(This is a bit disorganized and I may revamp it some day.)
Meat can be fried, baked, grilled, smoked and braised. It can be boiled too, but the punishment for doing this will be strictly and severely administered in the after life. Most of the condemned will speak English with that “island accent.” If you like fish and chips, you’ll be in numerous company.
It all comes down to temperature and what to do with it. And there are two general zones of temperature to cook meat to such that the outcome is edible, the first zone is short-term cooking to raise the temperature to anywhere from 120° for rare beef to 170° for well-done fowl. Beyond that, from 190° to 210° is the zone of pot roasts and barbecues where the meat is no longer rare, but is desirable because it’s supremely juicy by reason of the collagen (gelatin) that has been released into the meat. To cook beyond the second zone not only releases the collagen, but dries out the meat as well.
And that’s the problem...
Most long cooking methods make total guess work out of oven time because even length of time in oven per pound of meat just isn’t accurate enough. Extended cooking destroys tender cuts of meat like tenderloin/filet mignon with little or no collagen as these cuts steadily give up their juices, dry out and toughen.
Braising and smoking are the methods most often used in this range. Braising involves keeping the meat wet during cooking, but it is trivially easy to dry out and make nasty any piece of meat by braising it. Smoking can also quickly dry meat out.
Americans know dried-out meat. It’s what they eat in their school cafeterias, at their church dinners and in those “traditional” family restaurants. But things are getting better. The last few times I’ve sampled the pot roast at Golden Corral, it’s been pretty good. On the other hand, I’ve eaten at the highly trumpeted Lion House restaurant downtown in nearby Salt Lake City and every time it’s pig-swill no matter what the dish, and criminal what they do to prime rib, and pretty much every other piece of meat they get their hands on. (There should be a law...)
Extended cooking can improve the texture of tough cuts with lots of connective tissue like ribs, chuck or chuck-eye roasts and steaks, brisket, 7-bone roast and blade. No exception to the rule, heat does cause them to lose juices and dry out, but the moisture is replaced by gelatin as the collagen in the connective tissue melts on the condition that the temperature does not rise much about 210°.
Rub a brisket and cook to between 180° and 210°, either by smoke, braising liquid—or a combination of smoking and braising&mbash;for several hours. If it’s tough when you get it out of the smoker, maybe it’s only because it’s not cooked long enough for the collagen to break down. Or maybe it went too long and dried out. I smoke brisket, Boston butt or picnic roast for 3-5 hours then put it into my temperature-controlled crock pot with chicken stock ¼ to ⅓ way up the pot on 300° with an alarm thermometer stuck into the thickest part of the meat until it reaches temperature (200°). For upwards of 4 lbs of meat, this slow cooking takes place in roughly 6 hours time in my crock pot.
Smoking is difficult with small cuts of meat because they dry out faster than they cook. As noted, try smoking, then putting the meat in a slow cooker with a little chicken stock to finish it off. This works especially well for pulled pork (made from a picnic or Boston butt roast).
The slow-cooking principle also applies to smoking or braising pork ribs (baby back or St. Louis style/spare), but braising works better in a pan in the oven.
The thing to remember is this: if you leave a piece of meat in liquid long enough and it gets hotter than 210°, it’s going to be nasty and dry despite all the moisture it’s sitting in.
To cook a tender steak or cut of filet mignon, cook on a high, searing heat for a short period of time. Well done steaks are tough because when heat is applied to the muscle tissue, it contracts, expulsing its juices and getting hard.
Saying the “lower range” doesn’t mean cooking at a lower temperature—quite the contrary: you’re cooking at as high a temperature as you possibly can to sear the meat on the outside getting good caramelization while leaving the interior moist and tender.
Not everything sold in the store as “steak’ is good for short, low-temperature cooking. In general, look for something with a great deal of fat marbled in. Rare doesn’t mean tender either; there are only certain cuts suitable.
