If I could have any job in the world, I’d teach one-on-one cooking lessons all day long. Of course in this lala land, I’d have a dream-house kitchen with a commercial-grade stove, my knives would never be dull, and I’d never run out of friends to take my classes.
I often times think I should have maybe been a teacher. Though, I really only like to teach fun things to people who want to learn them. Not exactly your average 5th grade class environment. I taught horse back riding lessons all through high school and college, and after graduating started a 10-year stint as a rowing coach. And it probably doesn’t hurt that SUE! taught 2nd grade for over 25 years – and continues to hone her teaching skills on the Winner family now that she’s retired. (Love ya Mom!) So I guess it’s not surprising that when I envision my perfect world, it involves teaching.
I don’t mean to sound like I have all this superior knowledge to pass onto others or something like that. I love being able to help someone do something that they really want to do – there’s no better feeling than when someone finally “gets it” and I was able to help with that. I also think part of the fun of teaching is having to really understand something and be able to explain it five different ways, so it pushes me to always discover new layers of a skill. Or maybe I’m just a good bullshitter and enjoy making stuff up. That’s very possible.
Anyways, until my Barbie Dream Kitchen becomes a reality, I’ll just have to settle for being a pushy friend and forcing my cooking skills on others. Just recently my friend Tanya casually mentioned that she wanted to get better at cooking meat. Well do I have the answer to that! Poor Tanya was cornered and talked into a 6-class private series before she knew what hit her.
After my adrenalin rush subsided, she offered a much more reasonable 1-afternoon option and we set a date. I gotta hand it to her, too. She was a total stud. For someone not super comfortable manhandling meat, it was a lot to take in. Perhaps the baptism by fire approach (breaking down a whole chicken right off the bat) was a bit much. But I stand by my assertion that once you cut up a raw chicken, everything else is a cake walk. We butchered, roasted, seared, sautéed, pan roasted, braised, and carved a whole chicken, then had a lovely little Atkins-friendly dinner party with our beaus.
In any event, I pulled together this list for our meat-extravaganza, and maybe it has a tip or two in it that you might find useful. So, without further adieu, here are my…
Top 10 Tips for Perfectly-Cooked Meat:
1. Always let meat come to room temperature before cooking. If the outside of the meat is room temperature, and the inside is frozen, it’s not going to cook evenly and the outside is going to be charred beyond recognition before the inside reaches a safe temperature. (Fish can cook straight out of the fridge, but not frozen.)
2. To thaw meat, it’s best to keep it in the fridge to thaw. In a pinch, you can thaw it in a bowl of room temperature water. However, avoid storing it at temperatures between 40 and 140 for very long – that’s the “danger zone” when bacteria grows most easily.
3. Truss when possible to ensure even cooking – if one end of a piece of meat is much thinner than the other, it will cook much faster.
For a whole chicken: tuck the wings behind the neck, truss the drumsticks in tight to the body, if applicable tie the tail and neck tight to the body. If the cavity of a chicken is open, the breast will cook from inside and out – which will yield dry meat. If you can’t truss the cavity closed, stick an onion or lemon inside the bird.
For tenderloin or other oblong cuts, fold the thinner end back in against itself, and tie so the cut is more uniformly sized. When choosing cuts like steaks or chops, try to purchase same-sized pieces so they cook at the same speed. When cooking small pieces of meat, like meatballs or stir-fry, make the pieces as uniform in size as possible.
4. Brining meat that’s going to be cooked under dry heat will help with moisture and flavor. (If you’re cooking the meat in liquid, there’s no use brining it first). Brining is soaking the meat in cold water with salt and sugar. Thanks to osmosis, the salt can penetrate the cell walls, creating equilibrium in the salinity of the solution and the meat. Basically it infuses salt into the meat. The salt changes the cell structure, making it more difficult for it to dehydrate. Bottom line: salt = flavor. Keep the meat in the fridge while brining. (Caveat – some meat comes “plumped” which is marketingese for brined. You don’t need to re-brine this meat. It’ll say so on the package.)
5. Marinades use acid or enzymes to change the meat’s cell structure and add flavor. However, these chemical reactions can also be detrimental – if marinaded too long, these reactions can degrade the meat, making it mushy. Generally, marinade flavors don’t infuse deeply into the meat – the flavor is only on the outside of the meat (or the outer most ¼” or so). Marinade in the fridge, and NEVER reuse the marinade without cooking it first – it’s basically raw meat juice.
6. When deciding what cooking method to use, keep this rule in mind: high heat develops flavor (seals in the juices and browns the outside), low heat cooks large things uniformly. (About 300 degrees is the point between high and low heat.)
7. Make sure when you are using a dry heat to cook that your meat is completely dry. If there’s moisture on the meat, it will turn to steam, and the meat can steam instead of brown. The water can also drop the temperature of the oil and pan, which can prevent you from getting a good brown. Moisture on the meat can also cause it to stick to the pan during cooking.
8. Once you place your meat over the heat, leave it alone and let it cook. Don’t flip it a bunch of times, don’t stir it, don’t shake the pan. Leave it alone and give it a chance to cook. Besides making it difficult to get a nice brown crust, the meat will stick to the pan until it’s cooked a bit, so if you stir it too soon, the flesh will stick and tear. This goes for any type of dry cooking – sautéing, pan frying, grilling, etc.
9. Lots of people will tell you to learn the doneness of meat by poking it. This is a subtlety that’s lost on me, so I use a meat thermometer. Make sure you are measuring the temperature of the thickest part of the meat, and preferably use a probe thermometer that you can leave in until the meat is done resting. If you pull the thermometer out before it’s rested, juice will pour out of the hole. PS, well-done meat will be drier because the longer it cooks, the more moisture will evaporate. Juice=flavor, so at all costs, try not to overcook your meat. It’s better to undercook and throw it back if it’s too rare. (Here’s a nifty chart for different meat’s doneness by temperature.)
10. Let it rest! ALL meat needs to rest – as the temperature of the meat raises, the muscle fibers contract, forcing the liquid towards the cooler part of the meat – the middle. You need to let the meat rest so the temperature stabilizes and the juice redistributes, otherwise when you cut into it, the juice (and a lot of flavor and moisture) will spill out. To rest, transfer the meat to a cutting board – if you leave it in the hot cooking vessel, it will keep cooking. Tent loosely with aluminum foil so it stays warm, then leave it alone for at least 10 minutes before cutting. 20 is better. You can expect at least a few degrees of carry over cooking while the meat is resting, so pull it off the heat a few minutes before it’s actually done. (Seafood does not need to rest – serve that immediately. Except for Monk Fish, that needs to rest.)
Hope that helps! Did I miss any? Leave your tips in the comments so this page can be great little meat-cooking resource.