Meat is only as good as it is tender. Whether you're cooking chicken breast, filet mignon, pork loin, or fish filets, no one wants a tough, chewy protein that not even a condiment can salvage. One of the biggest offenses you can commit when making a meal is serving dried-out, rubbery meat. But what is the secret to tender meat every time? Try adjusting the pre-cooking temperature. And we're not talking preheating here, but the temperature of your meat before you start to cook it. This tip is a dinner game-changer.
Why Letting Meat Come to Room Temperature Before Cooking Works
Slow-braising, marinating, and cutting across the grain are quick ways to ensure meat ends up more tender, but leaving it out at room temperature before cooking can also yield a more desirable, melt-in-your-mouth texture.
"When you cook meat at room temperature, you can control it better by cooking it more evenly," says chef Tarik Fallous, owner of NYC-based Au Za'atar which specializes in tableside shawarma. "If you try to cook a frozen protein, it will overcook the outside and the inside might still stay frozen or uncooked."
You can't argue against science, after all. If meat is taken out of the fridge, its internal temperature is going to remain cooler than its exterior for quite some time. If you allow it to get to room temperature, the entire meat will become the same temperature and will guarantee more even cooking. It's as simple as that.
Of course, thinner pieces of meat don't suffer as much when cooked. These rules apply to the bigger slabs because the faster a piece of meat cooks, the less time it has to lose moisture.
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"Red meats like beef or lamb also mostly benefit from this. The muscles on red meats tenderize better than other proteins and taste better when cooked with a nice sear on the outside and pink on the inside," Fallous adds. "If you allow the meat to sit at room temperature, it will maintain the juiciness and moisture of the protein before going on the grill."
How Long Can Raw Meat Sit Out at Room Temperature?
Getting meat to room temperature doesn't mean you should leave out a pack of filets on your kitchen counter overnight. Any bit of meat tempering is better than nothing, if only for 30 minutes, but Fallous and the USDA advise against leaving meat out for too long (no longer than two hours, to be exact) or it will begin to accumulate an unhealthy amount of germs that can lead to illness.
And when should you not leave a piece of raw meat at room temperature?
"If you use a sous vide style of cooking," says Fallous. "In this case, you can go from freezer to sous vide."
Here are a few general guidelines to keep in mind for safe meat handling:
Wash your hands. And avoid touching your face or any other surface that will require sanitization. You don't want to transfer bacteria with dirty fingers.
Toss anything that smells rancid. Trust your nose and don't risk the consequences of consuming meat that went bad. Cooking something well enough isn't going to reverse bacterial growth and make it edible again.
Ensure that all juices are contained. Raw meat juice is the source of most food-borne illnesses. Make sure you are properly disposing of any packages or containers that hold them. Should you spill, clean the areas immediately with hot, soapy water and a diluted bleach solution.
Use a plastic cutting board. These are easy to clean and can even be safely tossed into a dishwasher. Wooden cutting boards soak up liquids (like the aforementioned juice) and are not as easy to sanitize.