The types of connective tissues found in beef

Brisket that is tough and has a lot of connective tissue
Brisket that is tough and has a lot of connective tissue

Connective tissue is an essential component of beef. It defines the texture of the meat and influences the flavor. Understanding different types of connective tissue can help you select the right type of beef cut for your recipe. It’s essential to have at least a basic knowledge since each connective tissue has its own unique characteristics and properties.

This article will look closely at the different types of connective tissue found in beef. I’ll explain the role of each connective tissue and how to make a tough beef cut tender.

What does beef connective tissue do?

Connective tissue is a type of tissue that connects, supports, and surrounds different structures in the cow. In the context of beef, connective tissue gives texture and taste to the meat. The harder the muscle is forced to work, the more connective tissue it has. For example, the shoulder and legs support most of the beef’s weight, making the meat from these areas extremely tough. Ribs and the back portion of the cow, on the other hand, are more tender because the muscles are not working that hard. In a nutshell, here’s what connective tissue does:

  • Provides structural support: Connective tissue in beef gives shape and strength to various structures in the cow.
  • Connects and protects different structures: Connective tissue holds different structures together and protects them from damage.
  • Regulates growth and repair: Connective tissue plays a role in repairing damaged tissue and developing new tissue.
  • Store energy: Adipose tissue stores energy in the form of fat.

Types of connective tissue

Ligaments

Ligaments are a type of connective tissue that connects bones to other bones, providing stability and support to joints. Luckily ligaments are a part of the cow’s skeletal system and are not consumed as meat. When butchers carve the beef, they separate muscle tissue from the skeletal system where the ligaments are found.

Tendons

Tendons are a type of connective tissue that connects muscles to bones, allowing for movement. You can find tendons in cuts of beef such as brisket or shank. These cuts are tough and chewy, especially if not cooked properly. To make them tender, you’ll need to use one of the slow cooking methods, such as braising, stewing, or smoking, to break down the collagen fibers.

Silverskin (fibrous tissue)

Silverskin is a type of connective tissue with a thin, shiny, and translucent membrane surrounding the muscle. You can find it on cuts of beef such as tenderloin and ribeye steak. Silverskin is tough and chewy and does not break down easily during the cooking process. You’ll need to remove it before cooking the meat to make it more tender.

Muscle fibers

In beef, muscle fibers are responsible for muscle contraction and movement. They are long, cylindrical cells composed of protein. Individual muscle fibers are grouped together to form muscle tissue. Muscle fibers are responsible for the flavor and texture of the meat. For example, muscles used for support and movement, such as shoulder and leg muscles, are more developed and have a robust beefy flavor and a chewy coarse texture. In contrast, muscles used for posture and balance, such as the loin and the rib, are slightly smaller and less developed. They have a finer texture, more marbling due to the lack of movement, and a milder flavor.

Connective tissue composition

Connective tissues are composed of different materials, such as elastin and collagen. Both elastin and collagen behave differently when cooked.

Elastin

Elastin is a type of connective tissue found in specific cuts of beef. It’s composed of a protein called elastin. Elastin provides elasticity and resilience to the muscle tissue and allows a muscle to stretch and return to its original shape when muscle fibers contract.

Elastin is found in small amounts in beef cuts, and it forms the silverskin and ligaments of cattle. It does not break down and remains tough and chewy during the cooking process. Because of its properties, elastin is often removed before cooking to prevent the beef from becoming too chewy.

Collagen

Collagen is a type of connective tissue found in most cuts of beef. It’s composed of a protein called collagen. Collagen is responsible for providing structural support and strength to the muscle tissue. At the same time, collagen is responsible for the texture and flavor of the beef.

Different cuts of beef cuts have different amounts of collagen. For example, steak cuts coming from the shoulder or leg of the cow have a high concentration of collagen. The collagen concentration varies depending on the cow’s age and type of muscle. The more muscle is exercised, the more collagen it has.

Unlike elastin found in beef, collagen fibers start to break down into smaller molecules called gelatin when cooked. It makes the meat tender and incredibly juicy. Some of the best cooking methods to break down collagen is braising and stewing. These cooking methods involve low and slow approaches.

How to cook down connective tissue

Ribeye tender cut vs. flank steak a tough cut
Ribeye is a tender cut vs. flank steak which is a tough cut

To break down connective tissue and other fibrous proteins in the meat that makes them tough, you’ll need to use one of the cooking methods described below:

  • Braising: It involves browning the beef over high heat first, then cooking it in a liquid such as broth or wine at low temperatures for a long period of time. Between 160° F to 205° F, collagen will start to melt, turning beef into a juicy piece of meat with a moist and succulent texture.
  • Stewing: It’s very similar to braising. It involves cooking the beef in a liquid over low heat for a long period of time. The only difference between braising is that meat is completely immersed in liquid.
  • Slow cooking: It’s similar to both stewing and braising. However, you can use a slow cooker, crockpot, or sous vide in slow cooking. These methods are extremely effective at breaking down connective tissues and making the beef more tender.
  • Smoking: You can slow-cook beef in a smoker to break down connective tissue. However, it’s a difficult cooking method that requires a lot of time and skill.

It’s important to understand the difference between each steak cut and the amount of connective tissue it has. Cooking a tough piece of beef coming from the chuck primal at a low temperature and slowly is essential to break down tough connective tissue. While cooking a tender piece of steak from the rib primal or loin primal, braising or slow cooking methods are not ideal.

Tender cuts are most juicy and tender when cooked between medium-rare and medium (135-145 degrees Fahrenheit). In contrast, it’s quite the opposite for tough cuts. To break down connective tissue, you’ll have to surpass 160°F, where collagen starts to melt away.

Traditional beef tenderizing methods for beef cuts with moderate amounts of collagen are excellent. They will help to tenderize the meat. However, when tenderizing meat from a well-worked muscle cooking method is the key to breaking down tough connective tissue.

Note: Remember to slice steak against the grain. It’ll make muscle fibers much shorter and easier to chew.

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