Meat, in its broadest definition, is animal tissue used as food. Most often it refers to skeletal muscle and associated fat, but it may also refer to non-muscle organs, including lungs, livers, skin, brains, bone marrow, sweetbreads, and kidneys. The most commonly eaten meats in industrialised countries come from animals that are raised for food. These animals - and the meat that comes from them - include cattle (beef and veal), pigs (pork), sheep (lamb and mutton), and poultry (chicken, ducks, geese etc). Game, be it wild or, as latterly, farmed, is eaten to a lesser extent.
While all meat has characteristics in common, from a consumer's point of view the meats of individual species have different qualities, influenced by their breed, age, sex, diet, level of activity and manner of slaughter.
For the cook, the cut of meat is also significant. Butchery, however, is fraught with confusion. The way an animal is jointed varies from country to country, even from region to region, according to the nationally preferred methods of cooking, and also evolves with food fashion. This complexity is compounded by the various, often overlapping, names given to similar cuts.
Key to understanding the virtues of the various cuts of meat is an appreciation of which part of the animal they are from and their function. Those muscles which had the most exercise, generally the forequarter and the lower part, develop the coarsest fibres and tend to be the toughest, with a correspondingly full flavour. Fat, particularly intra-muscular fat, called marbling, also contributes to tenderness and flavour; during cooking it melts and penetrates the tissue, separating and lubricating the fibres. Bones also add flavour, as well as conduct heat.
These factors determine the most appropiate method of cooking: tender meat suits hot, dry modes; tougher meat is better suited to slow, moist cooking which dissolves the collagen in the connective tissue surrounding the muscle fibres.
Poultry is a generic term for domesticated barnyard fowl reared as food, both for meat and eggs; it includes chicken, duck, turkey, goose and guinea fowl.
Chicken is the most commonly consumed of all poultry. Once a luxury, modern intensive-rearing practices have made it a relatively inexpensive meat, albiet often lacking in flavour and texture. Whereas formerly a chicken's age and breed were the distinguidhing factors in eating quality, nowadays the diet and the method of rearing, whether genuinely free-range or battery, also make a difference. Chicken is a particularly versatile meat, able to be prepared in a myriad ways: it may be baked, roasted, grilled, fried, poached, braised or stewed; its inherent lack of flavour making it a blank canvas for a diversity of flavourings.
Game denotes wild animals hunted for sport; over time, the distinction between domesticated animals and game has become less defined with the modern practice of rearing 'game' in protected circumstances, then releasing them, to ensure stock. Some 'game' is actually farmed. Game birds, or feathered game, include pheasant, partridge, quail, grouse, pigeon and wild duck. Many wild game birds are protected, with their hunting being permitted only during specified seasons.
The flesh of truly wild game is leaner, more compact in texture and more intensely flavoured, than its domesticated counterparts, the result of the greater exercise and natural diet involved in surviving in the wild. Handling in the field, hanging and, above all, the animal's age, determine the eating quality of a particular bird, and therefore how it is best prepared.
Despite the pre-emptive medication of intensively reared birds, in some countries many are infected with salmonella bacteria, a common cause of food poisoning. Because salmonella is destroyed by high heat, thorough cooking renders the meat safe to eat; pale fleshed fowl should never be eaten raw or underdone. Care must also be taken not to contaminate other foods when storing and handling raw poultry.