This is the zone of rib-eye, t-bone, porterhouse and tenderloin steaks, prime rib, fine cuts of roast beef, etc. These can be quick-cooked over a grill, stove top, under a broiler or just in the oven. They can be done at high temperatures (steaks) or low (prime rib and roast beef), but their finish temperatures fall into the usual ranges as noted in the table below, which come more or less from Alton Brown.
|| medium rare
|| medium shoeleather
|| over 146°
|| well done cinder
In general, traditional assumptions for meat cooking are wrong for many reasons. Pork is safer now and doesn’t need to be cooked juiceless and dry any more. Old ideas about finish temperature usually failed to take into account “coast-up” of a roast or even a steak and removed from the fire or oven at the finish temperature meant that the meat coasted up anywhere from 5° to 15° higher (depending on size) by the time it stopped rising.
Let me describe the details you’ll read in recipes, in the roasting instructions accompanying a cut of meat from the store, etc. much of which aren’t what I use. The recipe usually goes like this—the particulars here I checked against a cut of rib roast I bought for a recent New Year’s Eve celebration.
Wash, season and position roast fat-side up on a rack in a pan. (This is good.)
Roast at 300-325° until thermometer registers 5-10° below desired doneness. (I favor slower roast times with a short, intense browning cycle as I describe elsewhere in this article.)
This table gives minutes per pound at 300-325° to reach desired doneness and final internal temperature. (This is where things really go south: compare with my earlier table gathered from the likes of Alton Brown, America’s Test Kitchen and verified by my own long experience.)
This is conservative clap-trap designed to protect the store, meat-packer, etc. and can lead to dried-out, over-done roasts. It’s growing up over a generation of this evil that has led America to complete ignorance about what good meat tastes like. I give Salt Lake City’s Lion House Restaurant as a consistent example of a place that destroys prime rib; I’m certain that this is the procedure followed by those perpetrators of gross food crimes (there outta be a law).
Don’t be confused by this section; it’s meant to deviate a little from what I’ve just written.
There is a way to improve very cheap cuts of meat—roasts, mainly, to make them edible and not just by doing to them what is done to pot roast.
Cuts of meat like lean eye-of-round roast and top round. These come cheap in the store ostensibly because anyone who’s tried to cook and serve them never does it again after asking himself why he even tried: it turned out dry, tasteless and nasty.
The secret is slow roasting—roasting pretty much at the temperature at which you wish to finish the roast. For pot roast, as you read elsewhere in this article, it’s easy: you reach about 200° for a while and all the luscious collagen comes out. But, what if you want a rare roast?
A medium-rare roast will come out at around 130°, so you prepare it and roast it at that temperature. It takes a long time, but it’s almost that simple—conceptually, at least.
The method breaks down in two places. First, not all ovens support temperatures that low and, if one does, it won’t necessarily be accurate. And this can take an incredibly long time.
Second, the roast comes out sort of grey because the temperature wasn’t high enough to caramelize (brown) the outside.
A principle: there is one or more enzymes in beef that break down connective tissues around 122°, but not higher (as contrasted to the temperatures that break them down up around 200° by sheer heat). Our method here consists of getting that 122° temperature for at least part of the cooking time. And, this temperature will still leave your roast rare and capable of moving up to any level of doneness you like.
There might be several ways around these problems, but I’ll propose one here. First, brown the roast in hot oil in a Dutch oven or skillet. This fixes the greying problem.
Second, start the roast with a permanent thermometer in it (that dangles outside the oven) and turn the oven off just before it reaches 122°, say at 115°. Start out at 225°. The oven will take time to cool down and the roast will, as pointed out elsewhere here, coast up to a final temperature. These two facts work together to make that temperature easily around 130° or perhaps higher. And, if the roast doesn’t reach your temperature (see the chart above), simply turn the oven back onto 225° for 5 minutes then shut it off again. Keep a close eye on your roast to ensure you turn off the oven several degrees before it reaches your temperature.
