200°F to completely break down. By the time connective tissue is becoming edible, the muscle has completely overcooked.

So the trick to getting good results is deciding at the outset what sort of treatment the beef needs. Is it a mostly tender cut that needs to be cooked only long enough to make it safe to eat and develop good flavor? Or is it a mostly tough cut that needs ample time for connective tissue to break down? Every cut has its own particular needs.

Tender cuts with little connective tissue can take high, dry heat. This creates delicious browning on the outside without overheating the muscle inside. Steaks and other small tender cuts take well to quick cooking methods like grilling, pan searing, and frying. Larger cuts like prime rib are good candidates for roasting. (I like to start in a hot oven—just long enough to brown the surface—and then lower the heat for the remaining cooking time to let the heat slowly diffuse through the meat, until it reaches the temperature and color I want.)

Tougher cuts with lots of connective tissue do best with gentle, moist heat and lots of time. Long-cooking stews and braises are ideal for cuts like beef brisket and short ribs (the braising liquid ensures that the meat’s temperature hovers at about the boiling point). The slow, low-heat cooking allows connective tissue to break down into soft, silky gelatin, which gives the braise or stew a wonderful, rich mouth-feel. Also, as the collagen between the muscle fibers breaks down, the meat takes on a desirable “falling-apart” texture. At this point, the meat is technically overcooked, but the texture doesn’t seem tough or dry because the muscle fibers fall apart easily when chewed, and the dissolved collagen and juices add succulence.

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