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A few simple basics can vastly improve any meat dish
For most of us, meat is the focal part of most meals. When the entree is lackluster, the entire meal seems to suffer. By understanding and using a few simple principles, you can transform your meats into an ultra flavorful dish. In this article, we'll explain what you need to know to instantly improve any meat you cook.
Most people probably think of salt as simply that white granular food seasoning found in a salt shaker on virtually every dining table. It is that, certainly, but it is far more than simply a flavor additive. Salt has been an important and integral part of the world's history since well before the beginning of written records. It was in use as far back as 6000 BC.
Besides being an essential element of all life, salt's most important task throughout history has been in the preservation of meats. Since the advent of refrigeration, this role has become somewhat less critical. Why, then, is salt still important in our kitchens? Salt, or sodium chloride, has some unique chemical properties that when utilized properly can transform foods.
All meats contain water, however, during cooking the water is evaporated often leaving the meat dry. The protein strands tighten and become tough even when cooked properly, if overcooked, even slightly, it becomes almost inedible. Salt can reverse this process.
Beef and pork both contain significant water. By liberally salting the outside, wrapping in plastic wrap and returning to the refrigerator for up to 12 hours, a very interesting chain of chemical reactions takes place. The salt draws water to the surface of the meat, the water dissolves the salt and then it is drawn back into the meat by osmosis. The salt dissolves some of the proteins in the muscles causing the strands to retain more moisture when cooked and greatly enhances the flavor characteristics of the meat. The affected proteins also resist tightening and remain tender after cooking. The size of the meat determines the quantity of salt and the time needed. A steak might require only an hour or so whereas a roast would benefit from six or more hours.
Chicken doesn't naturally contain the same amount of water in the meat itself. Chicken benefits from a process known as brining. Salt is added to water and the meat is placed in the water. The reactions are essentially the same, however, water and salt are absorbed by the meat actually increasing the amout of liquid in the finished meat.
Salting or brining only takes a couple of minutes to do, the rest of its magic is done with no effort on the cook's part. It can instantly transform your meat into a flavorful, moist and tender dish.
Why do we cook steaks on a grill instead of simply boiling them? It all revolves around flavor! If you understand the science behind browning, it can raise your cooking skills dramatically. Let's quickly dispel one cooking myth at the onset; searing meat does not seal in the juices. It's all about the flavor. The surface of our boiled steak might contain 5-6 flavor molecules, our grilled steak will contain 500-900 different flavor molecules.
This dramatic change is a function of the Maillard reaction, commonly called browning. When the surface of meats reach 285 degrees and over, the amino acids and sugars in the muscle proteins chemically transform to produce the additional flavor compounds.
A pot roast cooked in a slow cooker will become very tender, but it's typically grey in color and simply lacks the intense flavor of other methods. Taking a few minutes to brown all sides in a skillet first will develop all of the flavor one could ever hope for. The same is true before roasting, pressure cooking or other forms of moist cooking.
Significant browning does not take place until the surface reaches a minimum of 285 degrees. Because of this, it is essential that the surface of the meat be dry. Any surface moisture will convert to steam at 212 degrees and the surface temperature will never increase above that level until the moisture is gone. The result is grey and flavorless meat. Drying the surface with paper towels will eliminate that problem and create the desired results. The other main problem with browning is that cooks don't get their skillet hot enough before placing the meat into it. If the skillet is too cool, it will never come up to a good temp until the meat is overdone.
The final topic of our science of cooking discussion is the role of resting the meat after cooking. I always thought that I should be the one allowed to rest after hours of cooking, not my roast. Any meat that has been cooked benefits greatly from a short rest, the length of time, again, depends largely on the size of the meat. A steak only needs a few minutes whereas a roast might need 20-30 minutes.
The protein strands in meat tighten as they get hotter during cooking. As they tighten, they force liquid out of their structures into the space between the strands. If the meat is cut right after cooking, this liquid simply flows out onto the plate or cutting board and is lost forever. The meat is then dry and has lost much of its flavor. When allowed to rest, the protein strands relax and this liquid is reabsorbed into the meat (much like a sponge that's been squeezed and then released). Simply place a sheet of aluminum foil loosly over the meat to retain most of the heat and allow it to rest for a few minutes. Don't wrap it tightly or the meat will steam, and that is not the effect you desire.
In sumary, utilizing a few basic principles of salting, browning and resting can instantly raise the flavor of all of your meats to whole new levels. With virtually no real effort, you can achieve results that are simply not possible any other way.
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