Meat and Marinades
"Oh, I eat from the three major food groups......
Bacon, Ham and Pork" -Steve Gresser
Unless you're down for a Veggie Burger every day or count the minutes to your next Tofurkey, chances are that the meat of something that was once alive(but is now dead) will make up the bulk of the protein that you eat everyday. Given that, the majority of the meat that is widely available on the market is beef/veal, chicken, pork, lamb, turkey, and duck. Grudgingly, I'll include fish. Then there are less available meats to include goose, buffalo, goat, and various game animals, both farm-raised and wild. From that list, beef and chicken are generally the most popular in America. Most of my discussion refers to beef and chicken, although in reality much here can be said also in regards to all other meats that you can get your hands on. For cooking game meat, look up this great game cookbook by my friend Joanna Pruess for some incredible recipes and preparations. Here, I'll cover The Basics, What to Buy, Handling and Storage, Marinades, and a few other deep thoughts on cooking meat.
- Although the USDA requires that all meat sold is inspected, it does not require that meat be graded. Despite this, most retailers will in fact grade their meat and furthermore, I would be suspicious of any company that does not.
- Beef is graded into eight(8) categories for human consumption: Prime, Select, Choice, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter, and Canner, with the top three considered the highest grades(duh).
- Lamb and Veal is graded into Prime, Choice, and Good, so try to stay with Prime or Choice.
- Pork is graded as either Kosher or non-Kosher. Nah, just kidding, the USDA doesn't grade pork. They just inspect it to make sure it's dead. Ok, they actually check to make sure it's "wholesome" and "unadulterated" too. The religious right would be proud.
- Poultry's top honors go to Grade A, so stay away from anything that doesn't have the USDA label and that grade.
- Fish, to my knowledge, doesn't have any categories, other than dead. I'm not a big fan of fish bones perforating my mouth, so I eat alot of sushi grade raw tuna and cooked snapper, salmon, and monkfish. Pan-searing tuna or salmon rare is also a great way to prepare fish.
What to Buy
Once a month get yourself down to your favorite butcher shop or grocery store and buy enough meat for the month. Then bring it home and prepare the bulk of it for the freezer. Look below under Handling and Storage for what I do.
- Beef. I would recommend you buy your steaks and prime rib from either of the top two grades and the rest from the top three. For steaks, also look for good marbling, which is the even distribution of fat flecks throughout the muscle tissue(as the meat is cooked, the fat melts, making the steak juicy and flavorful). Aged beef is aged from 10 days to 6 weeks. Aging allows a slow process of breaking down the interconnective tissue, making the meat even more tender and flavorful. Keep a couple steaks and a roast handy in your freezer, both marinated and non-marinated. Also, buy a package or two of hamburger meat to divide up for burgers and pasta meat sauce.
- Lamb and Veal. Again, stay with the top grades here. If you like the taste of Lamb, the most convenient cut to buy is the shank. Each shank is perfect for a single serving and I happen to like the taste of a shank over a chop or a leg anyway, since there is more interconnective tissue. Veal, buy what you want....personally I'm not much for the taste of veal, although I admire the concept(ok, that was a joke. If you're into cruelty of animals, eat veal. Otherwise, skip it).
- Pork. Tenderloin cuts are quite inexpensive compared to beef and make super cuts to grill or pan-sear. Also, blade steaks are just about as tender for less than 1/2 the price, although they include a bone.
- Poultry. This really depends on whether you like white meat or dark meat. If you like both, my recommendation is buy a handful of cornish game hens.....they are perfect to keep in the freezer...and make handy footballs for an impromptu game of tackle. It also allows you to skip handling the chicken other than just chucking it in the freezer. Also consider having some breasts on hand(God, if it were only that easy), a few thighs, and maybe a large roaster if you'll be entertaining for more than two.
- Other. Duck, goose, buffalo, and game are up to your individual tastes, although all of them rock. If you haven't already, try all of them at some point and decide for yourself. Duck and goose are all dark meat birds(if you like dark meat) and Buffalo makes for an incredible steak. Elk and rattlesnake are a treat when you can get them, although I don't recommend you acquire fresh snake the way I did.
