Cook Smarter: The Secrets to Cooking Meat (Without Messing It Up)
Whether you follow a low-carb, no-carb, or just a plain old omnivore diet, cooking meat is an art. We have a few secrets to share that will make you a meat master.
Cooking meat is a little art and a little science. From getting just the right color on the outside to making sure it stays moist on the inside, we've got a few secrets to make your meat memorable.
Creating the Perfect Crispy Crust
As an experienced meat eater you probably didn't realize you already know all about one of the most delicious chemical reactions that happen in the kitchen. It's called the Maillard Reaction. The Maillard Reaction is what produces the thick caramel-colored crust on the surface of cuts of pork, chicken, and beef when they're prepared with a cooking method using high-temperature and dry-heat techniques. Named for the French chemist Louis-Camille Maillard who discovered the process, the Maillard Reaction happens when carbohydrates and amino acids in the meat react at high heat to produce flavorful molecules that manifest as sweet, earthy, and aromatic taste sensations. Here are a few tips to help you achieve a perfect crust:
- Pat proteins completely dry with paper towels before cooking so the meat browns and crisps rather than steams.
- Make sure the grill or pan is clean and preheated on high heat before adding the meat.
- A cast iron skillet is excellent for achieving a tasty crust because it maintains a very high temperature.
- Using a thick piece of meat is also preferred because it gives the crust more time to develop before the meat overcooks.
Cooking Your Meat at the Right Temperature
Cooking meat, poultry, and pork perfectly is not hard to do if you have a meat thermometer. A meat thermometer takes the guesswork out of making sure meats are cooked to a safe minimum internal temperature. For best results, the instant-read thermometer should be inserted into the thickest part of the protein without touching the bone. This will help you get an accurate temperature read. Here are some of the temperatures to make note of (as recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture).
- Chicken and turkey should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Regular cuts of beef, pork, and lamb should be cooked to 145 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Ground meats should be cooked to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
Contrary to common belief, it is OK to eat slightly pink pork; right at 145 degrees, pork will be a little pink-looking and completely safe to eat. However, if you are cooking chicken breasts or chicken thighs and find yourself without a thermometer, you can cut into the chicken and let the juices run out. If the juices are tinted pink, more cooking time is needed; if the juices are clear, it's done cooking. You can also make a small cut in the chicken — if the meat is white, it's fully cooked.
Marinate Meat for Maximum Flavor
Whether you are grilling, roasting, or cooking your meat on the stove-top, a good marinade can boost the flavor and add complexity to any cut of meat. Every marinade should include a fat component to help transfer fat-soluble flavors into the meat. Fats like vegetable oil, olive oil, coconut oil or butter help flavor the meat and keep it moist. Another component to include is acid. Acids like buttermilk, vinegar, wine, and citrus juices break down connective tissue in meat and help in tenderization. When you have your fat and acid selected, you can add aromatics and seasonings like salt, herbs, spices, onions, and garlic to add layers of flavor. When you're ready to cook, here are a few tips for doing it right:
- Minimize exposure to air during marination. Place chicken, pork loin, pork chops, or steaks in a zip-top plastic bag and squeeze out most of the air before sealing. This allows the marinade to adhere closely to the surface of the meat while marinating.
- Use approximately a 1/2 cup of marinade for each pound of meat. Dense cuts such as pork and steak can be marinated for 24 hours or longer while chicken only needs about an hour.
Get Your Grill On
Some say that everything tastes better on a barbecue. It's not a foolproof method for cooking meat, but there are a few good strategies to do it well:
- Make sure that meat is properly thawed (if frozen) and at room temperature before cooking. Remove thawed meat from the fridge 30 minutes before cooking.
- Don’t trim all the fat before cooking; the fat will keep the meat moist.
- If your meat has been marinated in a sugary marinade, it should be cooked on medium heat (rather than high) to prevent those surface sugars from burning.
- Oil the meat, not the grill, to prevent sticking and promote caramelization and grill marks.
- Make sure to season meats with salt just before they go on the grill. Premature salt seasoning will draw juices to the surface, where they'll be lost.
Give Your Meat a Rest
Always let your meat sit for a few minutes after cooking before you serve it. When cooking animal proteins like chicken breasts, pork, and steak, fibers in the muscle firm up and moisture is pushed towards the surface of the meat. Once taken out of the oven or off the stove or grill, the juices inside need time to be redistributed back into the meat. If you cut into your baked chicken breasts, roast or pork tenderloin immediately, it will end up dry and the tasty juices will be lost on your cutting board. By letting it rest, you can ensure that each cut of meat will be tender, tasty, and juicy.