The problem with the question, “Is Bone-In Meat Better?”
Talk about a topic that is talked about, and likely never to be resolved; this may be one of those. Step one, what does better mean?
Ease of cooking?
Look and presentation?
All of these come into play when this discussion gets serious. Then you throw in different sources; beef, chicken, pork, etc. While it may seem like just a fervent belief, there are some facts out there, and lots of opinion. And that makes it a subject worth exploring.
Ribs are an exception
You know we love us some ribs, arguably more than is healthy, and we argue strongly to keep that opinion to yourself. Obviously they have bones. Removing them makes no sense. But it is not the bone itself that makes them so amazing. Because rib meat fills the area between a series of bones, ribs have a huge amount of collagens, fats and connective tissue. Properly cooking them brings all that to the forefront for a great food experience that is somewhat unique. As a result, the consummate bone-in dish, ribs, do not really factor into this conversation.
Talkin’ Turkey ($)
Generally bone in cuts of meat will cost less than the boned counterpart of the same cut. Ribeye steaks seemingly most of all, as much as one third less for a bone-in steak. The same is true of chicken products with thigh meat being the biggest gap and breast meat slightly lower in the cost differential. The negative to chicken is that they usually take the skin away with the bone, and that can be enough to cry about. Pork chops seem to have the least cost difference, pork shoulder differs more noticeably along with ham when the bone is removed. Interestingly, leg of lamb is only slightly more expensive to buy with the bone removed.
Now We’re Cookin’
We’ll try to sort out as much of the comparative thinking on this topic as we can. There are differences to consider, we’ll show you those. There is science to consider, both the physics of cooking and the effects of preparation when raw. First order of business is prior to cooking, the impact of having the bone in versus out.
The most notable reason to leave the bone attached is it often preserves the covered surface from drying out. Poultry is affected most by this difference, red meat products are also to a lesser degree. So for longevity and wholesomeness the consensus is generally that a bone in product is better.
High and Dry
But the biggest determiner of ‘better’ qualities come with how you want to cook your meat. So the primary division will be between cooking processes; hot and dry such as grilling versus slow and moist as in braising or smoking.
When it comes time to grill, fry or sear, does the bone help or hinder?
There are those who are certain that the meat at the bone is the most tender. Some of this comes as a result of it being somewhat rarer than the rest of the meat.
Bone is a good insulator so the meat closest to it is exposed to heat more slowly, often being 5-10 degrees cooler than the rest of the meat. As a result, you also rarely cook chicken on the bone with the high and dry techniques. To get poultry evenly cooked it almost requires a bake or braise process. Even pan fried chicken with bones has to be done slower than red meats to have that enjoyable crispness without scorching.
Food Porn: Hot and Juicy
During hot dry cooking processes the bone can help hold in more juices to enjoy while you work your way toward it. Generally there is a layer of connective tissue that will break down while cooking. This won’t permeate very far into the meat, but it can make those bites closest to the bone more flavorful. And there is the point, maximize the flavor of your meal.
Color generally equates to flavor. If you are using a thick enough cut with a flat bone side (ribeye, NY, some chop cuts, etc.) one favorite way to start the cooking is to stand it on the bone, putting a nice dark sear on it. And therein lies a big advantage to having the bone in. It looks better when served (never doubt that presentation influences enjoyment). And there is certainly something to enjoy with all the extra crispies and gnaw-able tastes that come along with them.
Spicing the Other Side
In counterpoint, take away the bone and you have one more surface for your grill to flavor up just right. It arguably offers even more to enjoy. So, the end result with high heat cooking is that it becomes almost entirely your personal preference. The technical cooking geek will tell you there is no difference. The visceral meat eater (my son) will relish the experience of having the bone along with their meal.
Low and Slow
This is where the bone in cuts begin to shine, although there are still a few pros and cons out there.
Short ribs, shanks and other heavy bone cuts thrive as a result of having a bone. Cooking them down releases the collagens and marrows allowing those flavors to move throughout your cooked dish. The king of sauces, demi-glace, is based solely in roasting bones and cooking them down to extract all that goodness.
Many utility cuts come with the bones in them. Making pot roast with a seven bone chuck cut or stewing pork short ribs will both give you incredible meals. From Baron of beef to ham to leg of lamb, all the leg cuts are so good because of the presence of the bones throughout the process. Those heavier bones require longer cooking giving us more tender meat and richer flavors.
The biggest bone of contention with slower cooking is prime rib or standing rib roasts. Well roasted meat develops that incredible crust of spices and browning. When sliced on the plate that three hundred and sixty degrees of browned and seasoned edges is mighty fine.
Keeping one long surface unexposed to that result is considered criminal by some. However, allowing the juices to run out the bottom and not using the natural rack of bones to support the meat during cooking is abhorrent to others. We have to call this particular aspect a draw.
One notable exception to this, again, is up for discussion.
True low and slow, think smoked pork shoulder for example, can achieve more evenly cooked meat if there is no bone present to interfere. It is agreed that bone is a good insulator, so getting it out of the way will help the consistency of your cooking process.
What We Know
Cost; bone-in wins by being typically less expensive.
Initial preparation; bone-in wins for extended wholesomeness and slightly improved longevity.
Appearance; bone-in wins, generally looks better
High heat cooking; draw, no particular gain on either side.
Roasting and braising; bone-in wins by adding noticeably to the quality of the final dish.