As a child – the child from hell! – I couldn’t be bothered and refused to try and chew tough meat. Taking the trouble of over-exercising my jaws overcame any taste reward or even hunger pangs. I’m sure many parents out there will have come across this scenario themselves….after all, we’ve all been faced with a plate of unappetisingly tough meat at some time or another! Even though we have had a chat with the butcher, bought the right, high-quality cut and stewed it for hours, something went wrong and we ended up with the worst words of complaint, “it’s tough, it’s stringy”! Therefore it’s worth looking at cooking meat anew…and particularly at some details which can make all the difference in avoiding the kitchen disasters of the past.
Good recipes often tell you what to watch out for, but often fail to explain why. They usually throw in their secret trips in such an off-hand way that we have to go through the small print to find them. We tend to concentrate on the range of ingredients and apply all our culinary skills to the sauce! Big mistake (made by myself too many times in the past too)! This is why I’ve decided to investigate the matter and pass on some simple tips, explaining how it’s done, but also why it’s done.
If Bertrand Russell were alive, he would appreciate that mathematical and scientific logic applies in the kitchen too! D’you think I‘m pulling your leg? – I don’t think so! What I mean is, at it’s most basic level, cooking is about chemical reactions (Maillard reactions) occurring in the meat as a result of coming into contact with high temperature and changing its texture and density as a result. Without getting too much into molecular gastronomy for the time being, – by abiding by some rules, the result will be a beautifully-cooked nutritious meat dish. Obviously, the cut of meat plays a large part in this, but generally, the secret is in the initial sealing and browning of the meat and from then on the regulation of the heat and good timing. Our final goal is for a meat that on the inside is still succulent, tender and tasty, while outside it is crisp, browned and with that characteristic dark-caramel colour.
Tip No. 1: Let it sit at room temperature for 20 minutes
Take the meat we are going to use out of the fridge and leave to sit at room temperature for at least 20 minutes. The colour will change during this time and become redder, any smell will disperse and it prepares itself psychologically for whatever is about to happen.
If the meat is frozen, remove from the freezer a day before, place in a dish lined with 2-3 sheets of kitchen paper, and leave it in peace in the fridge for about 16 hours in order to defrost slowly. When we freeze meat, ideally it needs to be deep-frozen immediately so that any water crystals that form inside the meat are as small as possible, because otherwise, as they defrost, they will dilute the meat juices.
Tip No. 2: Pat dry before sealing
Before the meat goes into the pan, pot or oven, it needs to be blotted well with kitchen paper until completely dry. The reason for this is: when the dry meat comes into contact with the hot butter or oil, it goes into “shock” and develops a protective caramel-coloured crust (browning) which seals all the juices inside the meat – and therefore the taste, colour and texture too. If the meat is wet – no shock, no browning, no sealing – instead of roasting, it boils and the juice, colour, taste and texture are lost – it’s elementary dear Watson!
Tip No.3: High temperature to start with, then low… the fundamental secret to the chemistry of taste.
As we put the meat into the pan, we need to “stun” it with a high heat (between 160 and 200 degrees C for a frying pan or casserole and at least 200 for the oven). Only after the meat has sealed with a browned crust (after about 3 minutes in a frying pan, 10-20 minutes in the oven, depending on the meat and recipe) can we lower the heat so that it cooks through. Please note that the sealing process needs only a small amount of oil or butter…seriously, hardly more than a couple of drops of oil or a small knob of butter are needed!
Tip No.4: Avoiding overcrowding during frying – fry fewer pieces at a time and without moving them about too much!
Having placed each piece of meat in the hot pan, they must be given the chance to be sealed properly on each side for about 3 minutes each until the magic outer crust is formed. If we overcrowd the pan with overlapping meat, the result will be that a) the temperature of the pan will drop, b) the pieces aren’t “shocked” by the sudden intense heat and don’t have time to seal on all sides properly so the juices escape, resulting in the meat boiling rather than frying. This is also why we shouldn’t “bother” the meat pieces by continuously moving them or use a fork to turn them over – instead using tongs which won’t pierce the meat. Therefore, it’s better to cook the meat in small batches and then to combine them in order to follow a casserole recipe including sauce.
Tip No. 5: Don’t salt the meat before cooking, but once it’s sealed
Salting meat before it’s roasted or fried, results in – due to osmosis – the loss of juices from the start. That’s why we salt it after it has browned and is at the sauce stage. Having said that, if we want to boil the meat but still want it to stay juicy, then the salting can be in salted water, so brining the meat.
Tip No.6: Resting the meat after cooking for at least 10 minutes in aluminium foil.
In any cooked steak, fillet etc, the balance of tastes is completed after at least 10 minutes rest after cooking. Put the piece of meat on a small roasting rack over a dish or tin or on a wooden chopping board and cover with aluminium foil. Then put it in a preheated oven at 50-60 degrees C where it can stay for half an hour easily…this allows the meat to rest and allows us to prepare or heat the sauce and garnish.
More details for every cooking process and about all the different cuts of meat with step-by-step photos and instructions can be found at Donald Russell’s website. The video below is from the site and shows in painstaking detail how to cook the perfect steak, retaining all its taste.
The subject of steaks is huge and we will discuss more about cooking times, and how to ensure that your steak is rare, medium or well-done. In the meantime, watch the video with its very original tip of how to tell if meat is done.[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cwxq253jpmg&hl=en_US&fs=1&rel=0]