The common wisdom has been to bring meat up to room temperature before cooking it. The argument is that this initial warmup creates more even cooking. And this is great, for any meats that are generally cooked to a baseline temperature of well done. That list includes poultry, and…?
Mostly just poultry.
Don’t think I forgot about pork. Nope, because Trichinosis rates have been reduced to almost nothing worldwide. You have twenty times higher odds of getting struck by lightning than contracting the parasite that we’re trying to eradicate by overcooking our pork. Note to self: investigate lightning-fried pork.
To be honest, the “room temperature rule” hinders the final quality of a great number of meats because so many are cooked best without even temperature throughout. With a great steak, you want a dark outer crust and (generally, the preferred) medium rare interior. Some meats, like venison, duck breast or bison, suffer from toughness and dryness if cooked even a small amount above medium rare.
We know that flavour is developed through the browning process; as sugars and proteins reach certain temperatures, their chemical makeup changes. Different sugars break down at temperatures ranging from 110°C to 180°C (230°F to 355°F) and change into other sugars, invert, turn brown and release volatile compounds (ie; aromas and flavours). This is caramelization.
Proteins react in a different way. Above 150°C (300°F) they break down into their base amino acids, combine with sugars and turn brown. This too creates hundreds of flavour compounds. This is the Maillard Reaction
While caramelization is less likely to occur in meats, the Maillard Reaction is a greatly desired result. Getting this to occur without over cooking the interior meat is the goal.
Room temperature meat starts off about 17°C (30°F) closer to being overcooked. This means by the time the outer surface of room temperature meat reaches temperatures capable of causing the Maillard Reaction, the interior may be approaching or at temperatures considered overcooked.
When not to bring your meat to room temperature:
- Cooking whole animals (birds, poultry, lamb, suckling pig), especially larger ones. Bringing them up to room temperature means that by the time the internal temperature is there, the external temperature has been in the bacteria-promoting danger zone (4°C-60°C/40°F-140°F) for a while. Cooking straight from the fridge negates this. Additionally, you want to render as much fat out of the skin as possible so that it crisps up; starting from cold also helps. Tenting poultry breasts with foil or spatchcocking can help prevent overcooking of breast meat.
- Cooking anything with different internal/external temperatures. This means beef steak cuts, duck breast, pork chops/loin/tenderloin, venison loin, wild boar chops and other steak-like or roasting cuts of game meat.
When it doesn’t matter to bring your meat to room temperature or not:
- Braising. Even though you generally brown meat before braising it, overcooking the interior doesn’t matter much. By the time your braise is finished, the meat is technically overcooked anyway. The only reason it seems tender is because the collagen has been melted, lubricating and moisturizing the muscle strands.
- Browning meat for stock. The reasons are similar to the ones listed for braising. Overcooking the meat can bring a great flavour to your stock, in fact, as long as it’s not burnt. Just remember that the flavour comes most from the surface of the meat you’re using. Use smaller pieces and cook them until they’re well browned.
- Quick-fry steaks or strips. These meats are almost entirely surface area, meaning they cook incredibly fast. It also means there’s little internal meat to worry about. The difference between medium rare and well done can literally be seconds.
When you should bring your meat to room temperature:
- Portioned poultry. In short, to avoid salmonella. Salmonella (unlike E.Coli and many other bacteria) exists within muscle tissue, rather than on the surface. If the interior is undercooked, the bacteria may still be there.
- Portioned meats with a good amount of unexposed bone (like duck thighs, etc.). Bone can hold bacteria in trace amounts of blood. If the bone isn’t cooked through, any bacteria present could survive cooking.
A Great Steak
Restaurants are able to achieve quick, well-crusted, rare (or even blue) steaks by using incredibly high heats. Salamanders (commercial broilers) are regularly used, and they can achieve upwards of 815°C (1500°F), other methods include indoor gas charbroilers(400°C/750°F) and high BTU convection ovens capable of 260°C (500°F). I’ve even cooked steaks on a commercial flat-top capable of heats that can make its iron surface glow. These temperatures can be incredibly difficult to achieve at home with anything but outdoor grills, which are notorious for uneven cooking this high.
Few restaurants have the advance notice or space to bring meats to room temperature before cooking. Most just pull a steak straight from the fridge, season it and toss it on the heat.
A high enough heat more than guarantees lots of Maillard Reaction. But the truth is you only need to be able to get the surface of meat to a sustainable 150°C (300°F) to get it. Lower home oven and stovetop temperatures mean longer, more even cooking, so you still want some temperature insurance. This is most important for thinner-cut steaks. That’s where starting straight from the fridge comes in.
Home directions for A Great Steak
A well-marbled NY strip steak (the thicker the better)
A cast-iron or heavy bottom pan over high heat
A baking sheet
A small amount of oil
1) Pull your steak from the fridge, pat the surface dry, season well with salt only (pepper will burn).
2) Add a small amount of oil to the pan.
3) Sear immediately in the hot pan from cold. Turn the meat every 10 seconds. Aim for lots of brown and little grey on the surface of the meat. Constant turning will keep the interior from overcooking.
4) Once sufficient browning has occurred, transfer immediately to the baking pan and place in a 190°C(375°F) oven. Cook until it the temperature reaches about 3°C-4°C (7°F-8°F) below desired internal doneness. Psst, medium rare is around 60°C (140°F).
5) Allow the steak to rest for 5- up to 10 minutes. The temperature will continue to rise, and it will peak right around your desired temperature.
6) Now you can add pepper.