Last week we took things slow with proper knife handling and assembling a salad. This week we're going to start on some basics of cooking proteins, being mindful to work cleanly.
Cooking meat for the first time can be scary. The popular sitcom trope of food poisoning has done a good job of making us fearful and suspicious of meat. But in reality we’re just as likely to get food poisoning from spinach, or a common cold from cooks, who routinely work while sick as a matter of pride.
Animal proteins do require some caution. While fresh beef and fish can be eaten raw, chicken should be heated to a certain temperature (Health Canada guidelines suggest 165F for pieces, 180F for whole) to destroy Salmonella or Campylobacter bacteria. But meat is no more dangerous than a bicycle or a hammer. It is not radioactive. Later we’ll share a few simple steps to working cleanly and safely that can prevent any danger.
There are many other ways to apply heat to food — roasting, grilling, smoking, steaming, frying — all with their own pros and cons, challenge levels and health benefits. For now we're going to focus on pan-roasting.
What is Pan-Roasting?
When you see "pan-roasted" on a menu, in front of meat or fish, it sounds nice. But what does it mean? Unlike "crispy", which is usually a euphemism for deep-fried, pan roasting is literal. It means to sear something in a pan on the stovetop, then finish by roasting it in the oven; and it’s one of the best methods for cooking proteins to give them the kind of textures we crave, a crunchy exterior and juicy interior. It works well for many vegetables too.
The first part, on the stove, allows us a great deal of control, as we carefully watch the meat in the pan to see it developing a copper colour on one side. But the stovetop is limited as the heat is only coming from one direction. The second part, in the oven, gives us a more efficient application of heat to evenly finish cooking.
When we first start cooking meats, worried about food poisoning, we default to overcooking everything. I did this too. You cook a steak, question if it’s done, then cook it some more just to be sure.
The first time I had to cook steaks in a restaurant I was terrified that I would ruin them, or worse, poison a customer. I kept asking my boss, “Is this done?” By the end of that weekend, I’d probably grilled 40 or 50 steaks, and knew what to look for, how to poke a piece of meat and tell by the resistance if it was rare, medium or well done. Most adults should be able to learn it after 10 repetitions.
Recipes for home cooks use time estimates. These are helpful guidelines. But they can be misleading as the size and density of your ingredients, or the settings on your oven, can vary. It’s only through repetition that we develop our senses, our sight, smell, taste and even hearing, alerting us to when food is done cooking.
This week we'll practice with chicken breasts, learn how to make a pan sauce from the drippings and throw some vegetables into the mix as well. We’ll begin with clear instructions. But through repetition, you’ll begin to build a more valuable trust in your senses. But really we’re just zeroing in on this one method.
But first, a word about working cleanly. If we're going to let go of our paranoia of meats, we must also take responsibility for the hygiene of our working conditions. We don't all have fabulous, roomy kitchens with unlimited counter space. But we all have the ability to work as cleanly as possible.
This starts with having a clean kitchen before you begin cooking. Whether you have a tiny wedge of counter space or a big kitchen island, it should be clear of everything except what you need to cook. That stack of junk mail, scented candles and library books, get rid of it all and wipe down the table with soap and water. Clutter limits your freedom of movement and mental clarity while cooking. And junk from outside is dirty too. How often does anyone wash a purse or a backpack?
Once you've got a clean work area, set up your cutting board, as outlined in Week 1. If you do not have a trash bin right next to your work area, place a mixing bowl beside your cutting board for scraps. A scrap bowl saves you time and mess so you're not walking across the room each time you chop something, dropping carrot peels and onion skins on the floor.
This week we're cooking a one-ingredient dish. But usually you'll have a bunch of ingredients to prep. Bring a collection of bowls to your work area so you have somewhere to put each item once it's been peeled and chopped. This saves you time and prevents you from constantly grabbing the cabinet doors with dirty hands. Everything you need should be within arm's reach. You shouldn't ever have to walk around the kitchen with the cutting board, looking for something to scrape garlic into.
Once you've got a clean work area set up, gather every ingredient for your meal/dish/project. We do this for two reasons:
- It saves us time, as we avoid searching the kitchen for ingredients between each step.
- We discover if there are any missing ingredients before we start, pre-empting the panicked choice between running out to the stores or proceeded without key ingredients.
"If You've Got Time to Lean, You've Got Time to Clean"
When you're working for minimum wage, this is a demoralizing phrase to have a boss tell you. But it's true. And a lot of cooking is waiting. We wait while potatoes roast, while dough rises or onions caramelize. And, though we are now all conditioned to fill every spare micro-moment by checking our social media, a good cook multitasks by always doing something while waiting.
