Meat selection, preparation and cooking –
A huge subject and not one that should be condensed onto an internet page, but I’ll give you a few pointers to get you started. “Meat”, in this context, is defined as beef, lamb, pork and veal (a highly misunderstood and under-rated meat – buy British Rose). Other things like deer, rabbit and hare are classed as game (something for the autumn maybe, or at least after the Glorious Twelfth). A butcher would kill me for this, but the cuts on these animals are all basically the same. You’ve got the neck, shoulder, back where the expensive bits come from, leg and belly. Throw in tails, cheeks and trotters and that’s it (by and large).
The bigger the animal, the more cuts you get from it. A lamb shoulder is a shoulder which can be halved into the bit with the blade in and the bit with the knuckle in, but on a beef carcass it constitutes what is commonly known as the chuck. From the chuck, several different cuts can be obtained, my favourite of which is the feather blade which is great for braising (make sure your butcher leaves the connective tissue IN, it adds great flavour when braising).
The basic rule when selecting meat is the harder the muscle has worked, the longer you need to cook it for. Shoulders, legs, cheeks and bellies do the hard stuff. Anything that runs down an animal’s back does very little which is where you get your sirloin steaks, lamb chops and pork fillet from (although not all from the same animal…). Therefore, don’t pick a piece of chuck steak to pan fry with your chips and don’t turn your rib-eye into a stew.
So, you’re making a stew; lamb, beef, pork, (veal!) it doesn’t matter which. You will be using an appropriate cut, something from the shoulder more than likely (avoid the generic “stewing” or “braising” steak from the supermarket, there’s no way of knowing what cut it’s from or even if it’s all from the same animal/breed). How do you know when it’s cooked? It should be soft, moist and tender. To achieve this it’s really important that you allow the meat to cook gently and slowly. If it’s boiled then the meat will have moisture pushed out of it and end up dry, even though it’s cooked in liquid.
If you’re going to roast one of the “cheaper” cuts like a belly of pork (on lamb it’s called the breast or lap, on beef the brisket) then again, long and slow is the key. There are literally thousands of recipes out there for different flavourings, spicing, accompaniments etc. to help these cuts along but just make sure you give it plenty of time at a nice low temperature.
As an example, I would roast a whole shoulder of lamb at 150oC (gas 4), for five and a half to six hours.
You can of course roast other cuts like topside of beef and leg of lamb which would require less cooking at a higher temperature in order to achieve a nicely coloured exterior and pink/moist interior. I would always seal these cuts before roasting to get the flavours started (this does NOT, as once thought, lock in juices but does add flavour) and then cook at 170oC for around 12 minutes per pound plus 15/20 minutes over. This all depends on how you like your meat (for cooking temperatures see the bit on steaks below).
When cooking your more expensive steaks, chops and racks there are some simple ways to make them taste great. Firstly, seal the meat in a HOT pan. Season the meat with salt and pepper (black for beef and lamb, white for pork and veal) and get your pan smoking hot. Use non-flavoured oil like vegetable or sunflower and colour the meat well on all sides. Once coloured, add a good knob of butter to your pan and baste the meat. Here the cooking becomes slightly subjective and will completely depend on the type, cut and size of meat you have. Being able to tell you exactly what to do in writing is pretty tricky but I’ll give it a go (I am available for private lessons remember…). So your meat is coloured nicely and well basted with butter, next you’re either going to cook it through in the pan or if it’s a thicker piece of meat or say, a lamb rack, you’ll need to finish it through the oven at 180oC. Cooking time depends on how you like your meat and the size of the piece. When cooking red meat, as soon as you start to see red liquid coming out of the steak, it’s cooked medium (pink). Bit less and it’ll be rare, bit more and it’ll be well done. If you want to get technical (and these temperatures apply to your bigger cuts when roasting too) you’re looking for a core temperature of 45-48oC for rare, 55-58oC for medium and 65oC+ for well done. Hope this is all of some use to at least someone…
One last thing, all your meat when roasted, grilled or pan fried needs resting. This allows the muscle fibres to relax and the juices to be re-absorbed into the muscle. I usually do this on a cooling rack over a tray but you could use a trencher. This stops the meat from effectively braising in the juices that escape plus gives you something tasty to dip your bread in later (or eat if using the trancher). Cover it loosely with foil and keep it somewhere warm, near the oven or stove top. The basic rule for resting is give it about half as long as you cooked it for. So a steak you would rest for four to five minutes, where as a roast would be anywhere from one to three hours.