This Christmas my mom cleaned out her cookbook cabinet and one of the books I inherited was Fix it and Forget it Lightly by Phyllis Pellman Good. I just opened it at random and saw a recipe for crock pot beef stroganoff. I decided that would be dinner tonight, it sounded so good. So off I went to the grocery store. I was kind of dubious. I learned at weight watchers some years ago that the most fattening item in Noodles and Company is the beef stroganoff. But if you cook it with low fat ingredients, you can get a low fat, but still tasty, dinner. I warn you ahead of time that this is my lengthiest post yet, but I think it has some interesting information that will help you be a better cook through understanding biology and chemestry.
I am doing this post especially for my father. He is senior editor for Beef Magazine (yes, it is a real magazine, for those of you not familiar with my family). He said that he enjoys my blog, but that I didn’t have any beef recipes. I said that I would love to have more, but beef is so much more expensive than other meats that I usually can’t afford it. This recipe is a great compromise because it uses stew meat. It is usually less expensive than other cuts, but that is because it is usually a much tougher cut of meat.
As I hope most of you know, the biggest reason for different prices for different cuts of beef is the desirability of that cut. The best cuts are usually ones with substantial marbling combined with tender meat. Marbling refers to the fat that intrudes from the outer part of the cut into the meat. Fat makes everything taste better (as my taste buds and thighs can attest to), and so the more fat ,the more desirable the cut. Marbling does not affect the tenderness of the cut, but it radically affects the taste.
While I always knew that different cuts had different tenderness, I never knew why, until I decided to research it for this post. The University of Minnesota put out a web post about the causes of tenderness, which I heavily relied on for this information. (Along with a helpful edit from my dad.) I have noticed is that you can get the same cut of meat from the same store at different times, and they will be different in their quality. One reason for this is because tender meat is about 45% genetically inheritable. So different steers will have different meat qualities based on their genes.
But the big story is about collagen, the connective tissue made of protein that helps hold all of our bits together and helps them to move.
Age of the animal will determine how much collagen has built up in the meat. Most beef meat available in the grocery store comes from animals that range in age from 9 to 24 months of age. The younger the animal, the more tender the meat. Thus the expression “she’s no spring chicken.” A spring chicken refers to a chicken that was born this spring, in other words, more recently. If you are not a spring chicken, you have lived long enough to be a “tough old bird” when the time comes to harvest you. The chemical reason for becoming tougher is because as we age, our collagen (known as gristle in meat) becomes more sturdy. It is similar in a way to the way much of the cartilage in humans becomes bones as we age.
Collagen is also what sets apart the tender cuts (like the aptly named tenderloin) from the not so tender (like most of the round cuts.) Muscles that provide most of the umph toward locomotion contain much more collagen. They need it to keep the muscle together and to help move it around and support the rest of the body. That is why dark meat in birds is not as tender, and the same is true with cuts of beef that come from the legs or buttocks. Meat from the back of the cow, or near the ribcage, is not used to move the cow, but to help keep it from falling apart. These have less collagen and so are more tender. You can find a chart of tender and not so tender meats, along with other information about meat tenderness in this webpost. The factors I have listed here are by far not the only influences on tenderness (like I was surprized to learn about how the hanging of the carcas after slaughter has a very important role). But they are high on the importance list.
You can find more information about the tenderness and cuts of meat, along with great recipes, from the Beef Checkoff Website. More information about the nutrition benefits of beef can be found at the Beef Nutrition Website.
So now that we know the major causes of tenderness in meats, what can we do with that information? A good cook needs to know which cuts are tender and which are not in order to properly choose what type of beef you want to use for a recipe or method of cooking. Tender cuts of meat need little cooking from us. If you cook them too long, they will get dry and sad. If you have a tender cut of meat, the best treatment is to just grill the steak with a marinade or rub until medium or medium well done. If you are fancying it up, you want to make sure that it is a recipe that calls for little cook time. On the turnabout, if you have a recipe that calls for a short cook time for your beef, make sure that you get a tender cut of meat. Otherwise you will be disappointed with the result.
The harder situation is with the tough meats. You should use them in recipes that call for long cook times, like roasting or in a crock pot. This long cook time allows the heat to get into the cells and break them apart. This breakdown allows meat that is otherwise tough become tender and melt in your mouth delicious. This is why you use cuts from sections like the round for pot roast and the like. They are tough, but with long cooking, they can be delicious.
