Today I want to talk extensively about an argument that I love quite a lot. I spoke already about it some times in the past year but just lately I got the occasion to study it deeply also thanks to a crazy purchase: the book “Heston Blumenthal at home”.
The book is pretty costly (almost 50 Euro) but its price is definetely worth it for both the aestethic and the content! Why? Because beside the fact he is an awesome chef, he also has a great care of explaining with scientific passion all the discoveries made in his cooking life! Just the way I like it!
Why am I making all this introduction for? I want to talk about the Maillard reaction and the way to cook meat! We all can do it, but are we sure of what we know?
For the purpose of the discussion we may divide the meat in 2 types: big and small cuts. There are mainly 2 requisites for the meat to be good: softness and juicyness.
The softness will make us able to chew it easily, god knows how it is difficult to love a tough steak…
The juicyness is the lovely presence of…well…meat juices, which explode with taste in the mouth!
In a big number of meat recipe there is also a third which is the crust: it is the golden brown crust that forms on the steak surface that gives awesome taste and look to our meat! Not speaking about the flavours!
All these qualities are necessary to cook meat perfectly, but one changed my way of thinking about the cooking tecniques: the crust!
That is created by the so called Maillard reaction of which I spoke some time ago. Trying to be simple, since the scientific explanation is a bit too tough, when you expose a food surface to a great heat, the molecules of the food change caramelizing the sugars present in it. This does not mean that the food will sweeten but will take a great baked taste which our history said to be our preferred: think about the bread, the cakes, croutons and even the meat. The golden surface means good cooking and juicyness or softness in the inside of the food! Means crunchyness and we cannot wait to give a bite to see what awaits us after the fragrant crust! You bet it is an important argument to speak about!
Apparently the common knowledge on Maillard reaction is somehow wrong, expecially on its usefulness. all the times I see it written I have no doubt it is correct, it LOOKS correct! In reality with some common sense and no preconceptions, there are some things to understand!
Everyone of us cooked a steak on a griddle at least once in life. When we put the meat on the hot surface (its temperature must be between 120 ° and 170° celsius to start the reaction) the meat “fries”! Is there anything wrong? Not at all! But what is important is WHAT FRIES! It is water and fat! Once the meat is deprived of the water it starts to caramelize. To seal it completely it should be waterproof and to do this the caramelization should make the crust almost rigid. Since the meat should remain soft, regardless of its crust, it is more likely that the caramelization does NOT seal it at all. Phisically the water, when under a big heat condition, tends to evaporate and to go up. In the meat it migrates slowly into the meat to the upside of the steak. If the meat is sealed we should always have the possibility to cook it and keep it juicy, thing that never happens! An overcooked steak, no matter the crust, is DRY! So the important part to keep the juices in the inside of the meat is actually not to raise too much the inside temperature in order to arrive at the standard 55° (more or less depending on taste) for a perfectly cooked steak.
You could say:”Even if it does not seal the steak when I make the crust it is much tastier!” and you’re damn right!
The experience tells us that a “crusty” meat has more flavour, more taste and it is an “easy way” to improve an otherwise bland meat piece. Therefore this argument has to be considered everytime we want to cook a meat piece!
We can try this with a delicious beef steak. How can we cook it the way it is both crusty, soft and juicy? First of all we must meet some prerequisites:
- the meat has to be at room temperature, so let it rest enough out of the fridge/freezer to slowly come at the correct temperature.
- the griddle we will use must be hot between 120° and 170°: less than this the crust will not be created while more than 170° will burn it creating cancerous particles.
- The griddle or the meat have to be greased with an oil suitable to high temperatures like varios seeds oil. If you want to use butter or olive oil use them to season them after they have been cooked!
- Add salt over the meat before cooking, anyway the time it wil stay on the griddle will not start the chemical reactions that can deprive it from the water.
- A thermometer for food would be suitable to verify without doubts the correct cooking of the meat in the inside.
- We must have pincers to turn it often during the cooking time without piercing it or squeezing it.
If we got all this we can start! We season the steak with salt in over both sides immediately before putting to cook, do not use pepper because it will burn during the cooking. We warm up the pan till the required temperature adding a little amount of oil, we can use our thermometer to verify more closely or with the hand just above the griddle: if it is too hot to bear lower temperature, if it is just warm raise it. We take the steak with the hand from the farest side from us and we place it in the griddle using its surface like a shield for the hand. It will fry violently! We turn it with care every 15/20 seconds and we let it cook for 2 minutes. Now we check with the thermometer its inside temperature in its thickest part: 55° for medium rare, 50° for rare. 60° for medium. In the moment it is ready we take it out from the heat and let it rest 5 minutes over a suspended grill in order to let cool all the sides at the same time. After 5 minutes it will be ready to be eaten!
What did actually happen during this cooking? The main things are two:
- The first is that we turned upside down the steak often, 20 seconds are enough to start the Maillard Reaction that creates the crust and more time on the same side would start evaporating the water pushing it to the other side surface till it exits (did it ever happen to you?). This way we let the Maillard reaction happen more than once while turning keeps the water confined inside the steak since it does not have enough time to travel to the coldest place far from the heat!
- The second important thing is the resting time. It is fundamental it happens on a suspended grill because this way all the sides will drop their temperature mroe efficiently actually stopping the cooking. When the temperature drops the once squeezes meat fibers will start to release making space and reabsorbing the water in the inner part of the steak keeping it juicy and spectacular!
In my pics I cooked a horse steak, I know a lot of people do not like the idea but in Sardinia it is quite common and it is similar to beef to more than one degree. The surface you can see it is brown coloured and crusty while the inside is red and juicy while still perfectly cooked! Do you notice how thin is the crust? Turning the steak often did not permit the heat to go deep letting all this glorious meat stay pink and soft!
Do you still have difficulties trusting me? Well try it yourself! You’ll be blown out!