When the going gets tough, the tough get delicious.
Tough cuts may take a lot longer to break down than the less-complicated ground meat and softer muscle we’re used to in our fast food sandwiches, but that extra time pays off. If you know what you’re doing (read: don’t dry it out), the tough cut will be the tastiest decision in your grocery basket -- and often the cheapest.
So which tasty trains go to Flavortown? Here’s a breakdown of some of the toughest parts of every animal you eat, along with noteworthy tips from some of the top butchers and BBQ chefs in the country.
First rule: Weight-bearing limbs are tenacious. While every species has its unique nuances, when it comes to the toughest parts of chicken, sheep, beef, and pork, the consensus is strong: The locomotive muscles and connective tissue are toughest in each cut.
“The parts that will naturally be toughest are those areas or muscle groups that are used for locomotion – think biceps and hamstrings in athletes,” says Bryan Bracewell, owner of Southside Market & Barbeque in Elgin, TX. “These areas will be tougher because the muscles are built for a job – carrying the animal through its life – and they will naturally have more connective tissue, collagen, tendons, ligaments, etc. to help them do their jobs.”
Bracewell knows what he’s talking about. Founded in 1886, Southside Market is hailed as the oldest barbecue restaurant in Texas, which means they’ve been slow-cooking meat longer than 12 of these United States have hung on the flag.
While there will be tough meat cuts in every grade and origin of meat, keep in mind that it takes a lot more muscle and structure to carry around a 1,200lb. steer than it does to power a 4lb. broiler. Volume increases faster than surface area, so bigger animals need tougher muscles. But that good and powerful tissue gives exciting flavor characteristics to each animal.
Naturally, the toughest parts of beef are found around the legs: The shanks, the rounds, the shoulders, the brisket, and the neck. Round or Heel of Round is another incredibly tough cut of beef, which is why it usually gets made into ground beef with a sampling of other tougher muscle cuts and trimmings.
While fat and marbling are most known for taste and flavoring, there is a correlation to the toughness of the meat, thanks to the microscopic fat cells found in the muscle fibers. Without these microscopic fat cells, beef will be tough and lacking flavor.
But beyond structural support, cattle’s size means that parts otherwise considered soft tissue can prove hardier than expected.
“Beef tongue has become a trendy item on restaurant menus, but it’s long been a staple in traditional Mexican cuisine,” says Russell Woodward, Beef Product Specialist at the Texas Beef Council. “It's used daily in the harvesting of the grasses they eat, making it tough. It has a unique flavor like other organ meats do. It can be used in a variety of ways, sliced thin, like charcuterie.”
While diced lengua tacos leap foremost to mind, beef tongue is also popularly enjoyed shredded, tossed in hash, or cured to make cold cuts, so you’ve got options as long as the serving is reduced small enough to comfortably chew.
To tackle the tongue’s toughness on a chemical level, John Brazie, executive chef at The Woodlands Resort & Conference Center outside Houston, details his approach:
"A tongue, much like the heart, is a muscle always at work. With such a lean solid muscle it is somewhat resistant to the flavors associated with traditional braising. I have always boiled tongue in salted water with a splash of vinegar, which allows for some of the iron or blood flavor to be removed.”
Woodward explains that if you’ve got nothing but time and temperature, the other end of the cow is also your friend: “Braised oxtail has become more common and today can often be found in the meat case at your local grocery store.”
Though it starts out as an extremely tough cord of muscle wrapped around a thick bone that swishes flies away all day, this well-worked whip breaks down to yield amazing, tender results.
“Smoking it for a bit, then braising it should help make it tender,” says Patrick Feges, sous chef and pitmaster at Houston’s Southern Goods. Oxtail has plenty of fat to enrich that slow cooking time. But of course, if you’re looking for tasty lipids, look to the same part of your own body that bulks up first... though a lot firmer on a cow.
“I’ve had great success with beef belly,” says Feges. “There is a ton of fat that needs to be rendered out to help make it more tender and flavorful, but when done right, it’s just as good as beef ribs.”
And what about those ribs? Though you obviously wouldn’t eat the bone, don’t let it go to waste, says Ken Laszlo, Butcher, B&B Butchers & Restaurant.
“If you use beef bone to make a soup or stock, just remove them when the stock is complete and scoop out the marrow (after roasting and before making stock) onto a slice of bread with a sprinkle of salt," he suggests.
Final tip: want to tenderize meat fast with a marinade? Feges has seen pineapple juice practically disintegrate beef before thanks to an enzyme called bromelain -- which is actually named after the pineapple’s scientific family. If you don’t want to soften your meat that much (or need to marinade a thicker cut for a longer time), use canned pineapple juice rather than fresh -- the heat treatment used to sterilize canned goods deactivates much of bromelain’s power, so you get all of that tropical flavor, none of the mushy meat.
Just like beef, the toughest pork cuts will be the shanks, the rounds, and the shoulders, but they’ll be naturally more tender because of the size of the animal and therefore the size of the muscle fibers/bundles.
Hams (the hind leg) are similar to a beef round, but medium in tenderness, relative to other tough cuts. They are cooked, processed, and sliced thin. Take a spiral ham for instance -- it’s tender because of the way it was treated, which takes more work than other cuts of meat. In fact, spiral-cutting a ham leg was once a patented process. If you’re wondering how the ham became the staple holiday roast of mid-20th century America, you can thank Harry Hoensalaar, whose Honeybaked Ham company made carving the fairly tough leg while simultaneously navigating the bone therein a simpler task. (Though the honey in those hams certainly helped to tenderize them.)
