Is beef chuck tough or tender? What about pork loin? Leg of lamb? Now, for you committed carnivores, what about a mammoth shank? These questions are easier to answer than you might think -- even when the mammal in question isn't around to be poked and prodded anymore, much less cooked on a hot grill. There's a simple key to decoding whether a cut is tough or tender: it's all about the muscle.
Telling Tough From Tender
Meat, after all, is mainly muscle. To figure out whether it will melt in your mouth or take significant jaw strength to chew, think about what that muscle did during the animal's life. A pig's shoulder and leg muscles work hard to move it through the mud. Beef cheeks spend all day helping cattle chew their cud. All that hard work makes those muscles tough. By contrast, the back muscles of four-legged mammals are relatively lazy. After all, when was the last time you saw a sheep do a pull-up? It's no surprise that the well-named tenderloin, that famously buttery steak cut, comes from a cow's back.
In general, you can predict a cut's tenderness by measuring its distance from the sweet (and tender!) spot in the middle of the animal's back. As you move down and outward, the meat gradually gets tougher. To use the ever-popular cow as an example, the short loin, rib and sirloin are more tender than moderately tough cuts from the belly, while the chuck, round, brisket and shank are even tougher. The same principle works for pork, lamb, venison -- you name it.
The Collagen Connection
Why does this rule of thumb work? Hardworking muscles contain more collagen, a protein that connects muscle fibers together and keeps them attached to bones. Connective tissue is much chewier than muscle tissue, so more collagen means tougher meat.
Even if you don't know what part of the animal a cut comes from, you can use visual cues such as muscle grain, marbling, and connective tissue content to determine its collagen content. To learn how to visually inspect cuts, see the ChefSteps in-depth guide to buying fresh meat.
How to Cook Tough and Tender Cuts
Now that you can identify tough cuts, is it time to kiss that brisket good-bye? Not at all! Tough cuts have their strengths, just as tender cuts have their weaknesses. A tender rib-eye steak is great for a quick sizzle on the grill, but it won't fare as well in a stew. And the brisket that turns unforgivably chewy in a hot pan will melt in your mouth after low-and-slow cooking. During a long braise, brisket's ample collagen gradually breaks down into silky gelatin, turning an uninviting hunk of meat into a succulent, flavorful dish.
Most of the time, you'll use tender cuts for steaks and tough ones for braises, though this rule isn't set in stone. In fact, at ChefSteps, one of our signature techniques uses sous vide cooking to give flavorful but tough cuts the texture of steaks. That's the great thing about understanding what makes a cut tough or tender: It gives you the freedom to transform your meat or play to its traditional strengths, knowing you'll end up with a delicious meal no matter what part of the animal it comes from.
Watch these principles in action: