This is the first in a series on meat. Read the second in the series, Techniques in Meat.
One of my known mental failures is that I have a profound weakness for dualisms. I often see the world around me in the rigid terms of distinct dichotomy. There are right and wrong answers to the problems we face, good and bad decisions, wise and foolish outlooks. Over the years, I’ve found one particular dualism applies, without fail, to all of my close friends. There is one group of friends whose company I enjoy, with whom I indulge in food and drink and varied conversation. For the second group of friends, all of the above is still true, except they also require that I come over to their house and try their shitty cooking.
Every last person in the latter group, to put it politely, is a (very) basic home cook. They made a halfway decent pasta dish once or can grill off a steak and now their recollection of their food is inordinately weighted to those experiences. Worse still, they want to share these experiences with me. Perhaps you think these friends are sweet and that I’m ungrateful. I feel like this view, should you hold it, is a failure of empathy. Because think of what it’s like to be me for a moment. A lot of my friends know exactly how into food I am, so much so that I’m making a career of it and they want to relate to me somehow. That’s nice. But, because I’m so into food, my tolerance for shit is pretty limited. If it were just one or two friends, that would be one thing. But it’s a lot of people and I just can’t be expected to eat that much shit.
You might be asking yourself now, might these friends also read your website? Very astute and, yes, yes they do. This may very well be my explicit way of telling them how I feel for the first time. Whereas I’m glad we could all enjoy this moment together, the fact of the matter is that one of two things needs to happen for me: Either these friends of mine need to stop inviting me over for food or their cooking needs to get a whole hell of a lot better. I’m hoping this article will set us all on the right track, one way or another.
The Meat of the Problem
Meat is a big deal in more ways than one. Comedian Bill Burr, upon reflecting on his meat-heavy dietary preferences observed, “Something has to die every day so that I can live.” It’s that kind of sentiment that I take very seriously (despite it being intended as a joke). Meat is literally a piece of a once living thing, sacrificed for my health and pleasure. We really ought to take that sacrifice with a requisite level of humility and, at a minimum, avoid turning a perfectly good chunk of once living animal into an overcooked, dry, flavorless, joyless husk. We ought to act with intentionality, in other words, as if our actions mattered. Because they do.
What further complicates all of this is that we, as Americans, eat too much damned meat. Cross sectional clinical and population studies have come to the common conclusion, for example, that consuming little or no meat is a common feature among the longest lived societies in the world. A good target range, so these studies have found, is three to four servings of meat per week. Many Americans eat that much meat every day. If we ate less meat, perhaps we’d be more attentive to the quality of its preparation. Scarce things are highly valued, after all.
I can only assume that certain of my friends don’t think in this way. I’m always taken aback by the number of ways they find to cook meat and yet arrive at the same overcooked, dry, flavorless, joyless product. Their techniques are manifold but bad outcomes plenary. Their overall dishes, as a result, work hardest to right the wrong of poorly prepared meat: More oil, more umami, over seasoning, anything to polish that turd.
As it turns out, like with most things, there are only a handful of ways to do something right and millions of ways to do it wrong. By my count, there are only two general ways to cook meat and, within and among each, a very small space in which to truly succeed. That may sound intimidating, but we don’t have to try for excellent. We only need to get out of the turd polishing business.
Delicate Cooking Versus Browning
To continue my theme of precarious dualisms, I like to think about cooking meat in two broad categories. The first category is cooking delicately, with light heat, to maintain the essential nature of the ingredient. Poaching and steaming are two classic examples of delicate cooking methods. Meat cooked by these methods can easily result in blandness, require excellent meat that can stand by itself as well as a skilled and attentive hand to prepare it. At the other end are higher heat cooking methods that result in chemical reactions that build layers of flavor complexity into meat. These include the Maillard reaction, caramelization and pyrolysis (or charring). Examples of browning cooking methods include pan searing and grilling.
Of the three, the Maillard reaction is generally the most important to build in more complex flavor into meat. As a rule of thumb, the Maillard reaction proceeds rapidly at about 150 °C (302 °F). The other browning reactions are caramelization and charring. Most simple sugars rapidly caramelize at 160 °C (320 °F), which results in a rich, nutty sweetness, while charring, or the blackening that occurs in grilling and other very high temperature cooking, generally occurs at temperatures over 205 °C (401 °F). Charring in limited amounts can add a pleasant bitter complexity to meat.
Air, Water, Oil and Metal
One key factor in achieving great results with more delicate cooking methods versus browning cooking methods are the cooking media, so to speak. But to take a step back first, very basically, we cook meat by somehow getting heat energy into it. This is literally not happening in a vacuum. That is to say, the heat energy is getting into the meat by a tangible medium and that medium is basically some combination of four things: Air, water, oil and metal.
