What Are Beef Pectorals?

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Cuts of beef vary widely in their tenderness, depending on how heavily those muscles are used. So an understanding of basic anatomy can be very helpful to cooks. Consider brisket, for example. This thick, meaty cut looks very appealing in the butcher's showcase, and you might think it would make an excellent roast. In truth, brisket is made up of the steer's pectoral muscles, making it a remarkably tough cut. It can be transformed into a fine meal, but you'll need to know how to cook it properly.

Beef being cut up with knife
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A reliable rule of meat cookery is that the most-used muscles become very tough. Beef heart, tongue, cheeks and shanks are correspondingly chewy, and so is the brisket. Steers use their pectoral muscles at every step, for walking, changing direction, and laying down or rising up again. The muscles are correspondingly tough, made up of long, densely packed fibers that give the cut its distinctive grain. The full or "packer's" brisket, a very large cut, often exceeds 20 pounds. That's inconveniently large for most purposes, so most butchers cut it down into smaller portions for retail sale.

Beef tongue with vegetables.
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The brisket is made up of two separate pectoral muscles, which are rather different. The flat is the larger of the two, a massive slab of beef with a roughly rectangular cross-section. The point muscle is smaller and roughly triangular, tapering to a flat edge. The two are joined by a layer of fat and gristle in the full brisket. Butchers sometimes remove the point as one piece, then divide the larger flat into several portions for sale. Alternatively, some leave the two connected and cut the brisket into retail portions containing both flat and point.

Butcher cutting meat
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Brisket comes into its own when it's patiently slow-cooked, breaking down the bonds between its tough muscle fibers and melting its connective tissue into moist, mouth-filling gelatin. There are several ways to approach this project. The brisket can be crusted in spices and slow-roasted, in a pan containing a splash of liquid to help keep the meat from drying out. Alternatively it can be braised, simmering slowly in broth, tomato sauce or other liquid until tender. Brisket is also the star attraction of Texas-style barbecue, where it's smoke-roasted at very low temperatures for hours on end. However it's cooked, the finished brisket should be sliced across its clearly defined grain to yield tender, easily chewed portions.

Beef brisket with spices on grill.
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Because of its dense and firm texture, brisket is also superlative when cured. It's commonly used to make salted or "corned" beef, or spiced heavily to make pastrami or Montreal spiced meat. Curing in salt, with or without sugar and spices, adds flavor and also slightly tenderizes the tough beef. Later it's simmered until tender -- which has the added benefit of extracting excess salt from the meat -- and then either served hot as an entree, or cooled and sliced for sandwiches. The flavorful cooking water is also valued by cooks, lending a rich taste to traditional dishes such as New England boiled dinner.

Montreal spiced meat sandwich.
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