Shredding Proteins

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Shredding Proteins

How to Efficiently Cook and Shred Pork, Beef, and Chicken

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Shredding Proteins

The popularity of shredded meat — whether pork, beef, or chicken — is on the rise and many food processors are jumping on the band wagon to profit from this trend.

It seems simple enough: cook your product then pull it apart either by hand with forks or, as many larger companies are doing, purchase a meat shredding machine and let it do the work for you.

The problem many processors are finding with this approach is that their product isn’t shredding as they had hoped — and often blame the shredding process for these lack-
luster results.

Achieving consistent, desirable shreds of pork, beef, and chicken is a science, one that depends upon both how the product is cooked and how it is shredded. The proper balance between these two processes will produce a consistent, profitable shredded product.

Throughout this guide, we will lay out the best cooking and shredding practices to achieve the protein shreds you want, as well as share insider tips learned over years of shredding meat.

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Download our Shredding Proteins guide to learn how to efficiently cook and shred pork, beef, and chicken.

Cook Cycle

Cook Your Way to Better Shreds

The cooking process plays a large role in the quality of your protein shreds.

A hand-pulled look to your shreds is achieved when the connective tissue of the protein is broken down during the cook cycle and the muscle fibers are pulled apart from one another.

Perfecting the look and consistency of your protein shreds starts in the cook cycle. If the cook cycle is too short, or the protein isn’t held at temperature long enough, the connective tissue doesn’t break down as well, leaving you with “clumpy” and mushy shreds. Left in too long, and your shreds will be very fine.

The method of shredding, whether by hand or in a meat shredding machine, affects the quality of shreds minimally. If the protein isn’t cooked correctly, you won’t achieve desirable shred quality and consistency.

A hand pulled look starts with the cook cycle. Perfect your cooking to perfect your shreds.

Cook Cycle

Cook Smaller, Uniform Meat Chunks

The distance between the outside of the product and the core of the product constitutes how long you must cook the product to break down the connective tissue. Generally, this means getting the product up to 83°C (180°F) and holding for a period of at least 30

Whole pieces of protein (defined as larger than 4 inches) can take upwards of 12 hours to reach an internal temperature of 180°F. The extended length of time required to cook the product can cause the outside to become “mushy.”

The best method is to cut protein into 3 or 4 inch sized pieces to improve cooking and product consistency.

The smaller diameter:

  • Reaches (and holds) core temperature much faster (4 hours versus 12 hours)
  • Increases product consistency in texture from outside to inside (due to less cook time)
  • Length of shred size becomes consistent (no extended long strands)
  • Increases quality, overall yield, & consistency of shredded product

The most important aspect is to get the internal temperature of the product up to 185° – 190° F and hold it there for at least 30 minutes. The smaller the piece of protein, the faster it will reach the desired internal temperature.

Cook Cycle

Practice Step Cooking

Step cooking is the process of slowly increasing the cook temperature over a period of time to retain purge. Rather than starting the cook process at 190° F, start the process at 145° F and work up to 190° F over the course of 1-3 hours.

Step cooking prevents protein from giving up outside moisture too quickly and retains a greater amount of purge. It also helps prevent the outside from getting “mushy”.

shredded pork

Cook Cycle

Pork Cooking Methods

Pork cuts, whether butts, loins, coushins, bellies or other cuts, respond about the same in the cooking process. It doesn’t matter what cut you use; the main factor is to cut your product down to 3 or 4 inches tall to increase the efficiency of the cooking process.

The best method is to load cook-in-bags with product and spices, and then flatten the bags so product is no more than 4 inches tall. Steam cook (or as high of humidity as possible) the product in a basic cook cycle:

  1. Cook at 145° F for one hour
  2. Cook at 165° F for one hour
  3. Cook at 185° F for one hour
  4. Cook at 190° F until internal temperature reaches at least 180° F.
  5. Hold at that temperature for one hour

This process will produce a nice, consistent shred of your pork cut. If the product shreds too fine, cut back the time on the last cooking step. If the product shreds too coarse, add more time to the last cooking step.

Cook-in-bag is not required; however, best practice dictates wrapping the product in foil for the majority of the cooking process to retain moisture, and then take out to smoke for last half hour.

Cook Cycle

Beef Cooking Methods

Beef takes the longest to cook, as the connective tissue within the muscle renders only after internal temperature is held longer at the higher temperature. Beef is also the most difficult to adjust the shred size because it doesn’t break apart until it reaches a certain temperature, then it falls apart.

