Friday, December 23, 2011

Medium Raw

"I've heard it said that for a proper steak, one should heat a cast iron skillet red hot, hold it at an angle, drop the steak into it, and catch it with a plate as it exits the skillet."
Ok, I'm going to have to go off on a little rant here.

Rare steak, is undercooked steak.

If you like rare stake, that's fine. Taste is personal and subjective after all. But you have to know, when you eat a rare steak, you are eating a tougher, less flavorful, piece of meat than one which has been cooked properly.

The entire idea that extra rare or rare meat is superior to properly cooked meat in any way is provably false.

Rare meat, is unquestionably tougher, and less flavorful; with a chewier, more rubbery, more fibrous texture and mouth feel; than properly cooked meat.
note: This leaves aside preparations that mechanically or chemically alter the meat, without cooking it; like pounding meat paper thin for carpaccio, bathing it in acid for ceviche or curing it with salt or smoke as in charcuterie. 

Four things:

1. Fat
2. Connective tissue and cell wall integrity
3. Fluid migration and concentration
4. Thermal conversion of proteins and sugars

The proper temperature to cook any meat (presuming it is cut and served as a steak, filet, cutlet, or dry roast); for maximum flavor and tenderness, is ALWAYS medium rare.

Let me repeat, and rephrase slightly...

Any meat, if properly cut to be cooked and served on it's own as a piece of meat on the plate (a steak, filet, cutlet, or slice of a roast; as opposed to ground, cubed, stir fried, pulled, chopped etc...), and cooked using a high temperature dry cooking method (dry roasted, broiled, seared, sauteed, grilled, or fried); will be both most flavorful, and most tender, when cooked to medium rare.

I rephrased it, because sometimes you don't want the most tender or most flavorful piece of meat they can get. In particular, you might want meat to be firmer, or crispier; or you may want it to take on the flavor of a sauce etc...

"Meat" is what we call the fluid filled fibrous muscle tissue of animals. The fibers of meat are constructed from relatively strong, relatively thick walled cells (which themselves are mostly proteins), bound together in bundles with weaker proteins, fats, and a mixture of relatively weaker, and relatively very strong connective tissues (also mostly proteins).

Proteins are entangled together in tightly twisted and curled shapes, in what scientists call "folding". To my mind folded proteins bound up together look like a tangled mat of hair, but that's a messy analogy.

When we cook food, we're doing is "de-naturing" the proteins with heat (denaturing can also be done with acids, strong bases, and organic solvents like alcohol). De-naturing partially breaks proteins down, causing them to "unfold", losing their secondary and tertiary structure; but leaving their peptide bonds intact (vs. enzymatic breakdown, which dissolves peptide bonds).

This almost always makes something made from proteins mechanically weaker, but also more solid, firmer, and less flexible. That's why eggs get hard when they're boiled, and meat gets firm when it is cooked; and when cooked too much, either become crumbly.

Basically, the less flexible something is in general, the easier it is to break into pieces with mechanical force. Flexible stuff bends and stretches, inflexible stuff doesn't.

With meat in particular, you get a fairly complex reaction to heat. When you denature the proteins in muscle fibers, they lose flexibility, and become firmer and tougher (until they lose structural integrity entirely that is, far beyond well done stage in dry cooking). However, muscle fibers are bound up together into bundles with binding proteins and connective tissues; and when those proteins denature, the bundles loosen up, allowing the fibers, and fiber bundles, to move relative to each other.

Medium rare is defined rather simply as the temperature at which muscle fibers, connective tissues, and fats; break down and weaken enough (through rendering, fluid migration, and protein denaturation) to allow them to move relative to each other; causing interstitial spaces in the fibrous muscle tissue to widen and fill with fluid, which in turn allows the fibers of the meat to move relative to each other easier.

Medium rare is a different temperature, for every different type of meat; because meats all have slightly different composition and structure. In addition to different protein composition; different meats have different water content, different fat content and composition, and different connective tissue content and composition; all of which respond to heat at different rates and temperatures.

Medium rare for beef isn't quite the same as for venison. Duck isn't quite the same as goose, which isn't quite the same as chicken; and none of them are the same as beef.

Ok, so why is medium rare meat both more tender, and more flavorful, than rare? After all, if overcooking makes meat tough and flavorless, shouldn't cooking the meat less, make the meat more tender?

Up to a point, yes; but in rare meat, the processes of protein denaturing, fat rendering, and fluid migration, haven't yet worked enough, to allow the meat to become tender and more flavorful.

At medium rare temperatures, the relatively weak connective tissues and binding proteins between muscle fibers soften enough to allow the fibers to move relative to each other; making the meat more tender.

At medium rare temperatures, the relatively strong connective tissues between hard fats and muscle fibers, and between different muscles in the same cut; also break down a very small amount (it takes a very long time for them to break down completely; thus, stewing and barbecuing), allowing those hard fats and connective tissues to be more easily separated from the muscle.