In roasting, to take one example, you place meat on a metal roasting rack so that the contact with the surrounding air is maximized and the contact with the metal is minimized. The meat comes in contact with the hot oven air and absorbs some of that heat energy, thus cooking the meat. The same is true when you boil, deep fry or grill meat. The hot water, oil or metal grill is transferring heat directly into the meat. It’s true, though, that metal isn’t the only solid you can use to cook meat. You can also use stone or glass or even plastic, but basically the process is the same. You have a hot solid and it’s transferring heat energy into your meat. So let’s leave things at metal for simplicity.
The main differentiators between air, water, oil and metal is the amount of heat each can hold per unit of volume, or the volumetric heat capacity (VHC), and in some cases the upper limit of how hot a substance can get. In general, the higher the amount of heat per unit of volume, the more energy a substance can impart to food at a given temperature within a given time. Saturated steam, for example, generally has a very low VHC (although you can get steam to superheat in a sealed environment, like in a pressure cooker). This is why steam cooking is more delicate and generally takes longer than certain other cooking methods. Air, too, has a low VHC but really has no upper bound for how hot it can get in the oven or over a hot coal fire. This contrasted with liquid water, which has a higher VHC than vaporized water (that is, steam) or air, but has an upper bound on its temperature, reached at it’s boiling point. Thus, the amount of energy liquid water can contain and impart to food has an upper limit and it’s ability to brown, nonexistent, whereas very hot air can lightly brown.
Oil, though it has a slightly lower VHC than liquid water, can reach a far higher temperature before arriving at it’s smoke and flash point (basically, the upper temperature bounds for an oil’s usefulness, similar to the boiling point of water). This provides a wider range of options for cooking in oil, from delicate poaching all the way through less delicate, more aggressive cooking like deep frying. Solids, by far, offer the greatest VHC as well as a much greater upper bound for high temperature cooking.
Among solids, there is a vast difference in VHC as well. Aluminum and cast iron are two great examples of cookware materials that differ greatly in VHC. Per unit of mass (as opposed to volume), aluminum actually has about twice the heat capacity as cast iron. However, cast iron is three times more dense than conventionally forged aluminum. As a result, cast iron offers a much greater VHC than aluminum, which is why it’s favored by cooks the world over. Carbon steel and stainless steel cookware can also be made by skillful craftspeople to have an equivalent or even greater VHC than cast iron, although they can be a bit more costly, especially the stainless steel.
One other concern in solid cooking media is how evenly they heat, which is referred to as thermal conductivity. Generally, if you preheat your cookware, this is not an issue, but this is why you often see copper or copper core cookware, which has an extremely high thermal conductivity relative to cast iron. I don’t believe the convenience of not preheating is much worth the additional cost either.
Flavor Concentration and Texture
Two other dimensions to consider, regardless of cooking medium are flavor concentration and texture. Flavor concentration is basically how chickeny your chicken tastes. At a high level, you achieve it through concentrating the juices through cooking. Exactly how this works is slightly more complicated. Basically, when you cook meat, there are two moving parts, so to speak, to consider. First, is the release of juices and the second is the tenderization of meat over time.
Raw meat is not juicy. When you bite into sushi or beef tartare, juice doesn’t burst from the meat and run down your chin. When you eat a medium rare steak, however, it does. Meat, of course, is made up of cells and within each cell is liquid. But to make the meat juicy, we need to make the liquids flow by breaking down, or denaturing, the proteins that essentially hold up the cell structure. The easiest way to do this is with heat energy, which is to say cooking.
It’s important to note that peak juiciness in meat is generally around medium rare doneness whereas peak flavor concentration is after some of those juices have been cooked off, at about medium doneness. The more concentrated the juices, the more concentrated flavor, up to a point. Unfortunately, as you continue to cook into well done territory, the flavor molecules themselves break down you’re left with more or less boring meat. To add insult to injury, meat also becomes quite firm and rubbery as cooks to higher temperature, if you’re cooking the meat quickly.
The next thing to consider is tenderization. With heat applied over lots of time, still other proteins break down in the meat’s connective tissues, resulting in more tender meat, and at the extreme, fall apart tenderness (like what happens in pulled pork or chicken). The benefits of slow cooking (commonly referred to as “low and slow”) are manifold: If you apply low heat for a long period of time, you will not only break down the connective tissues, you can also retain the flavor of meat, since, with lower temperature cooking, you don’t break down many of the delicious meat flavor molecules. This is especially useful with inexpensive, tougher cuts of meat such as tendinous beef or pork roasts.
The following chart, which brings this all together, is illustrative of the various levels of doneness, their corresponding temperatures and the chemical reactions that occur at each stage.
In the next installment of this series, I’ll be discussing various practical techniques and cooking methods which utilize and expand on the concepts above. Basically, I’ll take what we’ve learned about cooking media, delicate cooking versus browning and flavor concentration/tenderization and map them on to all of the basic cooking methods. I’ll include my best tips and tricks for each method, as well as detail which cooking method is ideal for particular desired outcomes (like, what to do if you want deep browning, no charring and excellent flavor concentration in your final product). So stay tuned!
Have a question? Ask me anything!