Texas chef Jess Pryles shares the basics of buying, cooking, and understanding red meat.
If you had asked Jess Pryles a decade and a half ago if, one day, she’d become a bona fide expert on American barbecue, the Australian native would likely tell you that she couldn’t have seen it coming. But during travels abroad in another lifetime, she found herself in Texas, where one bite of brisket would change her life forever. Over the following years, she found herself back in the Lone Star State on multiple occasions—to visit barbecue joints, butcher’s shops, even slaughterhouses— absorbing everything there was to know before moving to Austin full-time in 2015.
Follow Pryles on the internet today and you’ll quickly see that she’s not your average food influencer. A self-proclaimed “meat nerd,” she does her homework, and “whole hogs it,” you might even say, so much so that she even earned a master’s degree in meat science from Iowa State University. And it’s this commitment and command of her subject that has garnered the self-taught chef and wild-game hunter a loyal following for her online recipes, how-to techniques, and Hardcore Carnivore, aka her debut cookbook and own brand of both pantry seasonings and kitchen tools.
This October, we caught up with Pryles to learn more about the ins and outs of buying, cooking—in cast iron, of course—and understanding the science of red meat. We’ll be buying a picanha this week.
Growing up over in Melbourne, what was your relationship to meat?
I always loved eating meat, but I was just a consumer, not involved with anything other than buying it and cooking it at home. It was definitely a big part of the local cuisine—we have a lot of British roots, so we’re used to things like Sunday roasts or pubs having special steak nights, but we didn’t have any barbecue culture, as we know it, at least. That low and slow technique, especially in smokers, feels very American....I lived in a big city, and I wasn’t connected to any kind of agricultural environment.
What set you on your culinary path?
It was visiting Texas, where I had my first taste of barbecue. That flavor, it was like, wow, holy moly, this is so intensely meaty, and smoky, and crusty, and delicious. I loved it so much that I got really curious about eating more but then also finding out how it was made, and then even having a better understanding about the raw product. There’s so much that goes into a brisket before it even gets close to the smoker— the trimming, the size, the grading—and that opened up the meat world for me.
You now have a master’s in meat science from Texas A&M University. What inspired that degree?
I’m not a trained chef by any means, but a love of eating led to a love of cooking, and as I was learning more and more, I started sharing online and I grew a very loyal, engaged audience, and I wanted to make sure that I was giving the best information possible. It’s important to me that my recipes work because someone might make them at home, and it’s not fair to suggest that someone spend $60 on ingredients and then not have a successful dish. And at the same time, I wanted to dive deeper myself. I didn’t even know that meat science existed. But we’re in the golden age of beef right now, even in the way that so many Wagyu operations have popped up around the world, and the consumer has a better understanding of why they should pay for it, and that is all rooted in meat science. And it makes me feel better knowing that I’m speaking from a vetted place.
What is “meat science?”
Meat science is responsible for our safety and quality standards, and it has so many different layers to it, from physiology to microbiology to processing technology. When we studied processed meats, we learned about all the things that get a bad rap—the erythorbate and potassium additives and nitrates and why they’re used and what they do. And when we studied fresh meats, we went all the way down to the cellular and chemical level. I couldn’t believe I was sitting there talking about mitochondria and actomyosin bonds that convert muscle to meat. But it’s relevant to me as a hunter, too, because, for example, when an animal is slaughtered, there is an optimum time and temperature ratio for cooling the carcass to make sure that you get the best quality meat possible. The pH needs to be in this perfect window before rigor mortis sets in to ensure things like water-holding capacity and tenderness.
Knowing all this, how do you shop for meat?
I buy according to the cut more than anything. I figure out the dish that I want to make, or I see what’s available or looks good at the store. To have a healthy diet, you have to have balance, so I wouldn’t eat wagyu every day, in the same way that I don’t necessarily always buy prime. And there are certain cuts that you can afford to buy at a lower grade. If I’m having a nice steak night, I will try to buy prime or higher. But I also really like choice, especially top sirloin steaks, like picanhas, because fajitas and chili don’t need wagyu. Lower grades have less fat and more muscle, and fat has more flavor, whereas muscle is a bit more neutral. So if you like that more grassy, beefy, less buttery taste, you might actually prefer a lower grade. I always tell people buy the best grade that you can afford.
