The Importance of Internal Cooking Temperatures
You may have seen my blog on wood burning ovens describing the oven we just installed on our patio. I have been having fun with it making pizza but also trying my hand at roasting meat and over night slow cooking using the oven's residual heat. It has been quite a learning curve but a lot of fun with some great results.
One detail I've learned in the past two weeks about cooking is the importance of knowing the internal temperature of what you are cooking. Not that I didn't already know this about cooking but when you can't accurately regulate the temperature of the oven like you can with a conventional oven, you really depend on knowing the internal temperature.
See my meat doneness chart for internal cooking temperatures.
Forget About Cooking Times
With most recipes, they tell you how long to cook something and at what temperature. Just look through any cookbook. If roasting they tell you to preheat the oven to a certain temperature and roast for so many minutes. If grilling they tell you start at the highest temperature for so many minutes and then finish on the cooler part of the grill for so many minutes. The same is true for sautéing, braising or whatever other way you like to cook.
This is all great if everyone's oven or grill were exactly the same. How about different sizes of what you are cooking? The recipe might be for a 2-inch thick chop but you purchased a 1 ¼ chop. They tested the recipe in a heavy bottomed copper pan over a commercial grade Viking stove top but you own less expensive cookware and cook on a GE electric range. These factors will all effect the cooking times and final results.
Rare, Medium-Rare, Medium, Medium-Well
Don't believe you can't get your steaks to the exact doneness you like and can only get results like that in a restaurant. Heck, how many times have you ordered a steak medium-rare and it comes out medium-well? Do you send it back? (That's a question for another post)
Most home cooks have learned to cook using time and external temperature as our guide. It's easy and so what if the meat is a little overcooked. How many of you purposely-undercooked meat, knowing you can throw it back on the heat? Or have overcooked it using the excuse, "I want to make sure it's safe"? I know I have.
Taking The Guesswork Out
Cooking in a wood-burning oven, where I find it almost impossible to keep the heat source constant, there is a lesson to be learned. The lesson is knowing the desired internal temperature of what I am cooking and using an instant thermometer to monitor it. I learned this when cooking a pork roast last weekend.
Do You Use An Instant Thermometer?I can't set the oven to 350º or 400º F and cook the roast for 15 minutes per pound, as many recipes will tell you. Each time I put a log on the fire to keep it burning, the temperature in the oven changes. Instead, I try to keep a somewhat constant temperature but monitor the pork roast's internal temperature until it reaches my target of 150º F knowing it will reach my ideal internal temperature of 160º F after resting.
What's This About Resting?
Meat & poultry need to rest before carving. They need time to redistribute the juices so they don't all leak out as soon as you make that first cut. They need time to even the temperature throughout. While your meat is resting, the internal temperature continues to rise 5º to 10º F because it is continuing to cook internally.
So if you are trying to reach an ideal internal temperature of 145º F for that perfectly grilled New York Strip steak, you want to cook it to 140º F and let it rest for 5 - 10 minutes until it reaches 145º F. Now you are cooking like a pro.
Try This At Home
Grill two steaks anyway you like. When you think they are perfect, let one rest and cut into the other. You should notice the steak that didn't rest will bleed out a lot of juices, the steak will appear undercooked (very pink) in the center and I'm guessing the meat will be chewy. (This is why it is a bad idea to cut into a steak or any meat for that matter to test its doneness. You bleed out the juices that keep it moist.)
Let the other steak rest for 5 - 10 minutes and then cut into it. There should be a lot less juice bleeding out, the meat will be more even in color and it should be tenderer than the other piece.
If you have an instant thermometer, see what the internal temperature of the steaks are. Is your medium-rare steak at the correct temperature or is it overcooked? Using an instant thermometer and knowing your desired temperature can help you prepare perfect steaks every time. You just have to take it out of the drawer and use it.
What About Testing By Touch?
We have all heard you can test the doneness of a cooked piece of meat by comparing the firmness of the meat to the flesh at the base of your thumb. I have told people to do this and have believed it to be true for years and it may really work but if I compare my hands to my wife's hands, my steak will always be over cooked if I'm doing the grilling. Our hands are that different.
Go out and buy a good instant thermometer. If you already have one, use it. I can't tell you how much more accurate and tasty your results will be if you depend more on actual internal temperatures than cooking times and external temperature.
Check out my meat doneness chart with both ideal temperatures and when you should remove from heat temperatures. These are based on how I like my meat cooked and may differ from you personal preferences. If that's the case, make your own chart, print it out and have it standing by in your kitchen. You will really notice a difference.