At the front end of the pig, pork shoulder is a tough cut of meat that cooks for quite a while, though the award for most time-consuming probably goes to pork belly. Will Buckman, pitmaster and owner of CorkScrew BBQ in Spring, TX, says he brines his for seven days followed by a six-hour cook time.
So how do we get to tender, delicious bacon from there? Curing pork belly with a salt and/or sodium nitrate before braising will result in the unctuous, fall-apart pork belly favored by many, according to Bram Tripp of The Pit Room in Houston. Extending that cure for up to 8 days will result in a wonderful bacon.
And if you want to get weird? Well, just like your ear, pig ears are pretty much soft cartilage, so it’s tough and doesn't break down when you cook it.
“Those are going to be like pork skins -- you deep fry them and make chitlins out of them,” says Woodward. “You can just gnaw on a pig ear for a while until you're tired of gnawing. They will be tough and crunchy because they don't break down as easily as other meats.”
An acquired taste? Perhaps, but one enjoyed by many. For real esoterica, look down at pigs’ feet, which are making a name for themselves in the culinary scene.
“When people hear pig’s feet they get thrown off,” says Rick Rodriguez, chef and owner of Son of a Butcher in Chicago. “However, these are delicious when done correctly. The best way to have them is pickled.”
The toughest parts of a chicken are the legs -- think thighs and drumsticks, but remember that feet are good for more than just chicken stock -- as they spend more time walking around than they do flying (i.e. breasts). Biting into a small chicken wing is much more manageable than an ox’s leg.
However since they are built for flying, wings are a hardy piece of meat, for what little you’ll get off those bones. The wing itself is almost entirely ligaments and muscle with very little fat -- ligaments are one of the toughest parts of an animal to cook. In some cases, they are removed entirely, but it’s a matter of personal preference.
Poultry almost always benefits from a brining prior to the cook, because the addition of salinity (salt) will help break it down over time. Salt will also help bring out the flavors. Despite its reputation as the baseline taste of protein, chicken can still yield many flavors -- especially in the tough stuff. Dark meats are rich in flavor and easy to handle, especially for a novice in the kitchen. That’s why cooks in the know go for the thighs.
“Fat is your friend -- that is where the flavor is -- it’s like butter,” says Laszlo. The more marbled with fat the meat is, the better that meat cooks; as fat melts it keeps the meat moist and tender.
But it’s not always the cut that’s the culprit for the toughness. Matching the cooking method with the inherent tenderness of the muscle is key. “You can take a chicken breast that should be very tender and mistreat it in the kitchen and turn it into something as tough as boot leather,” says Bracewell.
Mutton (sheep over two years old) is harder to find in the US than it used to be, so you’re looking at more naturally tender cuts from lamb, an animal beloved for its rib chops -- whole-muscle cut perpendicular to the spine. Lamb ribs are comprised of tough muscle, surrounded by extremely flavorful fat, according to Tripp.
“Allowing the fat to render through the muscle is paramount to yield a great product,” he explains. The meat that’s on the rib is very lean, which lends itself to a tough consistency. Basically, you need to break down the protein structure and, at the same time, cause fat to liquefy, which coats the muscle itself, making it softer and more flavorful.
Tripp says that lamb fat has a gamey flavor to it that isn’t for everyone, but it’s overwhelmingly delicious and easy to cook with. He also enjoys seeing lamb belly on menus everywhere. “It’s such a wonderfully flavorful piece of meat and has a consistency similar to pulled pork,” he says.
Lamb being a relatively lean animal in its own right is a tougher cut of meat.
“It has significantly less intramuscular fat because the muscle fibers themselves are denser,” says Tripp. “Based on how a lamb is raised versus a pig, they get a lot more exercise. Any baby animal is going to have softer muscle tissue and more fat, which is why veal is more controversial, as they raise them to be immobile.”
Partially because of its youth, lamb leg -- similar to a ham or beef round -- is one of those muscles smackdab in the middle in terms of toughness. “Lamb leg isn’t overly tough or overly tender,” explains Woodward. “Therefore when you roast it, you have to slice it pretty thin (a 1-inch slice will not be a good eating experience). The tougher a muscle is, the thinner you have to slice it for an enjoyable eating experience."
Lazlo agrees, saying “Any recipes like osso bucco (veal shanks), where you cook it in liquid low and slow, then braise it in a very good stock with celery, carrots, onion, garlic, herbs, and red wine, and cook it for three, four hours. It breaks down all the fibers making it a tender and flavorful dish.”
Whatever animal, cut, and cooking method you ultimately choose, know that low and slow is the way to go. Connective tissues and fats all break down over time at fairly low temperatures, and trying to force that at higher temperatures is just going to scorch and/or dry out the more vulnerable muscle fibers before the collagens melt.
If you’re grilling or roasting and think the meat’s at risk of drying out, don’t be afraid to cover it. You can always uncover and cook more, but you can’t put the water back in the beast. Once you get confident in your skills, take more risk: The right cut can develop a good, tasty bark that gives it a deliciously chewy exterior while preserving some of the inner moisture.
And above all, no matter how much you have to chew it, make sure to enjoy every bite.