Beef is very nutritious and possibly the most appreciated kind of meat. But it is also the meat that consumers have more doubts about when doing their shopping, because if they do not know enough about food they often do not buy the right cut or do not cook it correctly.
People usually decide which cut to buy based only on its colour, which does not offer much information, and from the fat content, although choosing the leanest meat carries a gastronomic penalty. It is not a good idea to reject cuts that are marbled with fat since this is responsible for the juiciness and flavour of the meat. If you do not wish to eat the fat, just cut it off on your plate.
But there are other things to pay attention to, such as the different names for beef in Spanish. Ternera is a young animal of up to 14 months. Añojo is applied to animals between one and two years old. A cebón is a castrated male between two and four years old. If the castrated male is older, it is called buey. The name, then, is already providing you with information. Ternera meat is usually tender, with a softer colour and lower fat content but is dryer than meat from older cattle, so it is better to have it cut more thinly. In theory, the older the animal, the tougher the meat but the better the flavour. This should not be a problem because, if you pay attention to other questions, any of these meats can be good.
Meat from older cows (vaca) is usually processed into hamburgers or meat products. But cows are frequently fattened before slaughter to improve quality and the meat then sold wrongfully as buey since it sells better under this name. Ever since farms were mechanized, real bueyes (oxen) have almost disappeared. Although this is the best meat, the meat from older cattle is also good, so it is just a question of tricky marketing practices.
What is really important for a fillet to be tender is that the butcher cut it in the correct direction: always across the grain of the muscle. Pieces that are thicker in the middle and narrower at the ends should be cut from one of the ends towards the centre so the fillets are smaller but more tender. You should pay attention, because sometimes butchers cut them in the opposite direction to make maximum use of the piece and obtain fillets that are more attractive.
Next, you should pay attention to the different commercial categories. From more to less expensive, there is Extra, 1ªA, 1ªB, 2ª and 3ª. The classification is based mostly on the content in connective tissue, also known as gristle. Lower content means a higher category. But you should remember that the juiciness of the meat depends on the fat content, not on the amount of connective tissue it contains.
Another thing to take into consideration is the cooking method, which depends on the cut. For example, cooking quickly in a frying pan or on a grill requires tender juicy meat classified as Extra or 1ªA, such as solomillo (fillet steak), lomo (sirloin strip), babilla (rump), tapa (silverside), cadera (topside), or aguja (chuck). It is important to put the meat on a very hot grill and to take it off as soon as possible. As for salt, it contributes to the loss of juices, so you should add it at the end. Meats with a lot of connective tissue, such as aleta (brisket), llana, pez (diced stewing steak) or morcillo (shin or leg) may be used for stews and casseroles. If it is cooked long enough, the collagen breaks down into gelatin and produces meat that is tender and seems to melt.
The process known as “aging” is crucial for the quality of beef. It comprises certain chemical changes that begin after slaughter. It is not important in other animals, but if it is not carried out under the proper conditions in beef, the end result will be meat that is tough and dry. If aging is done properly, time is the most important factor. At least three or four days are required for the meat to become tender, but it is much better if it is left longer, because the meat will be more tender and juicy. The process is carried out under refrigeration, with the carcase preferably hanging before being cut. But where is the problem? Every day there is a one to two percent weight loss. This is why some retailers prefer not to wait instead of raising their prices or selling at a lower commercial margin. Besides, aging makes the surface of the cut less attractive as it dries and darkens owing to the cold. This is why, if you see your butcher trimming dry edges, do not think this indicates meat of an inferior quality. On the contrary, it means that it has been aged a bit longer and, in principle, that it will be more tender and juicy.
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