How to Choose Meats

Answered on August 19, 2014
Created July 18, 2012 at 8:54 PM

Being vegetarian my entire adult life (8 years), I never learned how to buy or cook meat. At my first trip to Whole Foods, I was too overwhelmed with options to make a purchase. Today, on my second visit, I ended up picking stuff up pretty randomly, and paying a small fortune for it.

My question is, where should I start as a novice cooker of red meat, poultry, and fish? What do I buy that's affordable and relatively easy to cook?



on July 19, 2012
at 04:37 AM

Thanks, that's good to keep in mind! I don't have a grill, so I think I'll be doing a lot of pan-frying.


on July 19, 2012
at 12:44 AM

Solid answer. BTW, love your article on snacking!

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on July 18, 2012
at 09:34 PM

I feel your pain, I'm still learning how to cook meat after not eating it growing up.

Depending on how much you bought, you might want to throw some of it in the freezer, and move to the fridge to defrost a day or two before you want to cook it. I never eat more than a pound per day, and try not to have more than 3 days worth defrosted at any given time, unless I'm doing a big cooking day to have premade lunches for the week.

Personally, I'd start by eating at some nice restaurants, or hit the Whole Paycheck deli and sample what well prepared meat should taste like. I find that I have better results if I know what I'm shooting for. Here's a crash course in what I've learned over the last few years:

Chili is easy, throw ground beef and diced onion in pot with tomato paste, crushed canned tomatoes, chili powder, cumin, and salt. Stir to break up the meat while it cooks, and let it simmer for a while.

Bacon, cook on lowish heat (3-4 on my electric stove top, probably 2 on gas) in a skillet, turning often for about 12 minutes, and you'll get tasty evenly cooked bacon.

For the perfect beef steak, sear the outside in hot oiled cast iron skillet over medium-high heat (I use coconut for this one), and then pop in a 500 degree oven to finish for about 8 minutes, top with a pat of butter, salt, and pepper. There is going to be some smoke with this method, so turn the exhaust fan on high, open windows, and be ready to fan any hardwired smoke detectors.

Lamb steak, just cook until rare in medium skillet, about 4 minutes on each side.

Poached "chicken in a pot" is the easiest way I've ever cooked a whole chicken, you can even start from a frozen bird for this one. Just put it in a large pot, cover with water, and simmer for 1 1/2-2 hours. Adding salt to the water acts like a brine and makes the meat more moist.

Chicken legs, just throw the whole package in baking dish with a little water, sprinkle with poultry seasoning and salt, bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes to an hour.

Salmon, don't overcook it! Alder cooking planks are worth their weight in gold for imparting fabulous flavor into the fish. Soak the planks in water for a few hours, put on foil or a cookie sheet, place the fillet skin side down after brushing it with olive oil, baste the top with whatever sounds yummy or just a light coating of olive oil, and cook at about 400 degrees until done, check with fork to see if it starts to flake (20-30 minutes seems to do it in my oven).

Chicken liver, these suffer from overcooking as well, saute over medium heat in butter until the centers are pink but not bloody, sprinkle with salt, and eat right out of the pan.


on July 19, 2012
at 12:42 AM

The big question for red meat is: slow or fast cooking?

Fast cooking, e.g. grilling or pan-frying on high heat, only works well with sufficiently tender cuts of meat, or with ground beef. Here's my list off the top of my head: Rib steak/ribeye, New York, porterhouse, T-bone, tenderloin, sirloin, tri-tip (bottom sirloin), skirt, round (though round is very lean and therefore borderline), and SOMETIMES chuck or flatiron. (Chuck is variable: sometimes it's great, sometimes it's full of gristle.)

Slow cooking, e.g. braising or long baking under low heat, should only be done with meats too tough to eat otherwise: chuck (usually), round (often) shank, flank, ribs, etc. Exception: prime rib can be slow-cooked on low heat (recipe).

Rubs and marinades can improve all but the most tender cuts, both in taste and in tenderness (the acids in vinegar help break down the tissues).

Hope this helps!




on July 19, 2012
at 04:37 AM

Thanks, that's good to keep in mind! I don't have a grill, so I think I'll be doing a lot of pan-frying.


on July 19, 2012
at 12:44 AM

Solid answer. BTW, love your article on snacking!



on July 19, 2012
at 05:44 AM

Find a good butcher's shop. Ask around, do not buy your meat in the supermarket. Talk to said butcher, preferably in person. Find out if the animal has been grass-fed, if it has been dry-aged, where it comes from and so on.

