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Lesson 3: Meat Cooking Basics
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Introduction: Meat Cooking Basics

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Before diving right into cooking your steaks, it's important to learn a few basics to help frame the process and techniques used throughout this class.

The most critical thing to know about cooking steak is that you should think of the insides and outside separately. You're almost always going to want a nice brown crust on your steak, but the inside is what's cooked to your desired doneness. In the following lessons we'll take a look at methods of cooking, and how to achieve the best internal and external temperatures.

There are also a few things that can be done to steak before cooking to help you get the best results from your cut of meat, like seasoning and starting temperature. Armed with some basic knowledge you'll be able to master any type of cooking method, with any type of meat.


Food Safety

When we talk about meat there are 2 very safety considerations: temperature and cross contamination. These are critical prerequisites to a delicious meal, so don't gloss over the details here.

Temperature

Bacteria grows between 40-140°F (4-60°C). Outside of this temperature range the bacteria are typically killed by being frozen or cooked. When your meat is in this danger zone, there's an increased risk of illness-causing bacteria multiplying on your meat.

The harmful bacteria we're most concerned about is E.coli, which is an aerobic bacteria (meaning it needs air to survive) and sometimes gets on the surface of meats during butchering. When you cook steaks, the surface temperature of the meat is brought up outside the danger zone, killing any surface bacteria. Since there's no air inside a cut of meat there's no E.coli, which is why the inside of a steak can be eaten rare or raw. Ground beef has a great deal more surface area, and should be cooked all the way through to kill all surface bacteria.

Cooking meat to a specific temperature is important so you don't get sick, but different meats requires different cooking temperatures. To ensure you're hitting the right temperature you need to use a food thermometer, which allows you to know when your meat has reached an internal temperature high enough to kill harmful bacteria that causes illness.

Beef + Lamb

There's lots of ways a steak can be cooked to be "done". The big takeaway here is that E.coli (the most common harmful bacteria found in meat) is killed at 155°F (68°C). Cooking the outside to kill bacteria leaves the inside (which has not been introduced to air and bacteria) to be cooked to desired doneness.

  • Medium-rare: 135°F (57°C)
  • Medium: 145°F (63°C)

*consuming any meat that is not cooked to remove all bacteria can be harmful and is done so at your own risk*

Pork: 160°F (71°C)

Pork can be susceptible to Trichinosis, a parasite that may be present in undercooked pork, but more likely it's Salmonella that should be a concern. There's been a shift by the USDA in 2011 who now says it's okay to cook pork to 145°F (63°C), but the choice to have a rare pork chop is up to you. Cooking pork to an internal temperature of 160°F (71°C) effectively eliminates all bacteria.

Chicken: 165°F (74°C)

Salmonella is most commonly linked to chicken. Chicken cuts are generally smaller than meat from other animals and there's a greater chance that the surfaces could be contaminated at the time of slaughter. Salmonella can be eliminated by heating chicken to an internal temperature of at least 165°F (74°C), which will kill the bacteria.

Ground Meats

Food borne illness from bacteria is typically a function of surface area, the more surface area there is the more area bacteria has to grow. When meat is ground up the surface area is exponentially larger, effectively introducing the entire portion to bacteria because it's all been exposed to air through grinding. As such, it's never a good idea to eat ground meat that's not cooked to an internal temperature of 160°F (71°C) - for poultry it's 165°F (74°C). Bacteria can replicate and spread quickly, meaning that a ground beef patty that's been sitting in the kitchen fridge for a day before being served has had a long time to have lots of bacteria grow inside it - eating it raw is asking for trouble.

Cross Contamination

When bacteria from one food is transferred to another, that's cross contamination. A very typical way this can happen is when juices from raw meat touches a ready-to-eat food, contaminating it, and making you sick when eaten. Luckily, cross contamination is very easy to avoid by keeping your work area clean, using designated cutting boards for 'raw' and 'cooked' foods, and cleaning your equipment and hands with warm soapy water.

Okay, now that we have safety covered let's move onto cooking.


Pat Meat Dry

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Before doing any cooking or seasoning, make sure you dab your steak with a paper towel to remove any pooled moisture or wetness.

Why do we want dry meat before cooking? Since we always want a nice sear on the outside of meat, having a dry surface allows the heat to instantly sear the flesh. We would otherwise be heating a wet surface turning moisture into steam and inhibiting the quick temperature change that creates a good sear.

It's important to not press the meat when patting dry, as this will push moisture from the steak and make it less juicy. You're only looking to wick away any excess moisture from the surface of the meat.


Starting Meat Temperature

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The starting temperature of meat before cooking is a contested subject. Some believe that allowing your meat to come to room temperature makes it closer to the final cooking temperature and therefore allows more even cooking throughout. There's also the benefit of the skillet maintaining its hot temperature when a room temperature cut of meat is introduced, rather than cold meat.

I don't bother with this step. As long as your steak isn't frozen, fridge temperature is fine. Since we're going for a good sear on the outside there's far more rationale in removing surface moisture from the steak than bothering with a specific starting temperature. Also if you're using a cast iron skillet, which retains heat extremely well, there won't be much difference between a steak from the fridge and a steak at room temperature. However, everyone has an opinion about this and you'll develop your own in time.