Last, don’t forget to season the roast with salt and pepper when browning. In fact, season it a day in advance, then pat it dry before browning. Plan on a 4-lb roast taking about 1½ hours to reach 115° (medium-rare) or 2 hours to reach 125° (medium). Remember: these halting temperatures aren’t the final temperature of your meat, but the point at which you stop the oven. Leave the roast in the oven, covered, until finish temperature which might take as long as ½ to 1 hour, then leave it 15 minutes on the carving board.
Beef used to be aged for longer than it is now. The flavors concentrate better because the humidity is lessened. Alton Brown recommends aging in the refrigerator in a plastic container with holes punched into it, 50-60% humidity (if you can control it), 38° F for as long as 5 days, but claims that even just 24 hours makes a good difference. Particularly if you age for longer periods, you will find yourself trimming dry spots from the meat; that is to be expected. I try to age my prime rib roasts for a couple of days.
You can see that I’m overly preoccupied with meat cooking. This resulted from the trauma of being very poor at it. When my family was young, I couldn’t afford much meat as it was too expensive, especially nice cuts. I hated spending money on something that I then reduced to mediocre. Also, I dreaded inviting people over because I never knew if my meat dishes would turn out palatable or not. It is true that around here, most have a hard time cooking a good meat dish and are very forgiving, but that wasn’t much comfort to me.
You can try real hard to do a good steak, it’s easy to fail. You’re looking for that right balance of rare or medium rare on the inside and a good, caramelizing sear on the outside. Instead, you get the sear, but by the time you’ve finished, the center is darkened and, worse, there’s a non-descript, mushy grey band just below the crust composed of dry meat.
So, what ever can one do? There are several principles at work here.
For one thing, wet meat will cool down a pan greatly retarding the sear (the caramelization). While the pan is heating back up from the shock of the moisture, it’s warming the inside of your steak in unison with the outside, turning the whole into a grey disaster. So pat your cut dry.
By convention, browing should be accomplished in about 4 minutes. Any longer and you get the result we’re discussing here. A steak will not brown until most if not all of its surface moisture is gone.
A steak out of a 40° refrigerator is going to drop even a 400° pan down to less than 200° (localized, that is, around the steak itself) unless the pan is massive. In any case, the effect is certainly non negligeable. The pan will have to return close to 400° to begin browning the meat.
I learned a trick from America’s Test Kitchen. Combined with Alton Brown’s sage advice about aging meat, putting it out to reach room temperature before cooking, etc., this advice is welcome.
Think about eating pan-seared steaks in a restaurant (an actual restaurant and not Golden Corral or Sizzler). Think about the shape of the cut that’s served, how thick (at least 1") and how it tends to be cube-shaped rather than long and thin. Now read this rant over and over again to get an idea in your head about how this works and you’re ready to cook.
First, if you can, age your meat in the refrigerator according to instructions and comments you read elsewhere on this page. Second, get the steak out and trim it a couple of hours before cooking. For pan-seared steaks, you are looking for filet mignon-shaped cuts. If you have a big ribeye or long New York cut, either reshape it, cut it in half or go do it on the grill instead. Wash and pat dry with paper towels. Season with salt and pepper, and/or other spices you desire.
For peppersteaks that aren’t laden with hot, bitter pepper flavor, but are very yummy, see peppercorn encrusting.
Before I go on, I need to tell you of a theory I’ve read about how you can get some additional tenderizing by following the next step. Apparently, meat contains an enzyme called cathepsin which breaks down connective tissue (that’s right, meat is food that digests itself if you don’t get to it first). This enzyme and others in the meat function while warm, up to 122° when they stop doing this. This action is considerably faster when warm—above the 40° you hold meat at in your refrigerator. So, ...
Set it on a plate in a 275° oven for about 25 minutes or until the surface is dry and the meat has reached about 90-95° for rare and medium rare, or 100-105° for medium. This will not be hot or long enough to cook the meat and grey the center, but it will dry out the surface in preparation for searing.
Heat oil in a heavy 12" skillet (assuming 4 steaks here) over a high flame until smoking. Sear the meat 1½ to 2 minutes until well browned and crusty. It is recommended that you lift each steak briefly off the bottom halfway through to ensure that the cooking oil and fats remain underneath all through the sear. If the bits that come off the meat begin to blacken during cooking, reduce the cooking flame.
