Friday, July 29, 2011

Choosing cuts of meat for the grill or broiler

I worked behind a meat and seafood service counter for three years, and got to know some of my customers' meat purchasing habits. There were the ones who would only buy ribeye, and the people who avoided visible fat like it didn't taste good or something crazy like that. Worst were the ones who wanted a ribeye, with the fat whorls cut out. That's what makes it a ribeye! I was always happy to help someone find a cut with the qualities they were looking for, but there are certain combinations that are hard or impossible to find, like "fast, cheap, and good." As they say, pick two.

My own specialty in cooking meat is finding the cheap cuts that I like to cook with. But you can't just grab any cheap cut, and cook it any way you want, and expect good results every time. Here are a few of my favorite cuts of beef, pork, and lamb for the grill or broiler.


Top sirloin is the best deal on the whole beef. Lean, moderately tender, and flavorful, it's as close to "fast, cheap, and good" as you can get, without being the cheapest. It doesn't need marinade, just some salt and pepper. A top sirloin steak usually weighs around a pound: enough for three generous servings, since there's almost no waste.

A slightly better cut is the sirloin tip, which is cut from a triangular flap that caps the sirloin. The tip is cut into short, thick steaks that, at their widest, are about half a pound: a nice serving size. But since the tips come in all sizes, and they're a little more tender than regular top sirloin, they're perfect for kebabs. Sirloin is also a good choice to cut up for kebabs.

L-R: Ribeye steak, chuck delmonico, chuck steak

Chuck delmonico steak, or chuck ribeye, is the part of the chuck that was closest to the rib, and still looks like ribeye steak. Don't buy a regular chuck steak: it's not as good tasting, doesn't grill as tender, and is fattier. Chuck delmonico steaks are smaller, leaner, and more flavorful than ribeyes, and can be half the price. These are well worth it for a special weekday meal or to bring camping. No marinade necessary on these, either. Each steak is generally good for one serving.

Hanger steak is becoming more popular, though once is was considered a "butcher's cut," meaning it was one of those odd cuts that aren't numerous enough to make an effort at selling—there are only two steaks on the whole beef—but they're flavorful and easy to cook. The whole hanger piece is two steaks connected by a membrane: lazier meat departments may neglect to remove the tough, white tissue, so if you see it, cut it off. The steaks resemble whole tenderloins, with a coarse grain like brisket. They take a marinade well and are very flavorful, but a little chewy. Cook to medium, allow to rest five minutes, and slice against the grain to serve.

Skirt steak and flank steak are both similar to hanger in their coarse grain and rich flavor. Skirt steak is the original cut for fajitas—fajita means "belt" in Spanish, another word for this cut—and is fattier than flank, which has a finer grain and is fairly lean. Both should be marinated and seared to crackling over a high flame. Skirt is very thin and will cook quickly, but that's okay: you want your skirt more well done than either a sirloin or a flank steak, which are both better on the medium-rare side of the spectrum.

Ground beef is your cheapest grilling option, tasty, and easy to prepare. You can mix ground beef with other ground meats, like lamb and pork, or add flavorful seasonings like minced thyme, basil, garlic, and onion. Seasoned meatballs can be skewered and grilled as kebabs.

Shoulder chops are at least as much fun to eat as ribs, and if you can't find enough shoulder chops, add some arm chops to the mix. These cuts are relatively cheap for lamb, flavorful, and with a marinade and the grill, become an exotic feast the whole family will be gnawing off the bones. Like other fatty, gristly cuts, you want to cook them fairly well done.

Leg of lamb is the most elegant and versatile cut. It's so tender that it needs no marinade, and like the beef sirloin, flavorful despite scant marbling. Cut it up into kebabs, grill leg steaks or a whole, boneless leg, butterflied. Leg is good grilled as rare or medium as you like.

Ground lamb, seasoned with herbs and onion, is delicious as a patty or a meatball kebab. Try seasoning the ground meat with mint and green onions, or garlic and rosemary, plus salt and pepper, before forming and grilling.

Most pork is pretty lean, and easy to dry out. If you grill a tenderloin, use plenty of oil in the marinade. Fatty loin chops, rib or center cut, are also good choices for grilling and broiling. My favorite seasoning for a pork chop is ground coriander.

For a nice, fatty cut, try country-style boneless pork ribs. Traditions vary by culture and region, but the cut I'm talking about should be cut from the shoulder, or butt, and have a generous amount of fat on them. Baste them with barbecue sauce as you grill them on a medium flame. Internal temp should reach at least 140 degrees F. on all cooked products containing pork. Shoot for 150, but don't let it get to 160 or it will be tough and dry.

Ground pork, seasoned with Italian sausage spices like fennel seed and garlic, makes a delicious grilled patty. Try fresh ginger and green onions with a splash of tamari for an Asian-style grilled pork patty.
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