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My housemate often manages to pick up reduced meat from the local supermarket (Sainsbury's in the UK) at the time he comes home.

It's usually silverside, topside or brisket of beef. Occasionally it's pork shoulder.

Without fail however my meat ends up "tough". Here's the exact procedure I follow for my standard "roast":

  1. Take frozen joint of meat out of the freezer around 8-10AM.
  2. Prepare 2 onions, celery, carrots and half bulb garlic. Throw them in my roasting pan.
  3. Season joint with salt and pepper, pour extra virgin olive oil over it, sear it in a frying pan.
  4. Cook at 20degC less than the suggested temperatures for the suggested times according to my MasterChef book, specifically for that cut of meat. For instance tonight's brisket was 900g - I cooked it at 160degC for 1h30m.
  5. Rest for 10-15m while I make the gravy and finish off the potatoes in another pan.

I cook it at 20deg less because it's a fan oven.

Can anyone explain the factors that affect how tough the meat becomes? Am I not searing properly? Is the meat prone to being tough because it's not fresh (reduced stuff)? Is it not defrosting for long enough?

Thanks in advance,

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Just to clarify, when you say reduced meat, you mean meat "on sale" right? I say this because the word "reduced" has its own meaning in terms of cooking. –  Jay Jan 30 '12 at 21:34
    
Yeah, sorry - on sale :) –  dunc Jan 30 '12 at 21:46
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See also Cooking Cheap Cuts of Beef and How to cook eye of round roast? this is a pretty commonly-asked question here. –  Aaronut Jan 31 '12 at 0:50
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8 Answers

up vote 18 down vote accepted

Meat is tough for two reasons:
1- An abundance of connective tissue.
2- When over cooked.

In your case I'd say you probably have both problems. Cheap meat is tough meat. It is from older animals or well worked muscle groups. This means that it has been fortified with a lot of extra connective tissue. It also means it has a lot of flavor.

The solution to #1 is slow, wet cooking that will melt that connective tissue into delicious gelatin. Braising is the normal way to do this. When meat is heated too far, even if the connective tissue has been carefully melted out, the meat proteins bunch up and stiffen- resulting in #2, a dry, unpleasant meal.

You are buying tough meat and cooking it relatively quickly with no thermometer. You don't have enough time or moisture to melt the collagen and you can't be sure you haven't over cooked the meat because you don't know the temperature. Using time doesn't work because chunks of meat are irregularly shaped so you can't know how long it will take for the heat to penetrate.

Buy yourself a probe thermometer to prevent #2. For #1 look for pot roast recipes. Some are easily done in slow cookers- others use a tent of sealed foil over the meat to seal in moisture. Plan on it taking much longer than your 1.5 hours. 3-6 hours are typical to produce a really succulent pot roast.

The searing is just for flavor and will not play a role in either melting collagen or cooking the interior of the meat.

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Great answer, I'd +1 you if I could...! I'm not sure it's overcooking; my brisket this evening was pink on the middle - and still chewy! The tent idea however is a good idea. What would you suggest for timings if I'm using foil? Happy to use a thermometer - I do actually have one somewhere. –  dunc Jan 30 '12 at 21:32
    
Browsing a couple recipes online it seems a good starting point would be 300F (150C) for 4 hours. –  Sobachatina Jan 30 '12 at 21:40
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I can finally +1, so I have :) Thanks very much. –  dunc Jan 30 '12 at 21:48
    
A brisket will not be tough if it's overcooked, just dry. In fact, it will barely hold together (and be dry). –  Sean Hart Jan 30 '12 at 21:57
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One way to combat the chewiness would be to slice very thinly against the grain. The long strands in the protein will be very chewy if you don't cut across the grain and still be chewy unless it's really thin. Thin lunch meat, that would really be chewy if it wasn't shaved so thin. –  Brendan Feb 7 '13 at 0:10
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Slow cooking at low temperatures is a method to make meat that is gently-pull-apart-with-your-fork tender. Get a medium to large size crock pot/slow cooker. I find that the smaller size crock pots run at too high a temperature, but the larger ones have a good solid low temp. I throw a seven-bone roast into my crock pot and expect to wait 6 hours until it's tender. Good crock pot roast recipes abound, as well! Have fun!

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Try cooking your meat, on gas mark 4, for 4- 5 hours you might find its lovely and tender. slow cooking meat is better

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as the accepted answer says, slow cooking meat is only good for meat with lots of connective tissue. If you have a nice tender piece of meat, cooking it for 4-5 hours will make it inedible. –  rumtscho Jul 2 '12 at 20:50
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Just as a heads-up to anyone else reading this;

I cooked a 1.3Kg joint of brisket at 140 degrees Celsius (fan oven) for 3 hours.

It was absolutely beautiful. Tender; melt-in-your-mouth kind of stuff.

So, for anyone looking to cook brisket or silverside, give this a go. Lorraine Pascale has an excellent recipe for it in this book.

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What does the trick for me has been to let the meat cool in the refrigerator then heat it back up a second time. The initial cooking phase converts the connective tissue into collagen, but it needs to dissolve into gelatin in order to prevent the roast from being tough. Letting the collagen cool first makes this second step easier and quicker

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In addition to the other excellent answers, making sure it's completely defrosted on the inside is also quite important. I once made that mistake of not thawing the meat completely assuming it would be fine since it would be sitting for 6 hours in a slow cooker, but it came out tough and it ended up tasting like it was overcooked even though I know I've cooked that recipe for 8 hours before (more time didn't really help either, stayed about the same)

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I think that's what happened last night Davy - it certainly wasn't fully defrosted when I put it in the oven, but my housemate was rather impatient to eat so I put it in at 60degC for 20mins before the rest of the cooking process. Doubt that did the trick though. Cheers. –  dunc Jan 31 '12 at 11:44
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Brisket has a lot of connective tissue. A LOT. If a cut like brisket (or chuck, or pork shoulder) is tough, that's because it's undercooked. Time/temperature in a recipe is more a guideline. You're going to have to use tactile cues to determine whether or not your meat is done. You should be able to slide a fork through your brisket with little resistance. If you can't, then keep cooking it.

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I may be completely missing something here but whenever I use brisket I use it as part of a slow roast or casserole. It's not a particularly tender cut but when cooked properly the results can be astounding, cheaper cuts can't be used like more expensive ones but when cooked properly they have a rich deep flavor that makes my mouth water.

I would cook it like you've done but just for a long time say 4 hours and then I'd turn the oven up to 200 C for half an hour to crisp it up. Here's a recipe by good old Hugh: http://www.channel4.com/4food/recipes/chefs/hugh-fearnley-whittingstall/slow-roast-beef-brisket-recipe.

If you don't have time for slow roasting buy a more expensive cut just less often or you could try some offal which is cheap as chips but delicious!

Hope this helps!

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That looks like exactly the answer for the brisket. Any ideas for the other cuts? –  dunc Jan 30 '12 at 21:13
    
Have a look at this website: bbcgoodfood.com/content/recipes/favourites/cheap-cut. –  Sebiddychef Jan 30 '12 at 21:16
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@dunc: Any cheap cut of meat with a lot of tough connective tissue is going to need to be cooked long and slow to make it tender. Slow roasting (with adequate moisture) is a common choice, as is braising (in a slow cooker, or just on very low heat on the stove). That's just the process; the recipe is up to you. –  Jefromi Jan 30 '12 at 21:29
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