As we head towards colder weather and the holidays, I thought it might be a good time to talk about meat. Some might say summer, the height of barbecue season, is the time for meat; but I think of summer as a time for beautiful, fresh vegetables, not of meat. For me, a big hunk of steak is for when I want something warm and hearty. We are all about passion for food and the science behind good cooking. A well cooked steak has plenty of good science behind it and can make those carnivores among us start to drool like Homer Simpson with a donut. But the first ingredient when cooking meat is respect.
In the US, we have become distanced ourselves from the source of our food. In continental Europe, Asia, South America, or any other number of places, the fish you buy has a head. That’s how you tell how fresh it is. In the US, we don’t want our fish to have a head. We want it to be just like any other packaged product in the store. Well guess what…
Your fish had a head!
For that matter, your chicken had a head. Your beef had a head. If it’s meat, it had a head. Trust me, in a post about cooking ribeye steaks perfectly, I am not trying to dissuade you from eating meat; but you need to respect what that means. In his cookbook, Jamie’s Italy, Jamie Oliver pairs graphic pictures of animals being prepared to be used as food with an essay about the culture of respect for food and its source. It’s an essay anyone who likes food should read. If you are going to buy or order meat, have to respect to make sure that it is prepared well. When you forget where it comes from, it’s easy to think of it as another disposable item…no big deal if it gets ruined.
Lucky for you, I’m here to help you cook that perfect piece of meat every time.
The process of cooking meat starts at least an hour before we cook it1. We are doing two main with this time: bringing the meat up to room temperature2 and salting it. Warming the meat ensures that the temperature of your pan or grill does not drop drastically when the meat hits it. Salting plays a more crucial and a more complicated role.
Salt is amazing. It hunts down and destroys bacteria like a mineral based predator chasing down a microscopic Jesse Ventura. It enhances flavors by carrying flavor molecules into taste receptors. It is, crucially for our recipe, also hydroscopic. This means that salt attracts and holds on to water. In steak terms, water equals juiciness. It is because of salt’s hydroscopic nature that it is so important to salt our steak at least one hour prior to cooking.
What happens when we salt steak? Let’s image we are doing everything right. Our steak is out at room temperature and we have sprinkled it with a layer of salt on both sides. As the steak waits, the salt pulls water to the surface of the steak creating pools of juice. Once the water reaches the surface, it slowly forms a solution with the salt. Heat would speed solution formation, but would also prematurely cook the steak. So, we’ll settle for room temperature and being patient. Once the salt is completely in solution there is no longer any hydroscopic, solid salt to pull water to the top. The salt solution will begin to recede back into the steak by osmosis until we have a steak with a dry surface and a steak-juice/salt solution inside. When we cook our meat, the salt inside the meat is going to fight to hold onto those juices. Even a sub-optimally cooked steak will still be juicy; and a perfectly cooked steak will be, well, perfect.
What happens when we don’t do everything right? Many steak recipes fail the home cook, because they say to salt your meat right before we cook it. Wrong! If we do what these recipes suggest, we are actually removing juice from our steak. If we think about the process of salting our steak properly that we just discussed, it is easy to see how this happens. As soon as the salt is on the surface of the steak, it starts to pull water to the surface. Following typical recipes, the salt and water don’t have the chance to form a solution and recede back into the meat before the hot environment of the pan causes the juiciness of our steak to evaporate away. Salting after cooking is slightly less bad scenario. We don’t have the salt to hold the juices in during cooking, but when the salt pulls moisture out of the cooked steak the juices will simply end up on our plate instead of burnt away.
A steak dinner is a special dinner. Make the time to prepare your steak properly.
We are going to sear our steak. We are not going to sear our steak to “seal in the juices”. “Sealing in the juices” may be the most common meat cookery myth around. Consider it debunked. It is an awesome idea, but not currently a reality. This belief goes back to Aristotle, who wrote about it in a treatise on meteorology3. It might be old, but it is just flat-out not true. Searing tightens the proteins on the surface, but it does not weld the spaces between the fibers shut. This is why the salting and proper cooking is so vital.
Searing is still important though. We are going to sear our meat, but we are doing it for the flavor. When the meat hits high heat, the proteins undergo Maillard browning, which creates the signature flavor of cooked meat. Once that initial sear is done, however, get your steak off the high heat. While the proteins are browning and creating deliciousness, they are also shrinking and tightening, which leads to tough meat. Proper meat cooking is about balance.