The most obvious thing to do is clean. If you fill in the waiting times by washing your cutting board, knives and mixing bowls, you'll have a minimal mess when you're done.
But don't be afraid of making a mess and getting your hands dirty. Some great chefs are messy cooks. All that matters is that you clean up when you're finished.
Boneless, skinless chicken breasts are the default form of chicken for most home cooks. This is because we’ve been trained to fear fat. I think they’re great for stir-fries. But not if you want to cook and eat a piece of chicken.
"Cooking without fat is very difficult," writes Jennifer McLagan in her cookbook Fat: an appreciation of a misunderstood ingredient. "Fat keeps our food succulent in the heat of the oven and stops it from sticking to the pan. Fats that can be heated to high temperatures are indispensable for frying; they make our food appetizingly brown, adding caramelized flavours and a crisp texture."
I'll make you a deal. You don’t have to eat the skin. But if you cook with chicken breasts with the skin on, you can throw it away. But cooking it with the skin on is going to help your meat retain its juice and flavour. And it will allow you to use less oil in the pan (you’ll still need a bit to start, but the chicken skin will render a bit of fat as it cooks).
Some supermarkets have a butchery staff. But they are rarely involved in the procurement of meat. If it matters to you how your chicken was raised or what it was fed, buy from a butcher shop where someone can answer all your questions.
A lot of recipes will tell you to rinse chicken and pat it dry. I don't recommend this. Thorough cooking kills the food-borne illnesses present in chicken. So washing raw chicken in the sink just increases the likelihood of cross-contamination through splashing water.
Bonus: Pan-Roasting Other Meat and Fish
The technique of pan-roasting is the same for almost any meat or fish. But beef is twice the price of chicken so it's less ideal for practicing. Also, the typical cut of beef we could cook in a pan, like a ribeye, is too thin to accurately use a thermometer. Better to develop a sense of cooking by touch before practicing with beef. But once you've cooked enough chicken breasts, move on to a steak or a pork chop, which can more safely be eaten underdone.
For fish, if you leave the skin on a filet, it will contract in the pan's heat, causing the fish to buckle. Make a few width-wise incisions in the skin before cooking. This gives it space to contract without pulling at the meat.
While fish will take just as well to pan-roasting as meat, it gives different signs. The bonds that hold a fish's flesh together are much lighter than meat. When fish is cooked, you should be able to feel the flesh flaking apart under the surface, with just a light press of your fingers.
Bonus: Pan Sauce
When you removed the chicken from the pan you probably noticed little bits still stuck to the surface. There may also be liquid in the pan, fat and moisture that rendered out of the meat as it cooked. And all of this is terrifically flavourful. Let's make a quick sauce out of it.
- Ovenproof pan
- White wine
- Put the pan back on the stove and apply heat.
When it's hot, add a couple glugs of white wine.
- The wine should quickly boil as it hits the pan. This is called deglazing.
- Using a spoon or spatula, scrape the surface of the pan to extract as much of those bits, up into the liquid, as possible.
- Add some butter to the pan and swirl with the wine. It should quickly emulsify into a silky sauce for you to pour over the chicken.
You can get fancier with this, caramelizing vegetables in the pan's fat, adding spices, or using flour to build it into a gravy. But this quick pan sauce is a two-minute affair that will immediately bump up the status of your properly cooked piece of meat.
This week, I want you to cook five chicken breasts. Remember to poke them with your fingers each time you check one in the oven. By the end of the week, you will know the firmness of a cooked chicken breast and your sense of touch will supersede the thermometer.
A chicken breast with Brussels sprouts is a good, simple meal. But after a couple days your palate will likely get bored and eager for innovation. You can try tossing the finished chicken with noodles, hot sauce or adding it to your salads.
Don't be afraid of experimentation. Ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, Old Bay seasoning, fish sauce, hoisin sauce, horseradish, chillies, vinegar and so on. Whatever is in the door of your fridge, try combining it with chicken and Brussels sprouts. When you learn to trust that your chicken is going to come out fine each time, you'll be more comfortable with the trial and error of flavour pairing.
More importantly, as you cook a chicken breast each night, you will build trust in your abilities. You will let go of your fear of meat. Repeating the process of cooking and tasting, you will learn how much salt or oil you need, and how the timing might differ based on the size of the meat or the pan. Using your senses of sight, smell and taste, you will develop confidence and begin the process of abandoning your reliance on measurements for ingredients and cooking times.