So, when I ask my friends what they have the most trouble cooking, the answer will very likely be: "Meat!" (Or, "Steak!" or "Veal!") Sometimes it's, "I can't grill pork chops. They always dry out, no matter what I do." Or, "Every time I roast a chicken, it's burnt on the outside and raw on the inside."
The most important thing I've learned over the years is to match meat to cooking technique. Try to sear a brisket then serve it, and it's going to be tough. Give it lots of slow, long heat, and it'll melt in your mouth.
The first thing I tell my friends is, "When you buy your meat, ask your butcher how to cook it." Followed by, "Do a little reading."
The good news is, there are a lot of great cookbooks about meat. They're well organized, easy to read, and make it easy to find the info you need. For quick online info, Lobel's of New York is encyclopedic in its information.
Here's a quick overview of some of my all-time favorite cookbooks—along with a few that are still on my shopping list.
The Complete Meat Cookbook, by Bruce Aidells and Denis Kelly
This is the book that I always turn to first. (Admittedly, Aidells has already won my heart with his fantastic chicken and apple sausages.) Aidells and Kelly open up with a comprehensive primer on cooking techniques, from roasting to poaching—and everything in between. They discuss each method, which cuts of meat are best suited to it, and how to select those cuts at the market. Then, they give you a "Master Technique" for each.
The bulk of the book is divided by type of meat: beef, pork, lamb, and veal. Each section talks about how to select cuts, and includes illustrations to make identification easy. I often turn to the "Steaks at a Glance" chart, which lists out every possible type of steak (along with its various regional aliases) and how it's best prepared. The recipes are well written and easy to follow, and show you how to put their Master Techniques to work.
The book is made up of recipes and illustrations, peppered with full-color photo pages. If you had to pick just one book on meat, I'd say this is the one to buy. It's comprehensive, and easy to read and reference.
How to Cook Meat, by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby
And this is the second book I turn to. I love Schlesinger just a wee bit more because he's a local guy, and heads up the East Coast Grill in Cambridge, MA—one of my favorite watering holes. If you're in the area, go have a bite. The spicy food—and luscious cocktails—will knock your socks off.
Like The Complete Meat Cookbook, the front of this book also has a detailed description of cooking techniques. The text is longer and less chunked up, which means it takes a little more time to scan for the info you need. There's also a good discussion about different types of meat-specific cooking equipment.
The rest of the book treats each type of meat in its own section. Each chapter opens with background information on cuts of meat and what to look for at the market. This is followed by a handful of recipes. Each recipe has a handy sidebar that tells you what cut you need to make the dish, other names for it, and what you can substitute if you can't find what they recommend. There's also a "Butcherspeak" blurb, which gives you insider tips on what to ask your butcher for.
Steaks, Chops, Roasts & Ribs, by the editors of Cook's Illustrated
This book is extra close to my heart (and my stomach) because I had the honor of doing some editing and proofreading on it. The good folks at Cook's Illustrated and America's Test Kitchen are known for their relentless and thorough recipe testing, and this volume is no exception. What's more, they explain how and what they tested, which can save you the time—and hassle—of experimenting with certain things yourself.
The book's front matter features a meat-buying guide, complete with several detailed illustrations. Then, instead of being organized by meat, each of this book's 16 chapters is devoted to a cooking technique (as in, "Chapter 4: I Want to Grill Chops.") Each chapter includes a preface that describes how they arrived at their current recipes. They explain what they did that worked—and what didn't. Each chapter is also packed with recipes and variations. For example, the section on "Braised Lamb Chops" includes four separate dishes.
The last chapter of the book, "Rubs, Sauces, Salsas, and Gravy" is packed with all sorts of yummy, spicy goodness to help you dress up what you make. (Hoisin, Honey, and Ginger Glaze, anyone?)
Pigs And Pork: 90 Recipes from Italy's Most Celebrated Chefs, by Daniela Garavini
This book is a glorious tour of the pig as an integral part of our culture and society. Filled with folklore and lavish pictures and illustrations, it's just one volume of Konemann's "History, Folklore, Ancient Recipes" series.
The first part of the book takes you through the rich history of the pig throughout the ages, including a chapter on recipes from the 16th through 19th centuries. (Wondering how to cook Pork with Eels? Look no further.) The remainder of the book features recipes from 55 Italian chefs, complete with wine pairing recommendations.
Heller's Secrets of Meat Curing and Sausage Making, by B. Heller
First published in 1904 by Chicago's B. Heller & Company, Heller's Secrets of Meat Curing and Sausage Making is basically a meat-packers manual. While not necessarily 100% relevant for the home cook, it's a great read for anyone interested in the history and how-to of American meat packing. If you want to snag a copy, you'll need to track it down on eBay or Old Cookbooks, or give Bonnie Slotnick a call. You can also download an electronic version of the book through the American Libraries Internet Archive.
The front of the book is devoted to proper dispatching and dressing of animals. The back portion details packing-house recipes for fresh and cooked sausages. The proportions are gigantic, but in theory, the recipes could be scaled down and monkeyed with by a determined (and adventurous) home cook. There's a really good section on how to properly hang sausages to dry. The final pages showcase display ads for butcher's supplies, including Freeze-Em-Pickle and Bull-Meat-Brand Flour.
Books I have my eye on
You know—and I admit that I have a problem—you can never have too many cookbooks. Here are a few I'd like to add to my collection. (My list is vastly longer, but I'll save the rest for the inevitable Part II of this article.)
The River Cottage Meat Book, by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
Somehow, I have a feeling that anyone who runs a 60-acre animal farm can teach me a thing or two about how to cook meat. Originally published in the United Kingdom, this version has been retooled slightly for an American audience.
The Meat Buyer's Guide, by the North American Meat Processors Association
I have a thing for manuals and guide-like books. The more it looks like a textbook, the more likely I am to be (inexplicably) drawn to it. This book is a food-service standard for buying beef, lamb, veal, pork, and poultry. While it's not a recipe book, I'd be interested in getting an inside perspective on the modern meat business.
Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing, by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn
I've haven't made my own sausages. Yet. Growing up, I would listen to my father's Italian barber talk about how his attic was hung thickly with all sorts of salty, cured meats in various stages of drying perfection. I also love a good culinary challenge—which is exactly what the several-days-long process of making a salami presents. Sign me up.
Copyright 2008 The Hungry Mouse™/Jessica B. Konopa. All rights reserved.