As soon as we have created flavor in those surface proteins, we need to move our steak to the oven or the cold side of the grill4. This will allow the steak to heat uniformly without the direct, aggressive heat that will make it tough. Just like eggs, less aggressive heating means that the proteins don’t tighten as much, making for more tender steak.
With the steak in the oven, we have to watch for doneness. Doneness is simply a measure of protein tightness and is directly related to how hot the steak gets. The best measurement of doneness is the interntal temperature5. Steak is considered rare at 130F, medium-rare at 135F, and medium at 145F. All I will tell you about the temperatures for medium well and well-done is that they are too high, because you are not allowed to cook your meat that much.
As the proteins heat, they shorten, making for a tighter, firmer structure. Hence, more done meat is firmer meat. As a result of this tightening, water is literally wrung out of the meat like you would wring out a washcloth. If we salted the meat ahead of time, the salt will fight this process, to a point. You can eventually cook he proteins tight enough that the salt can no longer hold on. We call this “well-done,” a misnomer if there ever was one. Let me be clear on this.
DO NOT cook your meat to well-done!
Liking a well-done steak, is an indication of not actually liking steak. When the water leaves, so do all of the water-soluble flavor molecule. When most of the fat melts out, so do all of the fat soluble flavor molecules. A well-done steak is a tough and flavorless knot of proteins. Remember that respect thing we talked about earlier? No one wants their steak to go Joe Pesci from Goodfellas on them, but a well-done steak would be well within its rights.
Many people judge doneness by simply cutting open their steak to see the color on the inside. Heating changes the color of meat due to a cool little quirk of nature. The color comes from the protein myoglobin which changes in parallel with the fibrous proteins of the steak, producing a handy, natural, color-coded doneness meter6. The problem is that cutting open the steak ruins all the hard work we just did to keep our steak juicy. Before we cut, we need to let our meat rest.
How many of us have cut into a steak only to end up with a plate swimming with juices? This happens because the steak didn’t get a chance to rest. It is a common cooking mistake to think that taking food out of the oven or off a burner stops the cooking process. If your food is still in a hot pan, it continues to cook. Cookies pulled out of the oven when they look perfectly done will grow crisp and burn, if left on the cookie sheet, because the hot metal continues to cook the bottom of the cookies. Slide the parchment, foil, or silicon mat with the cookies7 off the cookie sheet and no burning.
Other foods will continue to cook themselves. Its simply the thermodynamics of the cooking process. We can generally count on steaks to increase in temperature by 5 degrees Fahrenheit after they come out of the oven. We started with searing our steak, which requires high heat. This means that when our steak has reached its ideal internal temperature, the surface is still much hotter. The thermal energy of the hot surface has to go somewhere. Some of it is released into the surrounding air and some of it is released into the interior of the steak. The energy diffusing from the surface will continue to cook the inside of the steak. So, if we are using internal temperature to measure doneness, the steak needs to come out 5 degrees prior to our target temperature. Here is a chart for the visual learners.
It will take about 10 minutes for the residual cooking process to stop. During that time, the proteins will continue to tighten (ie, wring out moisture). This means that cutting our steak before it has fully rested will squeeze out the juices destroying all the juice-preserving hard work we did. To rest your meat, simply place it on a cutting board, tent a little foil over top to keep the top side from drying out in the air, and leave it alone for 10 minutes8.
After the rest is over you are ready to enjoy the fruits (or meats) of your labors. Enjoy, and remember: respect your meat.
1. This is not true for fish. You only really need about 30 minute lead time on fish. For all your land based meats, follow the 1 hour rule.
2. Federal health regulations state that foods like meats can sit between the temperatures of 40 degrees Fahrenheit and 140 degrees Fahrenheit for 4 hours before detrimental bacteria growth occurs.
3. Harold Mcgee found that little tidbit for me in his book On Food and Cooking.
4. With the hood closed on the grill, the hot side of the grill will heat up the air inside, creating an oven environment.
5. A thermometer with a meat probe is the best tool for this.
6. Thank you again Harold Mcgee’s On Food and Cooking for providing fun science facts.
7. Because you didn’t place your cookies directly on the metal sheet, did you? DID YOU!?
8. Bigger cuts of meat like roasts, whole tenderloins, or whole chickens need to rest longer because there is surface area and bone mass to hold heat.