How to Select Meat

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There are really only two cuts of meat: tough and tender. Tough cuts of meat contain the muscle, which requires braising or stewing to become tender; tender cuts demand quick cooking to retain their texture and seal in their flavor. Look for high-quality cuts of whatever type of meat you are buying.

  • Choose a grade of meat.

  • Examine the five grades of meat as they're determined based on fat content, marbling and quality. Look for select (the least amount of fat; sold in grocery stores), choice (fattier than select, leaner than prime), and prime (the well-marbled cuts high-end restaurants serve, fattier but also more flavorful). The lowest two grades of inferior meat, commercial and utility, aren't typically sold in grocery stores, and home cooks and aspiring chefs should avoid them.

  • Know your meat grades. Lamb is usually sold as choice in grocery stores and has a purple U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection stamp to signify that it came from a healthy animal. Pork is graded as "USDA government inspected." Veal is graded either prime (milk fed for 60 days before slaughter) or choice, which is found at many grocery stores.

  • Choose beef with minimal outer fat. The fat should be creamy in color, and bones should be soft-looking with a reddish color. The meat should be firm, fine-textured and a light cherry red. Cook it to an internal temperature of 130 degrees F (54 C) for rare and 140 degrees F (60 C) for medium.

  • Look for lamb that's been butchered at five to seven months or younger. It has a more delicate flavor and texture than older lamb or mutton, which takes on a rich gamy flavor. Meat from high-quality young lambs is fine-textured, firm and lean. It's pink in color, and the cross sections of bones are red, moist and porous. The external fat should be firm, white and not too thick. Cook lamb to an internal temperature of 135 degrees F (57 C) for legs and 140 degrees F (60 C) for ribs.

  • Select pork that's pinkish-white to pink in color (loin meat is whiter than shoulder meat) and firm to the touch. Well-marbled pork produces tenderer results. Cook pork to an internal temperature of 150 degrees F (65 C).

  • Ask for prime-quality veal, with almost white to very light pink, firm, velvety and moist flesh. Veal is butchered young, so most of its meat is tender. Bones should be bright red, small and fairly soft to the touch. The fat covering the meat should be slight and whitish in color. Cook veal to an internal temperature of 175 degrees F (80 C).

Tips & Warnings

  • Avoid beef with yellowish or gray fat, absolutely no marbling, a deep red color, two-tone coloration, coarse texture or excessive moisture. You'll be able to tell excess moisture by a mushy or wet-looking piece of meat, or if the shrink-wrap is filled with condensation.

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