December 12, 2021

Shred and Fry Meat To Transform Its Flavor & Texture

Learn why you should shred then fry slow-cooked meat to keep it juicy, intensify its flavor, and get a crispy texture, all-in-one.

Ready to add another technique to your repertoire?

Pulled pork. Ropa Vieja. Shredded BBQ chicken. Carnitas.

These shredded meat dishes are famous for a reason! Succulent. Tender. Juicy.

It’s magical to cook tough cuts of meat low and slow until the meat is tender enough to pull apart with a fork. But you don’t have to stop there. Whether it’s braised chuck roast, smoked pork, or a poached chicken breast, you can continue the alchemy by shredding it all to pieces.

But Why Shred Slow-Cooked Meat?

Let’s pull apart the layers (see what I did there 😉) and find out what’s going on.

Shredding meat:

  1. You create a softer, more tender texture than if you leave it in chunks. The act of pulling it apart obviously breaks down the overall structure. In a sense, it gives your teeth a headstart. 🦷🏃🏁
  2. You connect all the shredded bits into a web-like structure so it holds together. It becomes one large mass instead of distinct pieces.
  3. You create more surface area! Why does that matter? The meat will more easily absorb any sauce you mix into it.

So shredded meat is easier to eat in a taco or a sandwich. It won’t fall out as you take bites.

A nicely charred, grilled chicken breast might turn out dry. But if you shred it and mix in some BBQ sauce, no one will know the difference!

And remember this.

It’s not better or worse to shred. It’s just different.

For example, one night you might braise beef and serve it in whole pieces over polenta. Then the next night, you take the leftover beef, shred it, and mix it into a tomato sauce for pasta. It becomes a completely different dish!

Fry Shredded Meats

Okay. You’ve taken slow-cooked, tender chunks of meat and shredded them. You’ve got this tender, juicy, web.

And you can stop there.

But that soft mass of shredded meat is a bit one noted in flavor and texture.

What if I told you you could create a dynamic combo of tender, juicy meat that is also crispy and intensely flavored at the same time?

Here’s how to continue the transformation.

Just re-introduce heat.

Heat creates flavor and a crispy texture through the Maillard reaction. And while we often only think about it for raw food, the same principle applies to cooked food too.

Whether you want to call it frying, crisping, or searing, here’s the technique:

  1. Add shredded meat to a smoking hot pan with plenty of fat in it—the fat promotes browning and keeps the meat from drying out
  2. Let the meat sit without stirring until the bottom crisps and darkens, almost turning black in spots
  3. Then flip, not stir, the meat until that crispy, dark bottom is on top—Stirring promotes even cooking. But we want uneven cooking here so some of the meat stays juicy.
  4. Let it sit undisturbed again until the top, which is now on the bottom, crispifies as well.

Think of it this way. It’s the same technique as cooking hash browns. 🤯 You’re just swapping the shredded potatoes for shredded meat. You get a wonderful combo of crispy and soft all in one. The differences in texture turn it into a party in your mouth.

Easy, right?

There is one last thing to keep in mind.

Heat causes the fibers in the shredded meat to contract and expel internal moisture. So by cooking the meat again, you run the risk of drying it out.

  • So this technique is better for fattier cuts. For example, if you did it with shredded chicken, dark meat works better than white meat.
  • It’s also why you want plenty of fat in the pan when you fry it.
  • And why you may consider adding a sauce to the shredded meat after you’ve seared it.

Beyond Carnitas

My guess is you have experienced this shred-then-fry technique if you’ve ever eaten carnitas. It’s common to crisp the pork after it’s been slow-cooked.

But I intentionally didn’t mention it until now. Why? I wanted you to know this technique is versatile! Reapplying high heat to cooked food can transform it. 🔥

If you throw a big BBQ, you can take a pan full of pulled pork and throw it under the broiler. You’ll brown the top of the pork and achieve a similar result as frying it in a skillet—you can just crisp up a lot more at once!

Or you can take shredded beef and stir-fry it in a smoking-hot wok along with some veggies and soy sauce. You’ll have a killer dish you can serve over rice.

So the next time you slow cook something, consider transforming it not once, but twice, by shredding and then frying it

Where I learned this: This article on making carnitas with leftover Thanksgiving turkey from J. Kenji López-Alt. And then there’s an article from Milk Street that I can’t seem to locate to give credit. Sorry!