At medium rare temperatures, soft fats liquify; becoming part of the flavorful fluids in the interstitial spaces, and lubricating the fibers of the muscle making them slide past each other. At temperatures below medium rare, they do not.

At medium rare temperatures, hard fats (which are actually fats bound up with connective tissue) start to soften enough to loosen their bonds with muscle fibers and other connective tissues, making it easier to separate.

At medium rare temperatures, after the soft fats have liquified and connective tissues have weakened; the cell walls in the muscle fibers also weaken enough, that the fluid pressure inside them becomes high enough to force some of the fluid out of the cells, and into the interstitial spaces, between the fibers. This forces the fibers apart further, widening the interstitial spaces making more room for more fluid, and loosens the structure of the meat even more.

That is what makes for tender, juicy meat.

At temperatures below medium rare, none of these happen; or at least not enough. At temperatures above medium rare, it all happens too much.

In case you missed it, that means meat is both more flavorful, and more tender, at medium rare; than it is at rare, or at any temperature above medium rare.

Conveniently, with most common meat cooking methods (hard searing, sauteeing, high temperature roasting, broiling, or grilling), on most cuts of meat; medium rare is also about the lowest temperature you can get a well cut piece of meat that has been properly prepared, to get protein and sugar conversion on the outside surface and outer 1/16"; creating flavorful compounds, and a pleasing mouth feel.

Oh and by well cut, I mean properly cut for the muscle, properly trimmed of fat and connective tissue (which varies for the dish, and for the cooking method); and the right thickness (which again, varies for the meat, the muscle, and the cooking method).

Generally speaking, for the type of cooking and the type of dishes we're talking about, this means 1/2"-3/4" thick for chicken breast, 3/4" to 1-1/4" for pork chops and tenderloin, and 1-1/4" to 1-3/4" thick for beef steaks.

Much thicker and you can't get relatively even doneness across the whole piece of meat, without using two cooking methods (sous vide and searing, or searing and low/medium temperature roasting for example). Any thinner, and it's hard to get the outside of the meat browned, without overcooking the interior.

Also, again with most cooking methods on most cuts of meat; reaching medium rare temperatures drives off enough moisture from the meat that flavors are concentrated and intensified, but the tissues still have enough integrity to hold the majority of the flavorful fluids and liquified fats in. Any lower, and this intensification doesn't happen; any higher and the tissues lose too much integrity, and give up too much fluid, making the meat drier and tougher.

To simplify:

Any temperature lower than medium rare, fats remain solid, connective tissues and muscle fibers remain tightly bound together, and muscle tissues do not break down to allow fluid into the interstitial spaces. Any higher and you are driving off more moisture than you need to; therefore making the meat tougher, and drier.

Now that doesn't mean you can't cook a piece of meat to a higher or lower degree of doneness; it just means it won't be as flavorful or as tender.

For example, in the case of chicken, even without regard to the food safety issue; most Americans don't like the texture of it when served medium rare. Because chicken is already a very tender meat to begin with (because it has a larger relative volume of liquid, and both weaker connective tissue (the fibers of the muscles are looser), and weaker muscle fibers compared to beef; it's perceived by most Americans as TOO soft, or mushy, when served medium rare. For the most part, we would rather have a firmer, slightly less flavorful piece of meat, than a "mushy" one.

Most Americans would prefer their chicken served medium well (completely white, completely clear juices, very firm texture, slightly dry); than have even the slightest bit of pinkness to their chicken, never mind medium rare. I personally prefer my chicken medium (slightly pink meat, with slightly pink juices, firm but tender texture, and very juicy).

On the matter of pork... well that's a real tragedy.

The majority of Americans for the last 100 years have grown up falsely believing that pork had to be cooked to medium well, or well done; to avoid foodborne illness.

In fact, up until recently, USDA guidelines for cooking pork recommended it be cooked to an internal temperature of between 160 and 165.

This produced several generations of people who believed they didn't like pork; simply because they were being served dry, stringy, tough, overcooked garbage.

Thankfully, even the USDA has finally recognized they were wrong, and now recommend that pork be cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees (still higher than it needs to be, but a lot better).

That said, most people are still not willing to accept medium rare pork (130 to 135 degrees); again, because it's texture is "too soft" or mushy (and for the same reasons as with chicken).

If you asked most Americans what they would prefer their pork to be done too, they'd probably say "no pink", which is medium well or well done. However, if you did a blind taste test, most would actually prefer medium (135-140); because it is both tender and juicy, while being firm enough to not be "mushy".

Now, if you like your steak done to higher than medium rare... Frankly, it's either because you don't like beef very much; or it's because no-one has ever served you a steak that had been properly cut, and properly cooked.