- Fish. Always get fish fresh versus frozen when available. Better yet, buy it whole and get it fileted. Look for pink gills, clear eyes, lustruous skin and....the ole Bachelor sniff test never fails. Oh, which reminds me...did you hear the one about Adam and Eve.....?
Handling and Storage
- I'm not even going to tackle a discussion on how to handle your meat......I'll let someone else deal with that beast. The USDA puts out a really great, comprehensive guide of USDA Food Safety Guidelines.
- Ok, my UNOFFICIAL recommendation is that you take everything out of its original package, separately(to avoid any possible cross-contamination) give it a light cold water rinse, a pat dry with paper towels, then repackage for the freezer. If you're going to marinate the meat, put the cuts into high-quality zip-lock bags with the marinade and remove any air when closing. Otherwise, tightly wrap in a high-quality freezer wrap, then wrap in aluminum foil. ALWAYS wash your hands before handling your meat(yeah yeah, snicker snicker) and between handling different types of meat(ok, who's laughing now?).
- Now, I'm also going to mention in a very casual and non-legally liable way that I happen to age the beef that I buy when aged beef is not available. Note: the USDA strongly discourages consumers from aging beef themselves. So, I wouldn't even say that I prepare the beef as in #2 above, then give it a light coat of salt, pepper, and sometimes some spices, and then tightly wrap it for a 5-7 day stay in the back of my refrigerator. I certainly can't be responsible if you happen to do that, manage to screw it up, then try to blame me for your troubles. Moving right along......
- For any specific questions that are so pressing that you absolutely have to have them answered immediately, give the USDA's Meat and Poulty Hotline at ring at 1-800-535-4555, 10am to 4pm Eastern time.
- I used to live in a coastal town, so it was easy for me to get fresh fish throughout the year. Most fish is very healthy for you but, still, buy the fish and start the timer: you've got 48 hours before it gets slimy.
- First comment about marinades is that it should incorporate all the flavors you like and should complement the type of meat that you are marinating. Beyond that, you should realize that the stronger the flavor of the marinade, the less time you should allow the meat to soak and visa versa. Minimum time should be about 30 minutes all the way up to five days, although for most meat 24-48 hours is optimum. NEVER re-use a marinade as it will invariably contain harmful bacterias.
- Start with enough liquids to cover the meat and plenty of flavoring. If you incorporate some fresh herbs, all the better.
- Some flavors that I like to use for steak include:
- soy sauce
- gravy master
- worcestershire sauce
- maple syrup
- toasted sesame oil
- liquid smoke
- dry white sherry
- and of course, salt and pepper
- Some flavors that I like to use for lamb:
- olive oil
- fresh rosemary
- blue cheese
- maple syrup
- Some flavors that I like to use for pork:
- toasted sesame oil
- dry white sherry
- Some flavors that I like to use for poultry:
- truffle oils
- white wine
- Some flavors that I like to use for fish:
- Old Bay
- fresh herbs
In place of, or in addition to, a marinade, you can flavor your meat with a rub, either wet or dry. I prefer taking a base of some oil(olive, sesame, lemon, or orange, etc) adding salt and pepper and some herbs, then brushing it on the meat about 20 minutes before cooking.....this works especially well with poulty.
By the way.......
Some thoughts on cooking your various meats:
- For beef, ensure that you have let the meat come to room temperature first. Proteins don't react well to rapid exposure to high temps, so if you let it warm up first, it will drastically improve the texture when you sear it in the pan or on the grill. Also, a final swab of butter and/or maple syrup will help sear the outside and retain juices as both will burn nicely. I like to get my grill going to a 4-alarm blaze of hickory or mesquite, then sear the bejesus out of it for a minute either side for every inch of thickness.
- For lamb, the same holds true as above. And if you are broiling, give it 10 minutes under the broiler, then 10 minutes at 375F for every pound.
- Pork, again, same as above.
- Poultry, give it 10 minutes under the broiler, then 20 minutes at 325F for every pound....unless you read otherwise in the instructions.