However, your meat should not be cooked from frozen. Tossing a frozen cut of meat into a hot oiled skillet is asking for trouble as oil and water (even frozen water) don't mix and can have explosive results. Though fridge or room temperature doesn't have much of a difference when cooking, the temperature disparity from frozen to cooked will make a difference.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with freezing meat. The best method to freeze steaks is to tightly wrap them in cling film and put them in a resealable freezer bag, steaks can last for about 3 months this way. If you're feeling lazy or happened upon frozen steaks in store bought packaging that's okay, too, but they'll only keep in the freezer for about a week before getting freezer burns.

Defrosting steaks is super easy, and is necessary before starting any cooking. The best way to defrost a steak is to leave it in it's packaging and place it on a plate in the fridge overnight. However, if you're in a rush you can quickly defrost the steak under cold water. Unwrap the frozen meat from any packaging and place directly in the sink (or shallow bowl and then in the sink) and run cold water over the steak.

It's important to use cold water, as hot or warm water will begin to cook the meat. We want all the cooking to happen on a controlled cooking apparatus like the skillet or grill.

The time to defrosting a steak will depend on the thickness, so leave it under a stream of cold water and go about preparing the rest of your meal, checking back every 5 minutes.


Seasoning - Before or After?

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You should always salt your meat at least 45 minutes before cooking, and here's why.

Salt will draw out moisture from the steak through osmosis, this moisture will mix with the salt and create a brine which will then start to penetrate back into the meat and break down the muscle fibers, making it more tender. Salting at least 45 minutes before you start cooking gives the salt enough time to do what it needs to do, but you can salt your beef for a few days if you want to really get it tender.

Sprinkle enough salt to cover the meat, but don't cake it on - too much salt won't allow the brine to form and you'll just be drying out your steak.

As we learned in Lesson 2, kosher salt is a great salt to season your beef with before cooking. Since salt tenderizes meat it's great for tougher cuts like flank, chuck, and round steaks. More tender cuts like filet, porterhouse, and tenderloin can actually get too soft with brine, so use the salt brine technique with care.

Seasoning After:

During or after cooking you can apply the seasoning of your choice. The reason most seasonings aren't applied before cooking is that even common seasonings like black pepper can burn before the meat is cooked.

Marinades:

Marinades, similar to salting, use a mix of sugar, salt, and acidity to tenderize the meat. Like salt, marinades need time to tenderize and flavor the meat and are best left for hours or overnight to be truly effective. A concern with many marinades is that they usually very high in sugar which can burn when cooked. Meats with marinades are usually best cooked over low heat, however that will make browning the exterior more difficult. After marinading wash the meat under cold water and dry with a paper towel and then cook.


Heat

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Probably the most critical factor in making any great dish is heat control.

High heat will brown and caramelize your meat, giving fantastic flavor. Lower heat will retain moisture and allow the meat to break down and become more tender. For tender cuts you'll want a fast and hot approach, and for tougher meats it's best to go low and slow.

Controlling heat is a function of what equipment you are working with. There's some slight differences depending on whether you're cooking with a grill, a smoker, or on the stove or oven. Luckily, we'll cover all the bases in this class.


Doneness

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You may have seen the "poke" method that uses the meaty part of your thumb to determine the doneness of your steaks. The thinking is that the meaty part of your palm represents the cooked steak and by connecting your thumb to different fingers the muscle for your thumb tenses and has a different stiffness with each finger stiffness representing rare to well done - compare the palm donenss to the pressure when you poke the steak. Though it's a cute trick for parties, the only true way to tell doneness is with a thermometer.

The "poke method" is not worth it, buy a thermometer.

The thumb-poke method is okay, I guess, but discounts so many variables like how everyone's hands are different, ditto for cuts of meat. Invest in a food thermometer and you'll get consistent results every time; it's a purchase that's worth it (and thermometers really aren't expensive at all).


Carryover + Resting

Thermal Carryover

When you remove meat from the heat source there's something called "carryover cooking", where heat retention in the meat can continue cooking the interior. During this time the interior temperature can rise enough to turn your medium-rare steak into medium. Knowing that there's a temperature increase after cooking will allow you to predict when to remove your steak from the heat source and let the carryover finish the cooking for you. Thick cuts should be taken off about 10°F sooner than the desired serving temperature, while thinner cuts can be removed about 5°F sooner.

Resting

After cooking you should always rest your food for at least 10 minutes before cutting into it. Resting allows the moisture that has been concentrated to the center of the meat to redistribute evenly through the meat, resulting in a juicy steak. Cutting into steak too early will drain these juices before they’ve had a chance to reabsorb.

I like to cover with aluminium foil while it's resting. If you hadn't noticed foil has a shiny side and a matte side, and they both serve different functions so it matters which way you wrap things. The shiny side reflects heat and the matte side absorbs it, so wrapping with the shiny side against the steak will keep it nice and warm by deflecting heat loss back into the steak. Check out your foil next time, it's really neat!


Cutting

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When cutting steaks it's best to cut across the grain of the meat, this will cut through the connective tissue and make chewing each bit much easier and enjoyable. You can see the grain of the beef (the direction the connective tissue runs) by looking at the steak, you should easily be able to see the direction (or grain) of the tissue.

When serving, how thick each portion is and what angle you slice is largely a matter of preference, however there's something to be said for good presentation so I cut at a slight angle with each slice about 1/2" thick.

Fanning the slices slightly on a plate with the rest of your meal showcases the juicy, perfectly cooked center of the beef. Over time you'll develop your own style of presentation.


Now that we've learned the basics of how and why meat is cooked the way it is, you're ready to apply these techniques to any method of cooking.

First up, let's dive into the most accessible method of cooking a steak: the stove top and oven.

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