WHETHER YOU ARE NEW to cooking or have chef-worthy skills, there’s a lot to learn about cooking meat. For one, the process starts well before you heat the pan—the first step to cooking that perfect steak takes place in the grocery store. Here are some shopping, handling, and cooking tips to help you prepare foolproof meat dishes at home, all the time.
How to Shop for Meat
You can buy meat from a local butcher, a supermarket, and even some farmers’ markets. Here’s what to look out for no matter where you shop.
1. Pay attention to the temperature: At the grocery store, meat should be stored under 40 degrees. If you have a lot of items on your list, make the meat counter one of your last stops so that the meat stays cooler until you make it home.
TIP: On hot days, bring an insulated shopping or cooler bag to the grocery store.
2. Look at how much juice is inside of the meat package: If there’s an excessive amount of juices it’s likely that the meat has been on the shelf for too long. Meat should look moist but not sodden.
TIP: Don’t forget to examine the meat’s texture, too! It should have a tight, even grain. Broken grain could mean poor handling.
3. Look for streaks of white throughout the meat: That’s a sign of marbling—which means that there is fat and as we know, fat means flavor. In the oven or on the grill, the fat will melt and flavor the meat. (Make sure not to confuse marbling with gristle. Gristle is often translucent rather than white and doesn’t break down upon cooking.)
TIP: More than ½ inch of exterior fat is generally less than ideal—make sure to trim excessive exterior fat from roasts, steaks, and chops when cooking.
4. Smell it: You know how fresh fish shouldn’t smell overly fishy? The same goes for meat. Any odors indicate spoilage.
TAKEAWAY: When shopping for meat, look out for the temperature, purging, marbling, and any off odors.
How to Store Meat
Storing meat should be as simple as placing it into the fridge after you get home from the supermarket, but even things can go wrong here if you’re not set up properly. Here are some tips on how to store meat properly for short or long term storage.
1. Keep it cold! Meat should be the first grocery item you refrigerate after your trip to the grocery store (well, maybe second, after ice cream). Check the temperature of your fridge to ensure that the meat is being stored between 30 and 40 degrees. Make sure that raw meat is stored well, wrapped, and never on shelves that are above other foods, especially when thawing.
2. Remove the meat from its package before freezing: Meat tastes best when it hasn’t been frozen, but if you’re going to freeze it, this is the best method. After removing it from its package, vacuum-seal it or simply wrap it well in plastic, then place the meat in a zipper-lock bag and squeeze out excess air. (Check out this article to learn how we freeze leftover ingredients.)
3. For long-term storage, quick-chill the meat before placing it in the freezer: Why? The faster the meat freezes the smaller the ice crystals that form, and smaller ice crystals means less loss of juices during cooking. In the test kitchen, we quick-chill items by using an ice bath with added salt. This quick-chilling tip works wonders for cuts like steaks, pork chops, chicken parts, or small roasts like tenderloins. (To make an ice bath for quick chilling, combine 1 cup of ice, 1 pound of salt, and 1/3 cup of water. This is enough mixture to quick chill 4 steaks, chops, or chicken parts.)
TAKEAWAY: Make sure your fridge maintains the right temperature for meat. If you’re going to freeze meat for long-term storage, quick chill it using our technique.
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How to Safely Handle Meat
Cleanliness in the kitchen when handling meat is important for preventing foodborne illnesses. Here’s how to avoid cross-contamination.
1. Don’t rinse the meat! You may have heard or read somewhere that doing this was necessary, but we’re advising you to do the opposite. Rinsing meat is more likely to spread bacteria around your sink or to nearby foods than clean it off the meat.
2. Put up a barrier for items that will come in contact with raw and cooked foods: In the test kitchen, we create a protective barrier using plastic wrap or aluminum foil for items like scales, platters, and cutting boards. This easily prevents bacteria from spreading around the kitchen.
3. Grind your seasonings into a small bowl: This way you can reach into the bowl for seasoning without having to wash your hands everytime you touch raw meat or fish.
4. Don’t recycle used marinade: If it’s been contaminated with raw meat juices that means it’s unsafe to consume. If you want a sauce to serve with cooked meat we recommend making a little extra marinade that you can set aside before adding the rest to the raw meat.
TAKEAWAY: When handling meat in the kitchen, avoid rinsing it and putting raw meat on any surface that will come in contact with cooked food.
How to Cook Meat
There are lots of ways to cook meat. Here are some of our best practices no matter what cooking technique you’re using.
1. Season it: No matter how perfectly cooked the meat is, it will taste better if it’s been seasoned. Contrary to what many people may think, seasoning meat is as important before cooking as it is after. That’s why in the test kitchen we use salting or brining methods before cooking meat.
2. Check the temperature of the meat as you cook it: You should always take the temperature of the area of the meat that’s last to finish cooking. That’s normally the thickest part or the center. We use our winning thermometer, Thermoworks Thermapen Mk4, for quick, accurate results.
3. Consider carryover cooking: The temperature of meat will continue to rise as it rests off the heat, so we recommend removing meat from the oven, grill, or pan when it’s 5 to 10 degrees below the desired serving temperature.
4. Let the meat rest: If you cut the meat immediately after cooking, the liquid between the interior proteins will simply pool on the carving board or plate (which defeats the whole purpose of the quick-chilling method you may have used a few weeks ago). A short rest on a carving board will decrease the amount of liquid lost during carving by 40 percent.
TAKEAWAY: When cooking meat, make sure to season it well (before and after), check the temperature, consider carryover cooking, and let the meat rest.
What are some of the best practices you follow to ensure that you don’t run into any meat mishaps in the kitchen? Let us know in the comments! And if you're looking for more articles related to meat, check out our other articles from Cook's Country, Cook's Illustrated, and America's Test Kitchen here.