Getting perfectly tender meat is the goal of any cook. So what meat gets more tender the longer you cook it? Some cuts of meat need a long and slow cooking process to soften tough connective tissue. Some prime cuts are inherently tender and require a shorter cooking time.
Meat cut from a hard-working part of an animal will have lots of connective tissue and can be quite lean. These hard-working muscles take a long time to soften. Prime cuts of meat tend to be soft with high-fat content. Prime cuts of meat require a shorter cooking time to remain tender.
To know whether you need to cook a cut of meat for a long time, you need to look at the animal’s anatomy. By looking at the function of the muscle, you can determine if this cut is tough and needs slow, long cooking or if the cut is tender and requires medium-rare.
Here is my info on the best cooking methods to cook tender meat, and what cuts to choose.
Does All Meat Get Softer The Longer You Cook It?
Some cuts of meat do get softer the longer you cook it, and some cuts will toughen up.
The rule is: if the meat has more connective tissue then this needs more cooking to break it down and become tender.
Collagen (connective tissue) is found in weight-bearing and well-used muscles and is what makes some cuts tough. This connective tissue is coiled up like the fibers of a rope and gives these muscles their strength.
This collagen unwinds and breaks down into gelatin when cooked in moist heat. It needs at least 160F/70C and breaks down slowly – eventually until no collagen is left to hold the meat together and it “falls off the bone”.
Cuts with less collagen don’t need this time to break down. These are typically more expensive pieces of meat that are tender to begin with. They will therefore not soften the longer you cook it. The heat will cause the meat to lose moisture, and so it’s best to cook these cuts on high heat quickly.
Fat also plays a part as this melts into the meat and keeps it moist. Often the well-used muscles with lots of collagen aren’t the ones that have lots of fat. Less used areas like the ribs and loins have more fat.
When you’ve got a fairly unused, tender muscle that has little fat (like the tenderloin) you must be careful with the cooking as it will shrink and toughen easily if overcooked.
How old the animal is will also influence the toughness of the meat. Veal, for example, is soft and tender in comparison to a mature steer.
How Do Cooking Methods Affect The Tenderness
Meat will start to cook at 120F/50C, whereas connective tissue only starts to break down at 160F/70C. It needs to be held at this temperature for a long period to tenderize.
Dry Heat Vs Moist Heat
Dry heat cooking is best for tender cuts of meat as it cooks fast and hot which sears the outside of the meat and creates great flavor without drying it out too much.
Moist heat is better for making tougher cuts more tender. It stops the surface from drying out, keeps the meat moist, and also helps the collagen to break down. Moist heat penetrates evenly and quickly because the meat is submerged in liquid or steam. You can create moist heat with water and a lid, or covering in foil.
- Broiling/Oven Grilling – Intense direct heat from above. This is best for tender steaks, chops, and kebabs.
- Grilling/Barbequing – Intense direct heat from below. This is again good for tender cuts.
- Roasting – An indirect dry heat. This is best for larger cuts of meat with fat that will help moisten the meat.
- Braising – the meat is browned first in a hot pan then simmered with some liquid in a covered container. Usually less liquid than a stew and used for larger pieces of meat such as a pot roast.
- Stewing – the meat is in small chunks and cooks submerged in liquid which becomes the sauce. Great for tough chuck, shank (shin), and brisket.
- Poaching – Submerge the meat in liquid and cook it gently just enough to cook it. This is for tender cuts and fish that don’t need a higher heat to break down collagen.
- Slow Cooker – This kitchen appliance slowly heats food in a contained pot without using much energy. You can braise or stew meat mostly.
Cuts That Will Get More Tender With Longer Cooking
Save your thinly cut, more expensive steaks for grilling or pan-frying. Use these cuts for slow cooking where they will get more tender with time.
- Beef Shank (Shin) – very tough and sinewy so needs a lot of cooking to become gelatinous
- Chuck – a very common and cheap cut of meat often used in stews
- Beef Short Ribs – a versatile cut, great marinated and chucked in, bones and all
- Beef Brisket – great in stews, especially with good marbling
- Lamb Shanks – not a cheap cut, but adequately prepared, worth all the effort
- Lamb Neck – one of the best cuts of meat for lamb stew, excellent in taste
- Pork Shoulder – crisp the skin in the oven beforehand for extra flavor
- Chicken Thighs – flavorful and with a short cooking time
Does Fillet Steak Get Softer The Longer You Cook It?
Fillet steak or the tenderloin is cut along the back of the cow. This cut of meat is inherently free of connective tissue and is also very lean. Fillet steak will not get softer the longer you cook it. Fillet steak will become tough and significantly reduce in size if overcooked.
Fillet steak is suited to shorter cooking methods like grilling and pan searing and is best eaten medium-rare. Fillet steak is so tender that you can eat it raw as a steak tartare or carpaccio.
Does Brisket Get Softer The Longer You Cook It?
Brisket is cut from the lower front part of the beef or veal. This cut of meat includes the pectoral muscles of the cow. Pectoral muscles are hard-working muscles that contain some connective tissue.
Brisket is perfect for long cooking methods. There is a juicy layer of fat between the inner and outer pectoral muscles. This layer of fat is what gives brisket its distinct flavor.
Does Oxtail Get Softer The Longer You Cook It?
Oxtail is the culinary name for the tail of a cow. Traditionally oxtail only referred to the tail of an ox, but today the term includes steer tails of any variety.
The tail is a long bony cut. The cow’s tail is a very hard-working muscle and has plenty of connective tissue. This cut is also gelatinous with a string of small bones.
Oxtail is perfect for long slow cooking processes. Because there is marrow in the small bones of the oxtail, this cut will become beautifully tender and fall off the bone if prepared correctly.
