If you hang around a cooking school long enough, the importance of time and temperature becomes ingrained as the secret of good cooking. This understanding allows culinarians to transform previously unusable ingredients into delectable delights.
With the importance of time and temperature in mind, let’s explore how those factors influence slow cooked meat. This is the meat that comes from muscles close to the hoof or horn of the animal. It gets a BIG workout, and therefore tends to develop a lot of tough connective tissue, which in turn makes the meat chewy.
Here’s the thing. Around 160 degrees, the tough connective tissue (called collagen) starts to breakdown, and is transformed from a rubber band textured piece of meat, into a velvety gelatin. In proper amounts it gives moisture to your meat, making even the leanest cuts of meat seem rich and juicy. This process takes 3-4 hours, depending on temperature. But there’s a problem.
As protein cooks, it releases moisture. The higher the temperature the more moisture is released. So a piece of meat cooked to an internal temperature of 155 degrees F is going to be MUCH juicier than a piece of meat cooked to 180 degrees F.
Separately, these two points don’t mean much. However, when combined, the challenge is getting your meat hot enough to melt the collagen, but cool enough to still keep your meat juicy.
Historically, a cast iron pot was kept close enough to the fire to make it warm, but not so hot as to boil the liquid inside. This technique, called braising, is a fun skill to master. By keeping the liquid in the pot below the boiling point, but over 160 degrees, the tough cuts became incredibly tender, but maintained their juiciness. But how is this best achieved today?
There are a couple of popular options for transforming tender meats. The most common is a slow cooker, commonly referred to by the brand name “Crock Pot.” They’re easy to use, require little oversight, and do a great job of heating food above the temperature needed to dissolve the connective tissue. On the downside, they lack precise temperature controls. This means that as the food cooks, the slow cooker tends to boil the liquid in the pot. This causes excessive amounts of moisture to leave your meat, creating a dry roast. In addition
The other method commonly used is oven roasting/braising in an oven safe cooking vessel. When done properly, the cook keeps the liquid in the pot from boiling, meaning the meat tends to be much juicier, and the connective tissue dissolves into a velvety texture. The challenge with this method, is it requires a significant amount of attention to the oven temperature to make sure it is hot enough to cook the food safely, but not so hot that the meat gets too hot.
It’s a tough choice to make. Dry meat that’s easy, or juicy meat that requires a lot of oversight.
There are some steps, however, that are not impacted by your choice of long term cooking.
1- Brown your meat prior to cooking. The browning reaction creates hundreds of new flavors on your meat. Unfortunately, neither method gets the exterior of your meat to a temperature hot enough to create all these flavors. By browning your meat on the stove in advance, you’ll get incredibly rich flavor. It’s a must do!
2- After you brown, include lots of veggies in your stock. The traditional “mire poix” (a mix of onions, celery, and carrots) is a great start, but don’t be afraid of garlic, orange peel, rosemary, or sage. They all add amazing richness to your stock.
3- Get your food above 140 degrees as quickly as possible. Food safety is the issue here. The longer your food sits below 140 degrees, the higher risk you have of food borne illness. An easy way to accomplish this is place your cooking vessel on your stove until it starts to steam (this only works for metal vessels).
4 – Cover your meat completely in a flavorful liquid. Chicken, beef or vegetable stock all add great flavors, as does wine. Be careful to use liquids with a relatively neutral pH. Liquids like lemon or orange juice will wreak havoc on your meat when left in contact for long periods of time.
5 – Cook for at least 3 hours (or longer). Plan on a minimum of 3 hours to properly breakdown tough cuts of meat. The thicker the meat, the longer it will take, but generally speaking 3-5 hours should be long enough.