Kitchen Basics: How to Cook a Perfect……..(Insert Favorite Lean Meat)

I forget how much I owe to my education at Oregon State University’s now-defunct College of Home Economics. (Yes, I went there back when rocks were soft! lol) I still can hear my instructors telling us how to know when to flip a burger on the grill or how to pick the sweetest and juiciest oranges at the grocer. When it comes to cooking, it really does help to know a little bit about the science so when things don’t go as planned, you know why and can make adjustments the next time you cook. Recently I have had three different friends tell me that they would love to cook more for themselves but they don’t know how to cook meat. It’s expensive to screw it up and who wants to eat an over-cooked piece of shoe leather? GOOD POINT! Today’s post if going to cover the basics of cooking lean meats so you can have your own restaurant-quality, perfectly cooked, juicy results every time!

There are advantages to cooking with lean cuts of meat. Lean cuts often cost more than cheaper cuts of meat but have the advantage that you can often cook only what you know you need and have no waste. In other words, before you decide lean cuts (chicken breasts, pork loin, steaks) are too expensive, consider that you aren’t paying for bone, skin, fat and gristle that is just going to land up in the trash. I’m not saying you should ONLY cook these cuts; just disregard them as too expensive without considering the per serving cost.

Other than being healthier, the single biggest advantage to lean cuts is how FAST they cook. The dinner in today’s pictures took less than 30 minutes to make- start to finish. Dinner CAN simple, FAST, healthy, and delicious!

The key to understanding how to cook lean cuts (and not-so-lean steaks) successfully is in the structure of the meats. Warning-Food Science Moment! One of the basic concepts of cooking is that fats and sugars make things more tender and proteins make things tougher. under heat, protein strands stick together like glue and bind ever more tightly as their exposure to heat increases. With a fatty cut of meat, the fats break down under heat and coat the protein strands- sort of like conditioner on your hair- and prevent the protein strands from sticking to one another. Lean cuts of meat have very little fat to interfere with the “binding” action. Worse, as the exposure to heat increases, the protein strands actually shrink (like a wool sweater in the dryer) squeezing all the moisture out of the meat. Result? Shoe leather. Oh joy. :-p

What you need is a strategy. Read on, dear reader!

The Perfectly Cooked Lean Meat Recipe

1 serving of lean meat per person
Olive Oil
A heavy skillet (cast iron works great)

Optional: Marinade the meat in your choice of sauces up to the day before you cook. Acid-based sauces, like salad dressings,will help to break down the protein strands, thus making it more difficult for them to bind during the cooking process. Some people simply use their favorite salad dressing but a marinade can be as simple as lemon juice and some spices. Mr. Official Recipe Taster likes Worcestershire sauce on his steaks. I prefer salt and pepper. There is no right answer. It’s whatever YOU like. For this post I used chicken breasts that I marinated in olive oil and chopped fresh basil with a few grinds of salt and pepper.

Turn the oven on to 400 degrees. If you are already cooking sweet potatoes (like in my picture) , the oven will already be on and hot.

Hot Cast Iron Pan with Olive Oil

Heat a dry heavy skillet on the stove with a medium high flame until the skillet is really hot. this might take up to three minutes. You can test if the skillet is hot enough by holding the palm of your hand a few inches above the surface of the skillet.If you can’t feel the heat, it’s not ready. Once the skillet is hot, pour in a tablespoon of olive oil and swirl it around in the pan by carefully picking up the pan and tilting it back-and-forth. Again, if the pan is hot enough, the olive oil will have very little viscosity and is going to move around like water in the pan.When the pan is coated, carefully lay the chicken breasts into the pan being careful to not crowd the pan. Why? Because as you put cold meat into the pan, it’s going to cool the surface. You want the pan to be hot so it will sear the outside of the meat. If the surface temperature drops too much, the meat will not sear and instead will start releasing its juices into the pan. Bad. You want the juice to stay inside the meat so it stays juicy! Plus, steamed lean meat just gets tough. Blech. Should the pan be so hot it’s glowing? No! I typically have the heat turned up to an 8 out of 10. I want the meat to sear, not burn. Yes, this takes a bit of practice, but you quickly get a feel for the “right” temperature on your stove.

Don’t crowd the pan. Notice the edges searing from the heat.

When the meat is seared and has a nice brown crust (takes less than 5 minutes depending on how cold the meat was before you put it into the pan), flip the meat over and repeat on the other side. But wait! The meat is sticking? Yes, that is normal. But here comes the magical part….the meat will “release” from the surface of the skillet when it is ready to be flipped. Yep. THAT is how you know when to turn it. Pretty cool, huh? The side note to this is do NOT fuss with the meat while it is cooking! Leave it alone so it can develop a nice brown crust. When the second side releases from the pan., turn off the heat and put the pan into the oven. The meat will be completely cooked in less than 5 minutes in the oven. If it is a thin cut of meat, do NOT place it in the oven as it is now cooked all the way through. Please note that meat continues to cook in a hot pan even with the heat turned off. Meat also continues to cook while it is sitting on your plate waiting to be eaten. If lean meat is hot, it’s cooking. Period. Therefore, serve and eat immediately!

Chicken breasts flipped over after first side released from the pan. ETA for dinner is now less than 5 minutes.

When you cut into a chicken breast that is perfectly cooked, juices are going to run out when you cut into it. If the juices run clear, it is done. The inside of the meat *should* look wet, still be glistening and might even be a little bit pink. As long as the juices are clear, it’s done. If you are really worried, get yourself a meat thermometer and make sure the chicken breasts are at least 130 degrees, but keep in mind, people have been cooking for thousands of years without meat thermometers. We only think chicken shouldn’t be wet and ever-so-slightly pink because we’re used to eating overcooked chicken. If you follow these directions, the chicken breasts will be so tender, you will be able to cut them with a fork. Total time: less than 20 minutes.

Cooking steaks is only slightly different as you will likely need to put them into a hot oven for roughly 5 minutes (for medium rare) before serving. A more fatty steak will require a hotter panto get a nice crust going. The idea is to overwhelm the fat in the steak by a lot of heat. A pork loin is extremely lean and the rules for chicken breast apply to pork loin.

Please let me know if you try this and how it works out. I would love to hear about your fast and fabulous dinners!

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