If you like steak well done, you were probably served a lot of bad beef or badly cooked beef as a child, and learned that it didn't taste as bad or it wasn't as chewy or rubbery, if it was cooked more (and probably served with a sauce). Now, as an adult, the "fact" that beef that isn't overcooked tastes bad is imprinted on your brain.

Bad quality beef, badly cut, and improperly cooked for the cut, WILL taste better if done to medium well or well... Frankly it can be completely inedible otherwise; whereas if you cook it to well done, you've driven off all the liquid fat and all the moisture, and all that's left is bland fiber to act as a delivery mechanism for salt and steak sauce (and in some cuts, particularly if left untrimmed; the fat that's left is super crispy, and very tasty, like a beefy potatochip... what you like there is the crispy fat, not the overcooked meat).

Unfortunately, poorly cut, poorly trimmed, and improperly cooked steaks are pretty much all you'll get at most places that don't specialize in steak (and in most home kitchens, and at most home barbecues).

As to poorly cut and poorly trimmed, there's two reasons for that. First, because they just don't know any better; and second, particular to restaurants, it's because not properly cutting and trimming their steaks lets them claim what would be a 10oz steak if properly cut and trimmed, is a 12oz steak.

As to improperly cooked... well, most people just have no idea how to cook a steak; or what rare, medium rare, medium, and medium well actually ARE (everyone knows well done).

I confess, often at restaurants I don't know (or ones I know can't properly cut, trim, or cook a steak), I will order my steaks medium rather than medium rare.

I do this because if a steak is poorly cut, or if it's not trimmed properly before cooking; cooking it to medium will mask some of the problem.

Also, because most cooks have no idea how to properly cook a steak, and pay at best minimal attention to each individual steak being cooked (they've got a line of orders as long as your arm waiting); you have a slightly better chance of them not screwing up your steak too badly, if you order medium.


Because it's in the middle. If they screw up to one side or the other, the steak isn't likely to be inedible; and if they overcook it too badly, they'll make you another one.

Usually, it's easier to tell when something is overcooked rather than undercooked; and because they are always under time pressure and cost pressure, most GOOD cooks are going to err on the side of underdone rather than overdone. An underdone steak takes less time, and you can always re-fire it if you need to. If you over cook a steak, you have to throw it out and make a whole new one, taking both more time, and more product.

Of course, there's another risk to ordering medium, which I'm going to talk about in a minute...

Now, if you like a rare steak, or extra-rare steak, why is that?

For one thing, it's probably not true; because you've probably never had an actual rare steak.

First, in many states it's actually a health code violation to serve a rare steak. If you order rare, and they cook it to the minimum health code standard, what you'll actually get is something on the low side of medium rare.

Second, even where it's not illegal, most places don't serve a truly rare steak, because they literally can't cook one.

Most places that aren't steak specialists cut their steaks too thin to be served at much less than medium rare (because thinner steaks cook faster, and because they look like "more" meat on the plate for a given weight of steak). Unless you cut your steaks to well over an inch thick, it's very difficult to get a steak to "look done" on the outside, before its cooked to above true rare temperatures.

To get a steak thinner than 1" to rare at all (never mind it being a matter of skill), while still looking nicely browned on the outside (or with good grill marks), you need to have a special high output searing burner, and get heavy pan (a standard thin steel or aluminum sautee pan or skillet won't do it. You need heavy thick steel or cast iron skillet) literally smoking hot (about 500 degrees); or use a special high temperature grill (over 700 degrees). Most restaurants that aren't steak specialists, don't have either; and steak specialists don't cut their steaks thinner than 1".

Without that special equipment, a thin cut steak will still be a sickly grey color when it reaches rare temps internally.

Third, again, because most people have no idea how to properly cook a steak, and because most places that aren't steak specialists cut their steaks too thin, and because most places don't have the right equipment; most of the time if you ask for medium rare, you actually get medium.

A medium rare steak, is unquestionably better than a medium steak (most of the time).

Oh and all of those things I mentioned above apply to home cooks as well, only more so.

So most people who think they like rare steak, actually like medium rare steak.

There are a few out there who like their steaks "Pittsburgh rare", "Chicago style", or "black and blue"; who really do prefer rare steak... but not many.

The other risk I mentioned in ordering medium, is actually because of that issue specifically.

If a cook knows what they are doing cooking a steak, but they aren't in an actual steak specialty place, they will often deliberately cook a steak a half a degree of doneness above what you order.

They do this because they know, if they give most people what they ASKED for (and think they want), it will often as not be sent back for a re-fire as underdone.

Because people are so used to steaks cut too thin, and cooked improperly; they internalize what is actually medium as "medium rare", what is actually medium-well as "medium" and so forth.

Most people who order a rare steak, if they actually got one, wouldn't eat it.