Turn the cuts over and sear on the other side, 2 to 2½ minutes. Remove the steaks to a clean plate or rack, then sear all around the sides by holding each steak in turn between tongs against the pan bottom. (Yes, this is as tedious as it sounds but when was the last time you had a pan-seared steak at a grill that hadn’t had this treatment?) If you’re clever, you might succeed in doing two steaks at once with one pair of tongs. Take care, however, not to squeeze the juices out by applying too much grip to the tongs.
Tent the steaks on their plate or rack for 10 minutes before serving. Deglaze the skillet to make a wine and butter pan sauce or other sauce.
For reasons due to their peculiar chemistry, meat from fowl must be handled carefully and is unsafe finished off at the lower temperatures of beef and, nowdays, pork. Follow the directions for fowl; there are techniques to keeping cuts moist at the same time cooking them to a safe temperature (170°). The most common technique, however, is to cook to 160° or 165° (for smaller pieces), remove from the heat and set aside: it will glide up to 170°.
Turkey dark meat needs to reach about 185°, not for safety so much as for the collagen to have begun melting making it tender. At that temperature, which is when the manufacturer’s pop-up comes out, the white meat is dry and tasteless.
What I know about fish wouldn’t fill a thimble. I don’t even like it: don’t over-cook it, find ways to keep it tender, juicy and find flavoring schemes. As I say, don’t ask me.
One solution to the problem of meat dryness, as is given in many of my recipes on this site, is to brine or marinate the cuts before cooking. This puts water, salt and other flavors in the meat erecting a shield against dryness. You must, however, monitor the temperature carefully. Don’t set cooked cuts on top of vegetables in an oven while you finish the rest of the meal. Just as for pot roast or prime rib, it’s better to let the meat cool down than dry out.
Read a longer discussion of brining on my page about doing turkey. I also talk about brining chicken there too.
Bringing a whole turkey is difficult because you have to find a vessle in which to bring it and it must fit the refrigerator in order not to exceed 40° at which point dangerous bacteria start reproducing. One solution is to brine the turkey in a 5-gallon bucket, a campsite cooler or one of those disposable styrofoam coolers. Add enough ice to the brine to ensure the whole survives the bringing process under 40°.
Another solution for turkey (in addition to brining) is to start the bird at 500°, then reduce to 350° after placing a diaper-shaped shield made from aluminum foil to cover the breast and keep it from reaching temperature quite as fast. Use a thermometer with alarm set to go off at 160°; the bird will coast up to 170° and the dark meat will probably have reached its separate temperature zone.
|1 cup||turkey||whole bird overnight|
|½ cup||chicken||½ hour for cuts; 1 hour for whole chicken|
|½ cup||pork||½ hour for cuts; 1 hour for whole roast|
Note: I used to advocate brining a roast or brisket overnight before applying the rub, then smoking. I read an article in Cook’s Illustrated by the folks at America’s Test Kitchen with scientific evidence that putting salt into the meat prior to smoking defeats the second process. It seems that salt has a stronger electrical charge than most types of flavor molecules and will bind easily with meat in brine (of course, this plus the accompanying water was the whole point). And then, much of the aroma in garlic, spices, etc. is oil-soluble (coming as it does from the plant's essential oils).
Another solvant, besides water and oil, is alcohol. Not being a chemist, I don’t have a list of what aromas are alcohol-soluble, oil-soluble or water-soluble. But I do think I mostly understand what I’m going to get in water and what in oil (or fat). I’m guessing that since liquors don’t separate in storage, any aromatic ingredient in them is alcohol-soluble and, since alcohol dissolves readily in water (unlike oil), such may be used in bringing.
First, a great quantity of brine is required to prepare a turkey. If you’re pouring gallons of stock and handfuls of aromates into a 5-gallon bucket, your turkey is going to cost too much. Brine first with little more than salt, then use the skin to hold onion, garlic, butter, herbs, etc. against the flesh of the turkey.
