From D., 18 January 2011, Tough times in the meat department?
Q: I learned of [skirt steaks] through you. I make them occasionally — usually just grill them with olive oil, salt & pepper. Made one for [the wife] tonight, smothered in Montreal steak rub, which she loves. Quick pan blackening. I have spoiled her with other meats, good cuts, so she found it tough. It has been largely spurned with some polite apologies.
And we had a round roast at some friends’ house last night. Cooked beautifully (I took it over with the chef’s consent), nice and slowly with a browned exterior and red/pink uniform interior, but a shitty cut of meat is a shitty cut of meat. The dessert was excellent….
So I’m nibbling on a half-eaten skirt steak and reloading with some beef/onion stir-fry with a second one.
Any way to make this cut of meat more tender?
A: Hello there and thanks for your question. I see you’ve been dabbling in the cheap cuts, which are my favorite cuts. Not that I’d ever kick a prime rib roast out of my kitchen – I’m not a crazy woman or anything – but my mother raised me to be frugal. I like a bargain, and some of the most delicious cuts of beef also happen to be the least expensive. You kind of have to accept them for what they are, though, which is the cuts with character. You can’t make them into something they’re not. They aren’t prime rib or filet mignon, but in some ways, they’re better. They taste beefier, and if you like texture and chew – which I do – they have that. They provide the satisfaction of knowing you’re eating meat.
Skirt steaks and round roasts. Those are indeed the bargain cuts – although skirt steaks are less so, since people have started to discover the beefy joy of the skirt. It’s still a relative bargain, though, unlike some of my favorite former bargains. Short ribs have become ridiculously costly, and hanger and brisket have been creeping up as well. It’s almost enough to turn you toward the chicken department.
But anyway. You asked whether these cuts can be made tender. Yes and no, by which I mean yes, to a point, depending. Let us have a discussion about why these cuts of meat are the way they are, because when it comes to meat and cooking, anatomy is destiny. Tender cuts tend to be smaller, less-exercised muscles. Tough cuts generally are larger, well-exercised muscles. The round comes from the top of the rear leg of the steer, so you can imagine how well-exercised it is. Think of your hamstrings. The skirt is from the plate, essentially the upper portion of the abdominal wall. Think of your rectus abdominus.
Do you have to familiarize yourself with the location and the fat and collagen content of every cut? No, of course not. It’s best just to look at the meat. In fact, because there really aren’t any American standards for naming meat cuts, it’s far better to be able to judge the characteristics of meat and know how to respond accordingly than to stake your bet on the name of the cut alone. Have a look and see.
Look at the brisket, the skirt steak, and the sirloin tips. Notice the relative coarseness of the grain (to varying degrees). Can you see how the meat fibers are stringy and separate? The coarser the fibers, the tougher the meat is likely to be. What about the color of the meat? Do you notice the white fibers throughout? Those are connective tissue, as opposed to the chunks of fat you’d seen in a cut like prime rib. Over time and long exposure to heat (generally over 160F/71C), collagen breaks down to gelatin, which feels rich and thick in the mouth. Until it breaks down, though, it’s just connective tissue – tough and stringy-feeling. That’s why we braise these cuts – you need the long exposure to heat to give that classic unctuous feel.
So here’s are the meat lessons. I know a lot of people who insist on ordering every steak blue-rare (about 120F/49C), but you can’t do that with every kind of meat, especially not these cuts. In fact, I would say you shouldn’t really do that with any kind of meat, but that’s another fight and we won’t have it today. Skirt steak cannot be served blue-rare – it should be served medium rare (about 130F-135F/54C-57C), or it has a jellyish texture because the muscle fibers are so thick and coarse. In addition, it needs to be cut straight across the grain so the fibers are as short as possible, to make them easy to chew. It’s reasonably high in fat and low in collagen, though, so at least you don’t have to deal with a lot of tough collagen and it has good mouthfeel.
Cuts from the round are low in fat and high in collagen, and best served as a braise to develop the flavors that result when the collagen breaks down to gelatin (which is why they usually become pot roast). This collagen breakdown will not happen at the medium-rare doneness you want to achieve, which is why your roast was not tender even though it was pink (for an exception, see the last paragraph below), and because the round is low in fat, no melted fat compensates for the mouthfeel of gelatin. You can roast or grill round roast, of course, which is why it also is a popular “London Broil” cut. To overcome the meat’s inherent toughness, you have to slice it into paper-thin cuts cut across the grain. Anything thicker and it will be hard to chew because that collagen is tough, tough, tough. Even the thin cuts will have some chew and there is no getting around that. So remember – thin cuts, as thin as you can.
Unless you are braising meat or cooking ground meat, don’t cook your beef past 140F/60C and try to avoid reaching that point. Although muscle fibers contract in response to heat at all temperatures above around 95F/35C, at 140F/60C, meat suddenly releases a lot of liquid and becomes chewy and dry while sitting in a pool of its own juice. I don’t like to go past 135F, which I think is the best temperature for nearly all beef cuts – not jellyish and raw, but tender and juicy. Nothing irritates me more than the intentional cooking of meat to the medium-well/well-done phase. If you’re going to do that, stick to poultry and braises.
Note: there is exactly one way to serve a tooth-tender medium rare round roast and that is sous vide/low temperature cooking over long periods of time, usually in excess of 48 hours, at 140F/60C. Isn’t 140F a little overdone, a little dried-out, based on what I just said? Well, yes, it would be if you were cooking it under normal circumstances, but once the collagen breaks down, the gelatin lubes up the now-tender meat fibers and makes the meat very moist. Here’s a 36 hour sirloin steak tip, for reference, which I prepared last week. We can get into the mechanics of that sometime if you would like.