Let me start by saying that this is nowhere near comprehensive. Odds are that I’ll come back to this post at a later date and add some more tidbits, but for now, these are just some guiding principles that I’ve discovered over the years to assist you in firing up your favorite cuts.
One note before we get started: I am not a fan of fish and seafood, so you’re not going to see them here. I learned how to cook shrimp stovetop because my wife loves the taste of all those oversized ocean insects, but that and popping some frozen fish fillets in the air fryer are the entirety of my repertoire. If you are seafood-savvy, I would love for you to add your tips and tricks in the comments and I’ll move it to the post (with you credited, of course).
Alright, without further ado, let’s get into this.
GET A FOOD THERMOMETER. Seriously, I ignored this for most of my life, and I’m telling you, if you’re not slow-cooking, the best and easiest way to know when your meat is ready is to check its temperature. For some meats, a 10 degree (F) difference in internal temp can mean the difference between juicy, succulent deliciousness and flavorful shoe leather, and in the other direction, food poisoning. Do yourself a favor and get one, preferably digital with a range at least up to 200 F.
On that note, here are the recommended temps for some popular meats:
- Beef (Steak) – 130 F / 55 C
- Pork – 140 F / 60 C
- Chicken, white meat – 150 F / 66 C
- Chicken, dark meat – 180 F / 82 C (this isn’t a food safety thing as far as I understand it; rather, you just need to get dark meat hotter to break down the connective tissues)
There is another temperature that matters, and that is the temperature of your meat at the point you start cooking it. Sometimes, you can get away with cooking cold (or even frozen) meats, like when “air frying”, slow/pressure cooking, or when cooking ground meats that are thin or will be scrambled. If your meat is in its pure, unadulterated form (chicken breasts, pork chops, steaks, etc.), you want it to be at room temperature when you put it in the pan. This is particularly true for thicker cuts of meat (which we’ll dive into more a little later).
Oil is Vital
There is a popular myth that searing meat seals in the moisture, keeping your hunk of meat nice and juicy. In truth, searing does improve the flavor of your food via something called the Maillard (pronounced MY-yard) reaction or browning but does nothing to stop to release of moisture. Oil, however, when applied to the outside of the cut, does exactly that, and when the meat is seared with oil, the oil is “burnt” to the outside of the meat, similar to how oil is used in the seasoning process for a cast iron pan or a wok.
If I’m using a whole hunk of meat (think steak or pork chop), I will generally rub the outside with oil shortly after I pull it out of the fridge to come up to room temp. When I cut the meat up into smaller chunks for, say, a stir fry, I just add oil to the pain and stir well as soon as I add the meat to get each piece coated. An added bonus is that the oil helps the seasoning to stick to the food.
The type of oil that you use is somewhat immaterial. I know many popular chefs use olive oil, but don’t break the bank trying to impress anyone. Any neutral cooking oil will work just fine. I said that it is “somewhat immaterial” because one thing that does matter is the smoke point of the oil. Olive oil has a rather low smoke point, and lower smoke point means that your oil will begin to smoke earlier. For my money, I use vegetable oil. It is cost-effective, has a pretty high smoke point, and is flavor-neutral (if not used in excess).
Bottom line: make sure your meat is protected by some kind of cooking oil, regardless of cooking method.
Resting is very important for the texture of your meat. Quick story to illustrate this point. My wife and I cooked a whole turkey for the first time this past Thanksgiving, so I reached out to my mentors, Gordon Ramsey and “Chef John” Mitzewich (via YouTube, of course… they are completely unaware of our scholastic relationship). Anyway, Gordon said to let it rest for at least 2-1/2 hours, while Chef John said only 45 minutes. 2-1/2 hours seemed really excessive, so I sided with Chef John. After 45 minutes, we served up our dinner. It was pretty good. About two hours later, I was a little peckish and decided to have a bit of turkey, and let me tell you, I should have listened to GR. It was absolutely incredible.
In most cases, the rest time isn’t nearly that extensive. GR gives us a guideline that seems to work out pretty well from my experience which is that your meat needs to rest for as long as it takes to cook, usually 8 to 15 minutes depending on cooking method.
In general, this only applies to direct heat cooking methods (i.e., non-slow cooking or pressurized cooking). You don’t need to wait 8 to 10 hours before tucking into a chuck roast, but you do need to wait 8 to 10 minutes for a pork chop (and the 2-1/2 hours for that turkey). That said, if you followed all of the other tips and your meat is still a little tougher than you expected it to be, try letting it rest a little longer.