Water-soluble additions like sugar and molasses (and salt, obviously) are not wasted during the brining process. Some of a lemon’s flavor is water-soluble and some is essential oils: a lemon-lime soda will be the least expensive way to get lemon into the bird during brining.
Second, this chemical fact (about electrical charge) makes it that much less likely in the case of barbecuing and smoking that passing smoke particles will adhere and move into the meat. The conclusion is then not to brine before barbecue (that is, real barbecue which involves smoking the meat over low heat for hours). Adding other moisture and flavors, however, is appropriate.
In France there’s a cooking method that employs a Dutch oven termed en cocotte. This method makes for a luscious-tasting meat. In America, we like to roast or broil chicken to make the skin crispy and we sacrifice meat flavor to that. The French method is still worth a try. It falls short of braising because you don’t want the environment inside the Dutch oven to get too wet, a few aromates and no more vegetables to make it too humid inside.
Heat the oven to 250° while browing the chicken skin (not always done, but hey, when in America...). Season with a mirepoix, garlic, bay and rosemary if you like. Or tarragon (what some French like with chicken). Insert a thermometer probe and seal the pot with the lid and even some foil if the lid isn’t tight and cook until it reaches 160°. For a large chicken, this might take nearly 2 hours. Rest the bird on the carving board for 30 minutes and make a pan sauce from the expired juices.
To get chicken with a crispier and more edible skin in addition to good flavor, it is necessary to remove as much moisture from the skin as possible.
So, what’s the solution to ensuring tender, juicy meat through careful temperature control? Whether prime rib or pot roast, turkey or chicken breast, the key is a thermometer.
For $20 at the most egregiously priced kitchen equipment store, you can purchase a thermometer with a probe on a long lead suitable for inserting into meat then dangling outside to be connected to a read-out unit. For that price, the read-out unit will also have a) a timer and, more especially, b) a maximum temperature reached setting and alarm.
For pot roast, prime rib or similar undertaking, set the alarm to go off at an internal temperature of 200°. Insert the probe into the thickest part of the meat. Set the oven at 300° if meat is enclosed in a Dutch oven or clay roaster, or at 250° if left on a tray.
Meat tenderizer powders and liquids work because they contain enzymes that break down the connective tissue. Papain and bromelain are extracted from the papaya and pineapple fruits, are used in powdered form to break down sinuous tissue. If left too long, the meat is too broken down to be palatable.
Bad cuts of meat can be made more edible through marination in a liquid containing an acid or a tenderizer. Acids are somewhat less effective in tenderizing. Tenderizers work poorly because they are difficult to apply and control, and they will often denature meats as seen in down-scale steakhouses like The Sizzler.
If you have vegetables in the braising liquid, they are probably going to be wasted and inedible because they’ve cooked too long. Constrain your vegetables to a mirepoix of onion, carrot and celery and count on tossing them out at the end. While your roast is reposing, redistributing its juices and coasting up to temperature, you’ve got time to cook potatoes, carrots, green beans, etc. in the braising liquid without the roast. 20 minutes later and you can serve the whole thing together. Tent the roast in foil to keep it warm. If it’s too small to stay warm, put it on the serving platter and pour the hot braise and vegetables over it to warm it up.
America’s Test Kitchen conducted a test of cooking tough roasts of beef.
One cut (roast) was roasted uncovered at 250° while another was braised, and the third simmered in enough liquid to cover it on the stove.
The dry-cooked roast never reached an internal temperature of more than 175°, even after four hours, and the meat was tough and dry.
Both the braised and boiled roasts cooked in about the same amount of time, and the results were almost identical to the dry-cooked roast, except that boiled meat is tasteless since no spicing scheme would survive boiling.
Cutting the two moist-prepared roasts in half revealed little difference—both exhibited nearly full melting of the thick bands of connective tissue. The winner, however, is the preparation that is controlled through use of composed brine and carefully controlled temperature.
The point is that preparing meat isn’t something you do willy-nilly. There are scientific principles that can help you reach your own art, but it is no simple matter.