This guide will help you cook the meat you want the way you want it, even when the recipe isn’t explicit enough.
Meat, at least from the perspective of the butcher and the cook, consists of fat, bone, muscle, connective tissue, and water.
We cook meat for two reasons: First, heat kills the pathogenic bacteria that it contains—the kind that can make you sick. Second, cooking enhances the meat’s appearance, consistency, aroma, and flavor, making the final product more appealing to the eater.
Because bones contain marrow and are usually surrounded by fat, bone-in meat is generally juicier and tastier than boneless meat. However, it is also more difficult to cook evenly, which is why beginner cooks often opt for boneless cuts. If you are serious about cooking, learn to prepare bone-in meat; it is unrivaled by any other.
Cooking Meat to Make It Safe to Eat
Raw meat can harbor bacteria, such as Escherichia coli (E. coli), Salmonella, Yersinia, and others. These bacteria are pathogenic, meaning that they can give you—and the rest of your family members who are eating with you—food-borne illness if ingested.
Never underestimate the burden of food-borne illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 48 million Americans contract food poisoning each year. To put that in perspective, that’s one in five people! Of those, 128,000 wound up hospitalized and 3,000 die.
As explained by the Food & Drug Administration, children, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems are most at risk of foodborne illness.
To kill disease-causing bacteria in meat and make it safe to eat, it must be cooked to the proper minimum internal temperature before it is removed from the heat, without exceptions.
This safety rule applies to every cooking method, from grilling and smoking to roasting, pan-frying, braising, stewing, and sous-vide cooking, and to every type of meat, whether red meat, poultry, or seafood.
That temperature, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, is as follows:
|Meat||Internal Temperature||Resting Time|
|Red meat, incl. beef, pork, lamb, and veal||145°F (62.8°C)||Minimum 3 minutes of resting|
|Ground red meat||145°F (71.1°C)||Resting time not required, but recommended|
|Poultry, incl. chicken, turkey, and game birds||165°F (73.8°C)||Resting time not required, but recommended|
|Ground poultry||165°F (73.8°C)||Resting time not required, but recommended|
|Seafood, incl. fish and shellfish||145°F (62.8°C)||Resting time not required|
The doneness of meat is measured by its internal temperature. The internal temperature of cooked meat is a function of 1) the cut’s thickness, 2) the amount of heat used, and 3) the cooking time.
To measure the internal temperature of your meat, whether red meat, poultry, or seafood, whole-piece or a cut, use a meat thermometer. Insert the probe at the very center of the meat and wait 2-3 seconds, allowing the device to give you an accurate reading.
When you remove the meat from the heat, rest steaks and chops for 2-3 minutes, and large slabs or whole birds for 10-15 minutes. The meat will finish cooking in its residual heat and the juices will settle. That way, they won’t run out of the meat when you cut into it; it will be moisture and more tender.
As we will find out in a minute, there is a difference between cooking meat to safety and cooking it to tenderness.
Cooking Meat to Make It Juicy and Tender
What’s the point of cooking meat to safety if, in the process, it doesn’t come out juicy and tender?
Tenderness depends on 1) the choice of cut and 2) the internal temperature to which the meat is cooked. As any butcher will be happy to tell you, certain cuts of meat are naturally more tender than others, so they require different cooking times.
The more weight a muscle has to bear and the more it is used, the stronger and tougher it becomes. For example, think of the legs, shoulder, and rump of a cow or pig; they yield tougher cuts.
Tender Cuts of Meat Are Best Cooked Quickly
Tender cuts are fatty and well-marbled. The best way to cook them is to cut them up into steaks or chops 1 to 1½ inches thin, then to grill, pan-fry, or broil them over medium-high to high heat in the oven. The less they are cooked, the more juicy and tender they come out.
The opposite is also true: the less weight a muscle has to bear and the less it is actively used, the weaker it becomes—and the easier it is to cut, chew and digest. The most tender cuts come from the loin, far away from the hooves, the shoulder, or the back of the animal.
