I thought I would use today’s column to very briefly discuss some of the key techniques used in the cooking of meat. Most of us love meat, but do not always cook it the correct way. Hopefully I can help you out a bit.
Why do we cook meat?
Harold McGee in “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen” suggest four reasons: to make it safe to eat, to make it easier to eat, to make it more digestible, and finally, to add more flavour.
What is the structure of meat?
Meat consists of water, protein and fat that is woven into long fibers called muscles, connective tissue that surrounds the muscles and bones and allows them to contract and relax, and fat cells that serves as a source of energy for the muscles.
Meat from younger animals is generally less tough than that of older animals, because their muscle fibers are thinner.
Connective tissue surrounds each muscle fiber, holding them in bundles to form muscles, and connect muscles onto bones.
Fat forms in three parts of the animal’s body: under the skin, in the body cavity and in the connective tissue between the muscles. The latter is called marbling.
The cut of meat, and its relative proportions of muscle, connective tissue and fat, should determine how it should be cooked.
How often are we told to sear meat till the outside surface area form as crust? This allegedly “seals” the meat and prevents inside juices from escaping, ensuring more tender and juicy meat.
Unfortunately, this is plain nonsense.
Listen to your steak sizzle as it hits the hot skillet – that is liquid that is escaping and vaporizing. Leave your steak on a plate after cooking and soon the plate will be filled with juices that have escaped. Weigh your steak before and after searing and again after cooking, and you will discover it keeps loosing weight. That is due to lost juices. Heat causes the connective tissues around the muscle fibers to contract and thus juice is squeezed from the meat.
The browning effect on meat is caused by the “Maillard reactions” and is attained by fats at temperatures much higher than 100°C (the boiling point of water). This means that you cannot brown your meat by boiling it.
Maillard reactions provide flavour to the meat (or bread crust for that matter). And for this reason, and this reason alone, meat should be seared before proceeding to cook the meat.
Even boiled or steamed meat benefit from the Maillard reactions, so they should be browned in an oven prior to cooking.
Braising meat requires a closed receptacle with only a little liquid. Here the meat absorbs the liquid rather than escaping into the liquid, as is the case with boiling. Braised meat is cooked in fortified juices: wine, stock brandy and bacon or duck fat are popular additions to the braised dish. Low heat is appropriate, allowing the collagen to dissolve slowly making the meat tender and the sauce extremely flavourful. The sauce should be reduced and thickened by means of a roux (a paste made of equal portions melted butter and flour) or a Buerre manié (raw butter and flour paste).
When roasting, a joint or cut of meat is first rubbed with oil or butter and then placed in a roasting dish in a preheated oven and cooked until the inside temperature of the meat reaches 70°C, the temperature at which the collagen dissolves into gelatin. Use a meat thermometer. Baste the meat with pan juices and do not overcook.
A good quality vegetable oil (not olive oil) can be heated to temperatures much, higher than boiling water (100°C). This makes them ideal for deep-frying meats. Get the oil as hot as possible. Ensure that the surface area of the meat is dry. Use plenty of oil as this ensures that the residual temperature of the oil does not decrease too much when you add food to the fryer. Cut your meat into smaller pieces and fry in several batches. Then, make sure your oil remains clean. There are special filters on the market for exactly this purpose.
To add a crust to your meat, cover the meat with seasoned flour. Then dip it in an egg wash and then in dry breadcrumbs. This will enhance the Maillard reactions.
When meat is cooked over high heat in a fatty substance such as butter, it is sautéd. No liquid is added and the food is cooked uncovered. It is usually done at a temperature higher than 100°C and in two stages. First, sear the meat over high temperature after which the temperature is reduced for stage two cooking. Butter has most flavour but unless it is clarified will blacken at high temperature, and should not be used as is.
Meat is grilled when the cooking fat is omitted and the meat is rested on a grill. Like with the sauté, the meat is grilled over high temperature.
Given that the meat cannot be “sealed” and that some juices will escape, how can one prevent a good steak from being dry and tough? Do not overcook it. Cook it quickly, as less juice will be expelled. Allow the meat to rest after cooking. Do not salt or prick your meat prior to cooking. These will only allow more juices to escape.
More recently, more and more chefs have started to use water baths and/or thermal immersion circulators to cook their meat “sous-vide” (under vacuum). The meat is placed and sealed in a plastic bag, then cooked to an exact temperature in bath with water regulated at the desired temperature. This allows the meat to be cooked at much lower temperatures for a much longer time. The entire cut of meat is cooked evenly throughout and the surface area is the same degree of doneness as the center. When done, it is seared over very high heat for a very short period to activate the Maillard reactions.
There, I hope this helps.
Julia Childs once said: “… no one is born a great cook, one learns by doing”. I could not agree more.
This week’s recipe is a braised lamb shank pie. A tough cut of meat cooked in a fortified liquid of wine and stock for a long time.
Enjoy your meat!