Protein is a central and essential part of our diet, and we are fortunate to have a variety of protein sources available to us including beef, pork, poultry (including chicken and turkey), fish and eggs. There are also several good vegetarian sources of protein including soy, wheat, and nuts that can be processed and cooked into many different edible forms. In this writing, however, we will be focusing on the non-vegetarian options.
The most important thing to know about cooking protein is that the kind of protein will determine the best way to cook it. Different kinds of meat are not necessarily interchangeable, and whether your meat comes out tender and juicy or tough and dry depends on knowing the right way to cook it.
Now the good news here is that this is knowledge, and not skill: anyone can learn to consistently cook meat, fish and eggs well, and it doesn’t require lots of practice. It just requires knowledge, some basic tools, and a good thermometer.
Our goal with cooking protein is to raise the temperature high enough to make it safe to eat by killing off any bacteria, parasites or other creatures that would make us sick; break down the protein a bit so that it’s easier to digest; while keeping it from drying out in the process. As we raise the temperature of our protein and it inches closer to 212 degrees F (the boiling point of water), it will start to lose its moisture as steam, so cooking protein is a balancing act between getting it hot enough to be safe while not so hot that all the moisture leaves. This is where the thermometer comes in: we don’t have to guess whether we’re at the right temperature, because we can measure it directly. The FDA conveniently provides us guidelines, based upon their extensive testing for the minimum temperature to cook various kinds of protein in order to make them safe to consume. This is a very useful chart to keep in your kitchen for reference; I keep it taped to the inside of a cabinet door.
Now that we know how much we need to heat our protein, we then have to decide how much heat to apply to get it there. The answer to that question depends on both the type of protein, and the thickness of the cut.
Both eggs and fish are delicate proteins, and they should be cooked with low heat. They also tend to be thin and cook through quickly. Even if you’re scrambling eggs in a frying pan, use low heat; it really won’t take that much longer to cook, but you will notice the difference in the texture and dryness of the eggs when you’re done.
Most of the rest of the proteins are animal muscle, but there are still several different types of muscle that require different levels of heat. Chicken breasts and wings are “white meat” muscle that don’t get much use: they are softer, cook through faster, and stand up to high heat well. Thighs and drumsticks, on the other hand, are “dark meat” muscles (pink or red when uncooked) that get a lot of use and are tougher. Cooking them over high heat doesn’t work particularly well, because the heat doesn’t tenderize them much. But here’s the secret: tougher muscles are held together and attached to the bone by another protein called collagen. Starting around 160 degrees (F), collagen begins to melt, and by 200 degrees it’s fully melted. As it melts it does three things: it stops holding the muscle together (giving it a “fall off the bone” effect); it forms a gelatin that coats and softens the tough muscle; and it holds the moisture in the meat. Melted collagen is the perfect tenderizer for the toughest cuts of meat. It requires cooking the meat at a temperature well above the minimum at which meat is safe to consume, but at the same time it protects the meat from drying out at higher temperatures. Because of this, the best way to cook thighs, drumsticks and other tougher cuts of meat is “low and slow” – simmering for an hour or more at 180-200 degrees. As far as beef goes, tenderloin is high-heat meat, and chuck, bottom sirloin, short-rib meat, oxtail and brisket are “low and slow” heat cuts.
This is why slow-cooker recipes call for tougher chicken thighs instead of chicken breasts. You could use chicken breast in a slow-cooker recipe, but it will never be as good.
Many Hispanic, East Asian and South Asian recipes will also call for tougher meats if the meat will be simmering in a sauce. You will sometimes see chicken thighs in a stir-fry, but in those cases it is usually cut up into small pieces, marinated and/or breaded so that the meat can be cooked to a higher temperature without drying it out.
Even when cooking chicken breasts or other lighter or “white meat” cuts, there are things you can do to keep them from drying out. One effective method is brining: soaking the meat in a saltwater bath for 30-60 minutes before cooking. A brine can be very simple: for example, I often use one on chicken breasts that is simply 4 cups of tap water, ¼ cup kosher salt, and ¼ cup sugar or honey (make sure the salt and sugar/honey are fully dissolved into the water before adding in your meat). A brine takes advantage of a chemical process known as osmosis, in which water will travel through a cell wall in order to try to equalize the saltiness of the water on both sides – and the water can carry with it other flavor-enhancing additions that are dissolved in it. Here’s one important thing to remember about brining : pat-dry the outside of your meat before you start cooking it, because you won’t get any Maillard reaction browning until any water on the surface evaporates off.
Breading is another effective way to trap moisture inside meat or fish. There are many different ways to bread meat or fish (or tofu), a topic for another day.
Knowing these basic facts about cooking protein, you will recognize the method behind the madness in many recipes – and you might notice a few family recipes that you can improve by substituting a more appropriate form of protein.