What are the big differences between grass and grain-fed beef?
Grass-fed has a few extra nutrients that grain doesn’t have, but they’re both good for you. The biggest difference between the two is flavor. The reality is, the younger the animal, the more tender it is, like veal, and generally we slaughter all our beef cows before 36 months, because after that time, they have an increased risk of developing mad cow disease, but it just takes much longer time to get fat off grass than grain. So if you like heavily marbled steaks, you’re probably going to want grain-fed, unless you’re able to find a really amazing product like Cape Grim Beef in Australia, which is beyond-prime, well-marbled, grass-finished beef, in part because of the quality of the grass over there. We don’t have quite as great of grass in the States, so most of the grass-finished here is going to be a bit scrappier, even gamier. Grain is a milder, smoother, more buttery finish.
When you go to a butcher shop or meat counter, what are you looking for?
I always look for meats that have a nice, pinkish to cherry-red appearance in the case. If they’re vacuum sealed, I don’t worry about the color, because we know that it’s going to look more purply, because of the lack of oxygen. But even more than color, you can check with your sense of smell, which is the biggest indicator of rancidity. And especially when I look for beef, if it’s not in a vacuum seal, I like to look for a nice dry surface, which suggests that it’s holding water well. If it’s pooling a lot on the surface, it might not be as juicy.
Does it make a difference when the meat came in?
That’s a such a difficult question. In some cases, that can actually be a good thing. In other cases, it can be a bad thing. Carefully controlled aged meat will actually develop in flavor intensity and increase in tenderness. But at the same time, "older" meat may have the beginning of oxidative rancidity, and so have some funkier “off flavors.” It’s quite difficult to explain the nuances between “aged” and “old.”
For folks new at cooking meat, what do you recommend for starter cuts?
Oh, I love a flat-iron steak. That’s a wonderful, incredibly tender steak that’s often overlooked. And if you ever have a choice of skirt steaks, outside skirt is better than inside skirt, but they both make great fajitas. And I absolutely love top sirloin cap, which is also known as picanha or coulotte.
What is your personal favorite cut to cook or eat?
I mean, my death row steak would be a ribeye. But I’m really in that top sirloin cap at the moment. It’s got the fat cap on it, but it’s leaner, and the muscle itself just has incredible texture, and I like that little bit of toothsome chew to my steak. I never order filet, because I don’t think they have very much flavor.
What are your tips for cooking meat?
I know some of us like to be well-done snobs about people who chose to have it that way, but I definitely recommend people eat their meat however they prefer it. The best tool for people who are starting meat cookery is to buy a really good meat thermometer. Instead of just prodding at it, it’s a great way to know for sure the exact doneness of your steak. So 120 to 125 degrees Fahrenheit is rare, 130 to 135 is medium rare. 140 to 145 is medium, and anything over 150 is well-done.
Any other tools you always keep on hand?
Sometimes also a steak weight if you’re cooking in a pan to keep the meat in contact with the cooking surface as the muscle fibers contract from the heat. And you don’t even need a fancy weight to get the job done—a smaller cast iron like the Estee works perfectly. I also use a trimming knife, which is wonderful for cutting open a pork butt or removing some silver skin, and a serrated slicer, which is super handy, especially for barbecue or sausage casings that can be a little tougher to get through. And of course, great seasoning. And obviously Butter Pat is a is a favorite of mine. The smoothness of the surface has a huge impact on the development of the steak’s crust.
Why does a crust matter on a good steak?
When we develop that Maillard reaction, we’re literally creating additional flavor and scent compounds that enhance our eating experience. If you have a pan with a rough surface, there’s not as much direct contact, and there are areas for excess water to go versus just evaporate off, and that creates more of a steaming or boiling effect, instead of searing fat and muscle. That’s when you get that gray-looking steak. And cooking in cast iron also lets you introduce additional flavors. So if you wanted to do like a butter seared finish with some herbs or some garlic, you certainly can’t do that in a grill.
Do you think you’ll continue your studies?
I still read new papers that come out, and I’m still always learning. Traditionally, that degree would be used to further someone’s career in the meat science industry, but for me, it was purely educational. I don’t think I’m going to do change careers and become a meat inspector or grader anytime soon.
Photos courtesy of Jess Pryles and Scott Slusher. Read Jess Pryles's seared hanger steak recipe in Family Receipts.