Does T-Bone Steak Get Softer The Longer You Cook It?
T-Bone steak is traditionally cut from the short loin of the steer. T-Bone steak gets its name from the distinctive T-shaped lumbar vertebra in this steak. The T-shaped vertebra is flanked on both sides with the internal abdominal muscle of the steer.
The smaller side of the T-Bone steak, when sold alone, is the tenderloin. Also known as the fillet, it’s a prime cut of beef with no connective tissue. The alternate side of the T-bone is the strip steak (sirloin steak in the UK).
T-bone steak does not do well with long cooking processes. The strip has more fat than the fillet so cooks slower. So it’s best to cook it medium to rare so that you don’t spoil the delicate fillet.
Does Beef Shank Get Softer The Longer You Cook It?
A beef shank is a cut from the front or the hind leg of the cow. This cut is also referred to as shin or gravy beef. This cut includes the shin and the leg of the steer. The legs of a steer are very hard-working muscles. This cut is very sinewy, and it can be tough and dry if not prepared correctly.
Beef shank has plenty of connective tissue and is best suited for long cooking methods. Beef shank is an economical cut perfect for dishes like stews.
Does Beef Chuck Become Softer The Longer You Cook It?
Beef chuck is cut from the shoulder of the cow. Beef chuck steak is part of the sub-prime cuts known as chuck. This large muscle contains connective tissue, bones, and muscle meat. Chuck steak is sometimes called “7 bone steak” because the shoulder bone in this cross-section resembles the numeral 7.
Chuck contains some connective tissue but isn’t as tough as shank or oxtail. Chuck roast is suited to long cooking methods while chuck steaks can use short cooking methods that have less connective tissue – so pay attention to this one.
Chuck has enough connective tissue to be suitable for roast, especially if cut lower and closer to the steer’s leg. Chuck that is cut from higher up can be grilled. This type of chuck is often used to make hamburgers.
Do Beef Ribs Get Softer The Longer You Cook Them?
Beef ribs are cut from the rib cage of the cow. Beef ribs are either cut into sparerib or short ribs. Beef ribs contain connective tissue, bone, and muscle. The amount of meat the rib has depends on where the rib is cut. Closer to the front of the steer, rib cuts will include brisket. Closer to the steer’s hind, rib cuts will include some flank.
A beef rib can be tough if cooked too quickly. The beef rib is an excellent choice for barbeque. The beef rib is best suited to a low and slow cooking process. If prepared correctly, the beef rib will be butter-soft and fall off the bone.
Do Beef Cheeks Get Softer The Longer You Cook Them?
Beef cheeks are often overlooked. This small cut of meat is exactly what the name suggests and is cut from the cheek of the steer. Cheek muscles are hard-working muscles as this herbivore spends hours a day chewing cud.
Beef cheeks don’t contain any bones, but they are rich in connective tissue. Beef cheeks are an inexpensive cut that is very tasty if prepared correctly. Beef cheeks have long been considered offal, but beef cheeks have recently become more popular in food trends.
Beef cheeks are perfect for a long and slow cooking process. Beef cheeks need to be cooked for at least 4 hours to break down all the connective tissue. Once the connective tissue softens, these cheeks will be butter-soft and delicious.
Does Flank Steak Get Softer The Longer You Cook It?
Flank steak is cut from the steer’s abdomen. Flank steak does not contain any bone but does have some connective tissue. The abdominal muscles are hard-working, which makes flank steak a lean cut of beef. Flank steak needs to be cooked correctly otherwise, it will be tough.
A flank steak does not require a long cooking process to be soft. Flank steak should be served medium. To ensure that flank steak is tender, marinate the steak with an acid like lemon juice or apple cider vinegar. The acidity will help to shorten the cooking process needed to soften the connective tissue in flank steak.
Does Lamb Shank Get Softer The Longer You Cook It?
Even though lamb is softer than beef, hard-working muscles on a lamb will still require a long cooking process to become soft.
Lamb shank is cut from the leg part of a lamb. Lamb shank is a hard-working muscle with tendons, bones, and plenty of connective tissue. The marrow in the shank bone will help keep the muscle meat tender while you slow cook to soften connective tissue.
Lamb shank is a gelatinous cut of lamb best suited for a long, slow cooking process.
Will Pork Shoulder Become Softer The Longer You Cook It?
Pork shoulder is a popular roast cut from the lower part of the shoulder, just below the “pork butt” and above the shank. Pork shoulder is a hard-working cut of meat with bone and connective tissue.
Pork shoulder is a firm and flavorful cut of pork well suited for a long cooking process. Pork shoulder is perfect for reverse searing methods.
For reverse searing, the shoulder is cooked long and slow at first and then finished off at a high temperature. This ensures that the shoulder is moist and soft inside, and crackling is beautiful and crisp.
Does Turkey Get Softer The Longer You Cook It?
The best way to calculate how long to cook a turkey is 13 minutes per pound at 350°F. It takes about 3 hours to cook an average-sized turkey of 12 – 14lb. If your turkey is stuffed, increase the cooking time to 15 minutes per pound.
When cooked, the turkey will soften up to a point. At about 180°F, the protein molecules in the turkey will begin to unravel, and the muscle meat will become more tender. If cooked for too long, the proteins in the meat become denatured, and the turkey will become tough and dry.
Some cuts of meat will soften when you cook them for long, and some cuts of meat will become tough from overcooking. How long a cut of meat needs to be cooked to be tender depends on where on the animal you cut the meat. Hard-working muscles with plenty of connective tissue need a long cooking time to soften.
Prime cuts of meat that come from parts of the animal that don’t work too hard tend to be softer and have a higher fat content. These softer types of meat require a shorter cooking period. The age of the animal will also be a determining factor in if the meat needs a long cooking time or not.