If you do want to use a tough cut for a fast cook recipe, there are several things you can do. Marinading introduces acids to the meat that work to break down the cells in a similar (but more taste filled) way to slow cooking. A good way to make sure that you have a good acid content is to use products like italian dressing or other vinegar based product as the base of your marinade. You can also add in the powdered meat tenderizer. Pressure cookers work to cook and tenderize meat quickly by exerting high pressure on the contents of the cooker. This pressure tenderizes the meat much faster than slow cooking, and is a good option if you have the equiptment. The last option to tenderize your tough meat (as long as you don’t mind it a little smooshed) is to whack it with a tenderizing hammer or rolling pin. I have never used this method myself (except to flatten chicken for cordon bleu), but I hear that it can be good and very therapeutic if you are having anger issues. This is, of course, the most direct way to break down cells.
Stew meat is usually cut from one of the tougher bits of meat, like the round. This is why it is labeled for stews–you usually simmer stew for a while. That allows the heat and liquid to break apart those tough collagen proteins. You don’t have to buy the precut stew meat, you can buy a round roast and cut it up yourself. But I am lazy, and the stew meat is a great alternative.
If you have questions about what kind of beef would be best for your intended use, the best idea is to go to your butcher. While your grocery butcher probably will be versed in the basics of the meat, much of the meat arrives pre-cut. Often all the grocer does is package it. For real knowledge, find your local butcher’s shop. I recommend to anyone in the Denver area one of my favorite places in the world–Edward’s Meats at I-70 and Ward. They are so helpful and knowledgeable and can answer any question you have. Another benefit of going to a real butcher is that they receive their meat in large sections. They can butcher your choice of cut upon request. (Our request is usually chuck eye, 1.5 to 2 inches thick.) You can also go to the Beef Checkoff Website for extensive infomation if you do not have a butcher nearby.
As a fun entertainment side note, I think my favorite King of the Hill episode ever was the series finale entitled “To Sirloin, With Love.” In this episode, Hank Hill (the main character) realizes that Bobby (his son, about whom he usually concludes “there’s somethin’ wrong with that boy) is in fact very talented at meat judging, a talent that Hank can actually appreciate. So Bobby joins the 4-H meat judging team with predictible prediciments. The show is hilarious, and if you haven’t seen it before, you should watch it (especially if you are from Texas, or know someone who is very Texas). My husband’s favorite part is every time Hank says “boy, I tell you what” because it sounds just like my dad. It is available instantly on Netflix, I couldn’t find a reliable link online.
So here, finally, is your recipe. Despite the lengthy post, the recipe is fast and easy:
- 1.5-2 lbs of beef stew meat (or similar)
- 1 lb good quality mushrooms, thickly sliced (I like cremini, but you can also use baby bella or shitake. Avoid the plain white ones just named mushrooms).
- 1 med onion, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 can low fat cream of mushroom soup
- 1 cup water
- 3 tsp low sodium soy sauce
- 3 tsp Worcestershire sauce
- 1 C low fat sour cream or plain yogurt, or combo
- Butter and olive oil, as needed.
- Salt and pepper
- No yolk noodles, cooked.
- In a large frying pan, heat 1 tsp oil until hot. (I use olive oil from my great misto olive oil sprayer).
- Pat the meat dry (as we learned last time, we don’t want to steam it). Put it in the hot oil to brown it. Season on all sides with salt and pepper. Don’t crowd the meat, that will also cause it to steam, so I did it in two batches. Because I did not want to brave the icy roads, I did not go to Edwards Meats. Therefore, there was a lot of liquid that came out of my meat that caused steaming anyway. If this happens to you and your low grade meat, use a paper towel to wick up the water as it comes out to keep the bottom of the pan dry. Put your browned meat in the crock pot.
- Brown your sliced mushrooms. Put in 1 Tbsp of butter in the same fry pan. (You don’t want to lose that delicious beef flavor). Add in a splash of olive oil (this keeps the butter from burning). When hot, add in sliced mushrooms. Don’t crowd them, otherwise they won’t brown properly (thank you Julie and Julia.) I did mine in 3 batches. Once browned, put in crock pot.
- Add a bit more butter or oil to the fry pan. Toss in your chopped onions and saute until golden brown (you can crowd the onions). Put those in the crock pot too.
- Top your goodies (after you have stolen a mushroom) with the soup, water, soy sauce, Worcestershire, and garlic, NOT the sour cream (it will curdle if you leave it in). Also add in extra salt and pepper to taste.
- Set in your crock pot on low for 6-8 hours.
- When you are ready for dinner, cook your no yolk egg noodles.
- About 2 min before serving, stir in the sour cream until it is well blended and creamy, but not curdled.
- Serve and delight.