These properties make it even more important that the total product height is consistent: no more than 4 inches tall to get the longest shred size and still be able to cook in a reasonable amount of time.

Like pork, it doesn’t really matter what beef cuts you are using; they all render about the same.

Most companies choose not to shred beef, as it is costly per pound and shrinks a lot when cooked the necessary amount of time — meaning the overall yields on shredded beef are not as good.

In order to combat this issue, brine can be injected into the raw meat or the product can be vacuum tumbled to add 15-20% weight before cooking. Salt brine binds the muscles to an extent, making the muscle fibers and shreds softer resulting in more chunks.

Sample steam cook process (a smoke step without humidity can be added):

  1. Cook at 140° F for one hour
  2. Cook at 155° F for one hour
  3. Cook at 170° F for one hour
  4. Cook at 190° F until internal temperature reaches at least 180° F
  5. Hold for at least one hour
shredded beef
shredded chicken

Cook Cycle

Chicken Cooking Methods

Chicken breast meat doesn’t have much fat and is usually only 1 inch thick, making it the easiest to cook and shred. Many companies choose to boil the breasts in water for 1.5-2 hours, and then shred.

Thigh meat, on the other hand, requires almost double the amount of time to cook as breast meat. Cooking thigh meat long enough to shred results in a lot of shrinkage of the thigh, about 30%-35%. When you do shred it, thigh meat tends to become dry, as all the fat is cooked out. Fat can be added back into the shredded meat.

Chicken breast meat should be steam cooked in a cook-in-bag, boiled (just add to boiling water and adjust cook time based on desired result), or open cooked (this might be a little longer, but retains a bit more moisture):

  1. Cook at 145° F for ½ hour
  2. Cook at 160° F for ½ hour
  3. Cook at 180° F-190° F for one hour
  4. Adjust time in last step as needed

The rule of thumb for adjusting the consistency of your shred, whether pork, beef, or chicken:

If the product shreds too fine, cut back the time on the last cooking step.
If the product shreds too coarse, add more time to the last cooking step.

Shred Cycle

Methods to Efficiently Shred Proteins

Once the cook cycle is adjusted to allow for an optimal, hand-pulled looking shred, there are two main ways most processors shred protein:

Shred Cycle

Shred Hot (Or Warm)

The ideal method for shredding protein is do so when the protein is hot, typically right after it leaves the cook cycle. The connective tissue is still broken apart, the ideal condition for shredding, making the muscle fibers easy to pull apart.

You can shred warm as well, but the hotter the protein (or the closer to it having just been removed from the cook cycle), the easier it will be to shred.

Once protein is chilled, the product condenses, making it difficult to pull the muscle fibers apart to achieve a fine shred.

Benefits to shredding hot:

  • Muscle fibers are easier to shred
  • Shredding reduces temperature significantly, saving time and energy in the chill cycle
  • Fine shreds are only possible if you shred hot
  • It gives you a more hand-pulled look

Shred Cycle

Shred Cold

Shredding protein after it has been chilled produces a different, more coarse look to the shred.

Chilling condenses the connective tissue in the protein, making it much more difficult to pull the muscle fibers apart and achieve a hand-pulled look. In fact, it is impossible for most processors to achieve a fine looking shred when the protein is chilled in advance. Shredding cold only produces a coarse, chunky style shred.

Depending on the type of product, you may need to invest in some kind of flattener, such as a roller conveyor or meat press, to break the muscle fibers apart before trying to shred by hand or with a meat shredding machine.

Even with a flattener, shredding cold will not produce a fine, hand-pulled looking shred.

Shredding protein cold will not produce a fine, hand-pulled looking shred. It will only produce a coarse, chunky shred.

Shred Cycle

Meat Shredding Machines

If you need to shred anything more than a few pounds of protein each day, and you’ll want to invest in a meat shredding machine.

These machines range in processing capacity of a few hundred to several thousand pounds of protein per hour, making them ideal for any size processor to reduce labor costs and efficiently shred protein.

The cost of a meat shredding machine varies depending on size and feature, but gives a solid return with the amount of protein able to be shredded.

You can view our line of Meat Shredders to the right.

Download our Shredding Proteins guide to learn how to efficiently cook and shred pork, beef, and chicken.