How to choose quality food is one of a cook's most important lessons. The quality of the ingredients that go into a meal determine its taste, texture, aroma and healthfulness. This is especially true of choosing the correct cut of meat for any dish.
Most industrialized countries today have a federal department responsible for inspecting the quality of meat. For example, in the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture inspects meat for contamination by germs or chemicals. Only meat that passes this inspection can be sold. Since some bacteria can still be present, raw meat also comes with safe handling instructions on the labels.
Beyond its wholesomeness, choosing the right cut of meat for a particular dish involves learning how meat is graded, where it comes from on the animal, and how it should be cooked. The following guidelines refer primarily to beef, although some guides also could apply to pork, goat or game meat. Poultry and fish have different standards.
First, check the quality grades; meat inspectors often assign the grade of "prime" to the best quality meat. Prime grade meat has the biggest mixture of lean and fat, or marbling. This ensures that the meat will tenderize as it cooks, making prime cuts best for dry-heat methods such as roasting, grilling or broiling. Some lesser grades of steaks and roasts can also cook well in dry-heat methods. However, meat that is less juicy should be marinated or braised (cooked in a covered pan with a small amount of liquid) to give it flavor and tenderness.
Beef from the chuck part of the cow is better for pot roast, as well as braising or marinating. These cuts include chuck steak, boneless short ribs and blade roast. Cuts from the rump, round and blade chuck, are good for braising.
Beef from the ribs, such as rib roast, rib-eye steak and back ribs, are excellent for roasting, grilling or broiling. Cuts from the cow's loin, such as porterhouse, T-bone and tenderloin steaks, are also good for grilling, as are top sirloin steak, tri-tip steak and tri-tip roast.
Top round steak, eye round roast and bottom round roast are better when marinated before cooking. These cuts make a good pot roast, or can be broiled or grilled if marinated first. Shank meat and brisket also are better as pot roast or marinated before grilling or broiling. These cuts include brisket, skirt steak and flank steak. Brisket is a particular barbecue favorite in Texas, where it's often braised in a covered pan on slow heat for several hours. The result is remarkably tender beef that is then topped with barbecue sauce and used as an entree or in sandwiches.
Some final tips:
* Look for meat that is red to deep red with white veins of fat. Avoid packaged meats with excessive blood or liquid.
* Freeze beef that won't be cooked right away. Beef will keep only four days in a refrigerator. Wrap the meat in heavy-duty aluminum foil or put in a moisture-free container.
*Wash hands thoroughly with soap before handling meat. Always wash and sanitize cutting boards, counter tops and knives after contact with meat. Wiping with a damp cloth isn't sufficient to prevent bacteria from the meat contaminating other foods.