You might be surprised to learn that the most prestigious pieces of meat are among the least flavorful of cuts, well behind the ones that you can't even chew.
The most flavor resides in the least expensive cuts like shank, chuck, shoulder, brisket, flank, and, if you can get it, neck. These, the toughest and the cheapest, keep their flavor hidden in their collagen, the tough, fibrous, protein-rich gristle that crisscrosses the chewier cuts of meat and holds all of the meaty fibers together.
The question is, how do we melt that gristle without letting the meat dry out? It's a bit of a trick, but the methods are many.
- Tom Moertel
- Braised oxtail
Barbecuers conduct a culinary alchemy in smoky, low-heat conditions, inside welded contraptions that can be as big as train engines. Stew- and broth-makers do it in simmering kettles, while braisers melt their collagen in the oven, half-submerged in pans with tight-fitting lids.
To a certain extent, acid helps break down collagen as well. Some vinegar in the stew pot, a long, tangy marinade for the flank steak, or some wine in the braise will all help speed the process.
All of these methods, in their own way, deal with the problem that collagen doesn't melt below 160, but meat begins to dry out above 130. The barbecuers baste continuously with their vinegary sauce. Soup makers and braisers do their business underwater, where drying out is difficult.
I've been enjoying a technique by which I wrap my meat tightly in tinfoil, push it into the oven, and forget about it. This setup essentially steams the meat in its own juices, injecting the moisture right back into the meat as it tries to escape.
The ease with which this method can be employed is staggering. The other day, I took a hunk of bone-in elk shank from the freezer and immediately wrapped it in foil, still frozen solid. Into the oven it went, at 325. I proceeded to forget about it for the rest of the day. No salt, no herbs, no additions of any kind. It came out divine but was not so much a finished product as a worthy ingredient. With added salt, raw onions, and cilantro on tacos, it wore the salsa like a champ.
Brining the meat first in salt water will help it retain even more moisture. And if you put your hunk of collagen-reinforced meat under the broiler, a tasty, crispy brown skin will develop. This will help contain the juices to an extent and will add a caramelized complexity that only browned proteins can muster.
Add other flavorings before you foil it. Lemon and dried apricots and harissa and olive oil, if you want a North African feel, or cumin and red chile if you like tacos, or rosemary, thyme, and olive oil if you want something like an osso buco.
I recently braised with garlic powder, herbs de Provence, and white wine, with a few bay leaves. I've also added pomegranate juice and seasoned with soy sauce instead of salt. It's a forgiving technique. When you have your flavorings figured out, tightly foil your brined, browned meat. As it cooks, some juices will inevitably find their way out, but the fewer the better.
When liquid from the meat begins weeping from the foil, don't let it go to waste. Without a response it will dry out and burn into a bitter, black crust on the pan. If there is a lot of this jus, I will collect it and make it into a sauce down the road when the meat is ready. But another way to harvest those escaping juices is to pave the bottom of the baking pan with sliced roots and tubers, like potato, carrot, parsnip, celeriac, onion, and garlic.
Now that you have your creamy, tender, and juicy meat, begin exploring the ways to use it. You'll run out of meat long before you run out of options.