This one is a bit more complicated, so let me just give the principle up front and allow you to decide if you want to go deeper: the thicker the cut, the lower your cook temperature needs to be, and if your cut is thicker than 1/2 inch, you probably need to use a lid on your pan. This really applies to direct heat cooking methods, so not really talking about slow/pressurized cooking methods, but it definitely does pertain to baking. That said, size does matter as it pertains to how long to cook in slow/pressurized/baking situations, and Google can help you with that.
FULL GEEK MODE: ACTIVATE
For the sake of simplicity, we’re going to use a stovetop example, but this applies to any direct cooking method (including grilling). There are three different temperatures you need to keep in mind: the surface of the meat, the center of the meat, and the average temperature of the system (i.e., the pan and the space within it).
When you place a piece of meat into a preheated pan, the energy of the hotter pan is transferred to the surface of the cooler meat in an attempt to achieve equilibrium between the two, lowering the heat of the pan and increasing the heat of the meat surface. The center of the meat, having millions or billions of layers of molecules between it and the surface of the meat, will slowly start to receive the heat as this process of heat equilibrium is repeated, but its temperature will always be lower than that of the surface of the meat (with the exception of methods like sous vide in which the ultimate desired end-state temperature is the temperature at which the meat is cooked). The upward-facing side of the meat is getting very little heat as it is only influenced by the air above the pan, which is also trying to achieve equilibrium with the rest of the room. In order to cook the other side, we have to flip the meat over, and the process continues.
Let’s introduce a lid on the pan. The lid limits the system by retaining heat and increasing pressure within the pan system. Instead of the air above the meat interacting with the entire room, the system is now (to a degree) only interacting with the air contained within the lid. This means that more of the heat within the system is transferred into the meat rather than into the ambient molecules outside of the pan, so we’re raising the temperature of the meat in general (including the center and upward-facing side) more rapidly than without a lid. The lid doesn’t preclude the need for flipping; rather, it causes the meat temperature to increase more uniformly.
The burn point of the meat is the same at the surface as it is at the center. We need to get the temperature of the center to X degrees, but it needs to happen before the surface reaches the burn point. The energy input (i.e., the burner) needs to be set at a rate that will introduce enough heat to caramelize the surface at the same time that the center reaches the optimal internal temperature. Since this will take longer with thicker cuts because the center is farther away, the burner needs to be lower.
In order to know where to set your burner, you will have to experiment with your particular stove.
FULL GEEK MODE: POWER DOWN
This one is pretty simple. The more food you add into one cooking implement, the more you’re going to lower the temperature of the whole system. A simple example is dropping ice cubes into a cup of coffee. One ice cube may just bring it down to a nice drinkable temp, while dropping a handful in is going to give you (watery) iced coffee. A common phrase you may have heard is “overcrowding the pan”, which is just another way of saying, “You’re putting too much stuff in it.”
So what? Just cook it longer, right? Well, yeah, you’ll still end up with cooked food, but probably not the cooked food you were aiming for. Gordon Ramsey (yep, GR again) says over and over to “keep the sizzle”–otherwise, you’re boiling. The sizzle is an indication of the temperature of the system (specifically the oil/fat), so drastically lower the temp by adding too much and, presto! Now you’re boiling.
This is particularly evident when deep frying tater tots (yeah, this is still about meat, but I’m trying to establish a point). You get your oil up to 350 F, and carefully add in a handful of tots. They immediately start to foam, cook to a lovely golden brown, and you fish them out. If you don’t let your oil come back up to temp before you add the next batch (or if you, say, add two handfuls instead of one), something very different happens. The tots will still eventually cook, but they’ll be falling apart and very oily (also probably won’t be very crisp, if not downright soggy).
This is also applicable to baking. If your method of oven-frying 5 chicken thighs gets you perfect results every time, don’t assume that you can bump that up to 15 without having to alter anything. You’re most likely going to have to add some time and maybe adjust the temp a bit as well.
Like I said, nowhere close to comprehensive. These are just some hard-earned lessons from my years spent in the kitchen and on the grill (and, yes, watching YouTube). If you have any questions, comments, corrections, or the like, please drop them down in the comments. Anyway, I hope this was worth the read and maybe helps you get those hunks of meat cooked the way you like them.