Below are good examples of tender cuts of beef, pork, and lamb. Cut them thin and cook them quickly over medium to medium-high heat.
Tender cuts of beef:
- The T-bone steak;
- The New York Strip;
- The tenderloin, a.k.a. filet mignon;
- The Ribeye, whether bone-in or boneless;
- The Outside Skirt steak;
- The Round steak.
Tender cuts of pork:
- The rib;
- The loin;
- The belly;
- The cheeks.
Tender cuts of lamb:
- The rib;
- The loin;
- The fillet;
- The rump.
Tougher Cuts of Meat Must Be Cooked Low and Slow
Tough meat contains a lot of collagen, a long and stiff protein that shrinks when cooked—especially at a higher heat—causing the meat to stiffen and dry out.
However, at a temperature of 190°F, the collagen dissolves and the meat becomes fall-apart tender. For this reason, tough cuts of meat, such as brisket, must be tenderized by cooking for a long time over medium-low to medium heat.
The meat is heated slowly so that it doesn’t become stiff, but long enough for it to get really hot inside, causing the collagen to break down and mix with the meat’s juices. The larger the piece of meat, the lower the cooking temperature and the longer the cooking time.
Below are good examples of tough cuts of beef, pork, and lamb. Keep them whole and cook them slowly over medium-low to medium heat.
Tough cuts of beef:
- The brisket;
- The flank;
- The plate;
- The round;
- The shank.
Tough cuts of pork:
- The shank;
- The shoulder, a.k.a. Boston butt.
Tough cuts of lamb:
- The neck;
- The shoulder;
- The shank;
- The breast;
- The flaps;
- The spare ribs.
Tips for Cooking Meat Evenly
To cook meat evenly, remove it from the refrigerator 15-20 minutes before cooking and rest it on the counter to bring it to room temperature. If you’re going to cook the meat on the grill or in the oven, use this time to preheat the unit.
Never cook meat straight from the freezer. By the time the inside reaches the minimum temperature required for safe consumption, particularly on thicker cuts, the outside will have burned and become acrid. Instead, thaw the meat overnight in the refrigerator.
If you are unsure about a recipe or are developing one of your own, it is better to start with a lower heat than a higher heat. You can always turn the heat up a little bit more to encourage browning. But, once the meat starts to burn, there is no going back; it cannot be salvaged.
Medium heat on the stove and 350°F in the oven are almost always good starting points. Depending on the thickness of the meat, you can then tone the heat up or down as you deem fit.
Not Undercooking and Not Overcooking Meat
Meat cooks from the outside in. The heat needs time to get to inside the protein and, as a result, cook it fully through.
Since not everyone has a meat thermometer in their kitchen, most recipes prescribe a specific cut with a specific thickness, a precise cooking temperature or temperature range, and a precise cooking time or time interval.
Consider them approximations; they are not set in stone.
For example, the actual temperature in older ovens may be 50 to 100°F different from what the dial says. An induction cooktop is much more powerful compared to its gas or electric counterparts, and cookbook authors rarely mention the type of stove that a recipe was developed for.
When cooking outside, every charcoal fire is different and some gas grills can be notoriously unreliable, as they have many hot and cold spots that make it a challenge for you to cook any piece of food evenly.
This puts you, the home cook, in a Goldilocks situation; whenever you fire up the stove or crank up the oven, you have to make sure that the heat is “just right:”
- If the cooking temperature is too high, the meat will burn on the outside and get imparted with an unpleasantly acrid taste by the time it is cooked through on the inside;
- If the cooking temperature is too low, the inside of the meat will be cooked through but the outside won’t brown, and browning is what brings out much of the natural aromas and flavors in the meat.
When in doubt, follow the recipe.
If the recipe doesn’t have specific instructions—a sign that it either wasn’t developed or edited properly—adjust the heat to the thickness of the meat.
Cuts thinner than 1-1½ inches will cook quickly, so they tolerate medium-high to high heat (375°F-500°F). Thicker cuts cook will slowly, as it takes time for the collagen to get to heat and melt, so they require medium-low to medium heat (250-375°F) for even cooking.