The secret that turns tough cuts into tender ones

48-Hour Beef Ribs (Mette Randem for The Washington Post)
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By Andreas Viestad
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, January 25, 2011; 5:18 PM

Can your beef ribs be cooked medium, juicy yet still pink on the inside, with all the tenderness of a steak and the rich flavor of the rib meat?

That would be nice. But is it possible? Yes; it just takes a bit of time.

Two days, to be precise.

One of the first things a beginning cook learns is what our ancestors discovered once they finally managed to tame fire and use it in cooking: When meat is exposed to heat, it changes. Heat tenderizes; it alters flavor and texture.

The next lesson is that there is a big difference between the various cuts and how they should be prepared. A tender steak is best cooked at high heat for a short time. If you cook it too long, it becomes dry. A tough cut, on the other hand, should be braised (or otherwise slow-cooked) for a long time, until it is thoroughly overcooked, in order to tenderize it.

Those have been the basic truths about cooking meats since, well, not the dawn of time, but the dawn of gastronomy. That is why we still refer to a filet as a "fine" cut and to beef ribs, chuck and brisket as "lesser" cuts. The potential to yield a perfectly tender and pink piece of meat has made certain cuts much more expensive than other, presumably tougher and much more abundant cuts from the same animal.

The past year or so, I have been working on a restaurant menu for a modern bistro-style grill in Oslo of which I am a co-owner. The restaurant is named in honor of Saint Lawrence, whose martyrdom on a gridiron and famous last words - "This side is done; turn me over and have a bite" - have made him the patron saint of both grill cooks and comedians. The menu is heavy on meat, all of it finished on a charcoal grill.

One of our wishes had been to combine the roughness of the grill - the texture and temperament of fire - with the knowledge provided by modern food science. We also have tried to avoid the typical restaurant cuts. With filet, rib-eye and top sirloin on the menu, we are sure to please, but it becomes more expensive and less of a challenge (and less fun) for the cooks. So we asked ourselves: Could we serve beef ribs and shoulder of lamb in much the same way as one would a steak or a leg of lamb?

The problem, or one of the problems, is collagen. Most cheap cuts contain a lot of connective tissue (of which the main component is collagen) that, when uncooked or undercooked, renders the meat incredibly chewy. If you have ever tried making beef stew in a hurry, you'll be among the many who learned the hard way.

So the traditional approach is to heat the meat until the connective tissue breaks down and the collagen is transformed into gelatin. Most often that means braising. While that time-proven technique certainly does the job with collagen, it has other effects as well: The meat turns brown as the myoglobin (what makes the meat red) is exposed to excessive heat; the water-holding capacity of the meat is greatly reduced as the protein actin is denatured; and the meat becomes rather stringy. All of those changes occur at between 150 and 170 degrees. In braising, the effective temperature is around 212 degrees for a long time.

I'm not saying those effects are bad. Even though most of the juices might be gone, the gelatin (and intramuscular fat, which tends to be in such cuts) ensures that the meat still feels moist. Also, the muscle fibers have more or less fallen apart, so if you are cooking in a wet environment, such as when you braise, moisture will seep back into the meat.

But that was not what I was aiming for. I wanted something different, and to achieve it I needed to study what goes on inside a piece of meat when it's cooked.

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