If you have to store your meat in the fridge, either vacuum-pack it (your butcher will oblige) or put in on a grill in a shallow dish and cover loosely.

Always let your meat come to room temperature before you cook it. This may take several hours and will not kill, you even in summer.

Don't be afraid of tough cuts, just give them enough time in a slow oven, like 3-4 hours for beef shank. Braising dishes are easier to master for a beginner, so find a recipe for boeuf bourguignon and dive in. Shank is great for this.


on July 18, 2012
at 09:46 PM

Whole Foods just opened today in West Des Moines. I bought a grass-fed bison chuck roast ($8.99/lb), browned it on the stove and then stuck it in my slow cooker with some veggies. Very easy to prep and looking forward to a good dinner. Oops, forgot to season it. Better go do that now! Done.


on July 18, 2012
at 09:02 PM

Chuck steaks are pretty cheap. Sprinkle a little salt on each side and put in the oven on the broil setting (or, if your oven is specific like mine, broil - high). Cook for like 5 minutes each side... maybe a little more if it's thick. If you're not sure if it's done, just cut it open and see how red it is. If it's too red for your liking, put it back under the broiler for a few minutes.

For a whole chicken, you can cook it in the crock pot. Breast side down (this keeps the breast moist), add a few cups of water to the pot. Add salt and pepper. Put on low, cook for 6-8 hours.



on October 11, 2012
at 09:17 PM

Start with braises! They are nearly impossible to get wrong, and they will taste amazing. You can experiment with different aromatics, spices, and have some fun in the kitchen. There are tons of basic recipes online (or I can give you some - I'm a chef). Plus, since you generally will braise large cuts of meat, you will have plenty of leftovers. Braising cuts are often sold with or without bone -- with bone will make cooking a little slower, but will generally result in a more moist finished product.

Good braising cuts include:

Beef: short ribs, brisket, chuck roast, round roast.

Pork: butt, boston butt, shoulder, picnic shoulder.

A good butcher is also a great resource. Don't be shy, they usually love when you ask questions.



on July 20, 2012
at 05:06 PM

Once you get a little familiar with meat, it is a much less daunting task. (I just started cooking it for myself.) The easiest way, I think, to eat meat is either steak or chicken cut into cubes and cooked in a frying pan with a little olive oil. Personally, I love chicken stir-fry, so I often start by cooking the chicken (you know that it's done when you cut a cube in half and it is not pink at all), take the chicken out of the pan, add the veggies in the order they are supposed to be cooked, and then add the chicken back in! Yummy, easy, healthy dinner. I recommend broccoli, spinach, mushrooms, peppers, onions, and celery as easy veggies. Maybe some chives as well.

Oh, and people have widely varying opinions on steak. It can be eaten anywhere from almost raw to brown all the way through--I would suggest starting with the middle being a light pink color when the steak is done.

Good luck, and enjoy the meat!


on July 19, 2012
at 12:11 PM

I highly recommend checking out two giant books about meat that really will give you a TON of information. First, Hugh Fearnsly-Whitingstall's "River Cottage Meat Book". It's a veritable encyclopedia on sourcing (ethical, pastured meats), buying (cuts, etc.), and cooking every cut imaginable. Second, "Good Meat" by Deborah Krasner, which is essentially the American version of the [British] River Cottage book. I found both at my local library, and ended up buying the River Cottage book just recently.

When I started eating meat again the only thing I was really confident cooking was taco meat and a beef stew I learned how to make growing up. Not to say I couldn't cook other things, but I didn't have a lot of confidence in choosing cuts of sustainable meat. (Since then I've learned how to cook lamb neck, pork jowls, offal, and a whole host of other cheap cuts that taste amazing.)

Minus the books-- I like chuck roast, pork shoulder, lamb shank, and assorted cheap(er) cuts of pastured meat because I can slow-cook them, either in my Dutch oven or my crock pot. I find those were a lot easier for my transition than a rare steak. Carnitas are one of my favorite dishes--making them tonight, in fact--and there's so much you can do with leftover pulled bits of slow-cooked meat.



on July 19, 2012
at 02:23 AM

I prefer to buy large cuts of meat and butcher them myself. You can save 75% or more this way, especially if you are getting direct from the farmers market.

There's lots of ways to cook. tougher cuts require long, slow cooking: Roasting -- http://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/roast_beef/

Some can cook semi-quickly: Salt Baked -- http://www.cookography.com/2009/salt-baked-pork-loin Steaks -- http://www.cookography.com/2007/pan-seared-thick-cut-steak

Grilling, slow cookers... lots of options

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