Time, the forgotten ingredient
Taking our time with our food is something that is easily lost in our search for efficiency. Fifteen-minute meals are great, but sometimes, even with simple dishes, it pays to spend a little time.
A rack of lamb, a rib eye steak. Add some garlic, salt, pepper, herbs, butter. The simplest of ingredients and you’re on your way to a luxury meal with no more than a few minutes cooking. It’s quick. Or is it?
With all our impatience to have a meal in under 15 minutes, it is easy to forgot that the age old adage about good food taking time is true. Not necessarily hours of work in the kitchen, but an AWARENESS that time, as much as the produce, is important.
My better half often comes back with lovely meat from the butcher, and we pop it in the fridge, ready to be taken out for a quick meal. But when I’m in a rush, I know I do the meat an injustice, and this, more often than not, is reflected in the tastes and textures of the meat.
I always feel an intense sense of guilt and regret when a beautiful piece of meat has not been given the treatment it deserves. It somehow seems a failure of proper respect to our relationship to nature. Even as an unapologetic meat-eater, this is the sort of thing that messes with my head. All food, but perhaps meat in particular, deserves the respect of our attention. I’ll be the first to admit that this is something that I regularly fail in, and hence this rather ponderous post.
Recently, I took it step-by-step when preparing a lovely rack of lamb, taking note of all the moments that I needed to hold back and take it slow. It was an exercise in mindfulness as much as in cooking.
First: Return to room temperature
I took the meat out 3 hours before I was going to cook it. I wanted to give it time to recover from its time in the fridge and make a return to room temperature. It’s late autumn now and I had no qualms about having the meat out on the counter for anything up to 4 hours.
Second: Let the marinade do its work
After I allowed the meat 2 hours to reach room temperature, I slathered it in my marinade of garlic, herbs and salt. The I let it rest for another hour. With the cool weather, I did not return it to the fridge. I left it exposed, protected by a mesh cloche. In the heat of summer, I am a bit more circumspect, but 1 or 2 hours on the counter especially once marinated, has always been ok for me, though this is very much my own call. Never had any problems so far, and in my experience makes a big difference in the final result.
Third: Cooking time/temperature
Because the meat is no longer chilled, it will cook faster than a piece of meat straight out of the fridge. Time and temperature are of the essence, and here a meat thermometer is more valuable than a timer. Know the internal temperature for your desired doneness (and then calibrate for time before you serve). For example: 51c is the temperature for a steak cooked rare, but residual heat will continue to cook the meat after you take it from the heat, so for rare to medium rare, I tend to take a steak off the heat at around 47c, or 50c if it is cut very thick. For medium, a couple of degree more is all that’s needed. Finding the right temperature for a particular piece of meat is always a particularly instinctual decision for me, and whatever professional chefs might want to say, I have had too many over-cooked rare steaks in restaurants to believe that this is a call that can be made without a kind of instinctual feeling for the whole context of cooking, serving and eating.
We all need to rest, and this applies even more the meat. Taking it out of the skillet or out of the oven is not the end of the process. The meat must rest for a minimum of 10 minutes before you even think of cutting it. (All this time, the meat continues to cook, so you need to take account of this went calculating cooking time.) Take it out of its pan or skillet and make a tent of aluminum foil over it and let it sit there, drawing back its juices and flavor. Don’t be tempted to cut it and poke it, or do anything else with it. Leave it alone and it will reward you. If you need to be doing something, make a sauce with the pan juices, wilt some kale or other nice veg, or finish a nice potato mash.
Fifth: It doesn’t have to be piping hot
I was always brought up to believe that food needed to be rushed to the table, so that it could be eaten hot. The Chinese saying: “eat it while its hot” has ruined more meals for me than it has enhanced. Hot is good many food items, but usually, the higher the quality, the less need for an extreme of temperature. A piece of good meat should be served quite warm, but it does not have to be sizzling hot. Flavors are more complex if the food you are eating is not actually burning your mouth. This simple truth has taken me decades to learn, and when I get my steaks and other meat just right, they taste really good even as they cool.
Once the meat has rested, plate up (preferably on a warm plate) and get ready to enjoy your meal. Take your time with this as well. If you are wondering if all the time you took planning the simple meal of a piece of seared meat was worth it, appreciate the fact that this kind of timing is not really practical for a restaurant, which usually can’t have meat hanging around at room temperature in the hope that it will be used They have legitimate health and safety concerns, but this in most cases will affect what they can serve, or at least the price they have to charge for the food. When I get it right, which is no means all the time, I like to believe that a good home cook can produce a steak or rack of lamb that rivals the best restaurants in the world.