February 21, 2021

Why You Should Overcook Tough Cuts of Meat

Learn why tough cuts of meat should be cooked past medium.

Wait. Did I really just say to overcook your meat? Yes, I did.

Muscle fibers contract and push out moisture as meat cooks. It first starts to happen when the internal temperature reaches 104℉ (40℃) and greatly increases once you hit 140℉ (60℃). This is why ribeyes, chicken breasts, and pork chops turn dry and chewy when you cook them for too long. You’ve got stiff muscle fibers and no juices.

But I thought you just said to overcook your meat? I did. 😏 But I’m not talking about ribeyes, chicken breasts, and pork chops. These lean cuts of meat require more precise cooking because they lack a magical element. An element you will find in chuck roast, shanks, pork shoulder, and other “tough” cuts. And that element is collagen.

What’s Collagen?

Collagen is a protein found in the connective tissue of a piece of meat. Connective tissues cover muscle fibers, and you’ll find more of them in cuts of meat that have “more active” muscles. Why? Muscles grow with exercise. 🏋️‍♀️ So as the muscles are used more, you get more connective tissue and therefore more collagen. For example, the shoulder muscle in a pig is used more than the tenderloin and therefore has more connective tissue and collagen.

Interestingly, the age of the animal is another factor to consider. So older animals—who have used those muscles more—will have more connective tissue and collagen.

But get Houston on the phone because we have a problem. (Side note: Poor Houston always having to hear about people’s problems 😔).

Collagen is chewy as all get-out. And it’s why those cuts are considered tough. If you cooked a hunk of pork shoulder to medium-rare—around 140℉ (60℃)—it wouldn’t be pleasant to eat.

But I should have been more clear. Collagen is chewy as all get-out below 140℉ (60℃). Something transformative (quite literally) happens above that temperature. 🪄

Transforming Collagen

As the internal temperature of a piece of meat approaches 160℉ (70℃), the collagen in the connective tissue starts to turn into gelatin. And this gelatin is what makes those tough cuts of meat succulent and juicy. Interestingly, the muscle fibers are dried out at this point. But with enough time cooking at around 160℉ (70℃), those dried-out muscles pull apart easily and become like jelly due to that transformation.

Here’s another perk of the transformation from collagen to gelatin. Gelatin absorbs moisture. So when you braise a piece of meat in a tasty liquid, that gelatin will absorb the liquid making the meat even more juicy and flavorful. 😋

What’s This Mean Cooking Tough Cuts?

  1. When cooking a tough piece of meat—like brisket, round, rump, shoulder, butt, shank, legs, thighs, and others—cook them way past “medium”.
  2. Be cognizant of how you cook them. These tough cuts require low and slow cooking. Why? To maximize the transformation of collagen to gelatin we need the meat to be between 160–180℉ (70℃–80℃) for as long as possible. ⏳ The conversion to gelatin isn’t instant. It happens continually over hours!
  3. If you're braising or slow-roasting, be patient. If the meat hasn’t hit that fork-tender, pull-apart state, let it cook a little longer at the same temperature. You don’t want to increase the heat because the meat continues to dry out as the internal temperature rises above 180℉ (80℃).
  4. Cook these cuts of meat way in advance if you’re serving them for a dinner party. The time it takes to hit that pull-apart state varies based on many factors—you can’t trust the recipe to give the exact time. So don’t make the mistake of only starting the meat the exact time in advance based on how long the recipe says. Start the meat far enough ahead of time (even the day before) so you’ll have plenty of time when you suddenly realize it’s probably going to need another hour in the oven. It’s not fun having that realization after your guests have already arrived. Trust me. 😬
Where I learned this: The Science of Good Cooking by Cooks Illustrated and On Food and Cooking by Harold McGhee.