Many people struggle to cook meat to their satisfaction, with beef being one of the biggest stumbling blocks for home cooks. Many chefs have told me that the most common question they get asked is how to cook a steak. It really can be intimidating and confusing to purchase, prepare, cook and serve beef: there are so many different cuts of meat and so many ways to cook them. People prefer their meat cooked in all kinds of different ways too. Some people are all about flavour, others won’t touch it unless its tender, some love gnawing on a bone, others prefer fillets, some delight in grills and others swoon for slow-cooked dishes.
As with all ingredients, knowing more about beef turns us into better cooks, so I’ve spoken to top butchers and chefs to help you along your way to beautiful beef. I hope you enjoy my chat with master butcher Gary McBean, talking us through some of the most important beef cuts. I also did a deep dive into brisket with Oliver Hagen.
A special word for the Thermomix cooks among us. When I first started cooking with Thermomix, I didn’t dive straight into cooking beef, or meat at all. In fact, it took me a while to work out the best ways to do it. Once I did, I’ve fallen in love – over and over again – with my Thermomix’s ability to braise, steam, poach and saute and also its lovely ways with meat-friendly condiments and marinades. Here’s a selection of favourites below.
Our chat with Gary, above, focuses on prime cuts. These are the cuts of meat that are normally grilled as steaks. There’s a whole other world of so-called secondary cuts. These are harder working muscles that are less tender (and thus less prized as steak) but they are very rewarding to use in slow-cooked dishes. Brisket is a great secondary cut taken from the front part of the underside of the animal. It’s generally sold boneless and can also be separated into the front (point) end and the flatter rear section. Brisket loves a slow cook and is economical, generally about half the price of prime cuts.
“It’s an amazing cut,” says butcher Oliver Hagen from Hagens Organics. “It does a lot of work because gravity is pushing it down and it has to work to push up and hold everything together. That means long fibres, which shred beautifully. It’s also layered with intramuscular fat so it’s self-basting as you cook it. It’s so perfect for slow-cooking because it won’t dry out, even if you cook it for 10 or 12 hours.”
Hagen loves pickling it to create corned beef that’s perfect for a Reuben sandwich, or giving it the slather and rub treatment (see Hagen’s recipe for slow-cooked brisket tacos). “Because it’s a fattier cut, it’s great with something acidic like a chimichurri or salsa verde to cut through.”
Other cuts that Hagen wishes people would prize are flatiron (from the shoulder) and hanger (from the diaphragm). These are both tougher steak cuts but they have lots of flavour. “People can get so stuck on tenderness as the benchmark of quality,” he says. “But it should be flavour. Why is ‘melt in the mouth’ the mark of good meat?” He’s also a big rap for roasting pieces such as corner-cut topside, from the inner-thigh muscle. You’re unlikely to see these pieces shrink-wrapped in the supermarket cabinet, but you can ask a trusted butcher.
“Get to know your butcher,” says Hagen. “Rely on them. Take their advice. They have so much knowledge.”