Cooking Techniques: Roasting Meats and Chicken

website roasting

“There was this little black bowl sitting on my plate.”

As unique as every family is, families are similar where story-telling is concerned. All families have those stories which they tell over and over again about some member of the family or something that happened which gets passed down from parent to child to grandchild. Some stories are sentimental, meant to be remembered for as a truth. Others are funny and told to elicit laughter time and time again. All become a part of what makes your particular family special.

In our family, my parents love to tell the tale of my mom’s first time cooking my dad a steak. Being Korean and only eating kalbi (kind of like Korean ribs) and bulgogi (think cooked stir fry size beef strips) on special occasions, my mom hadn’t cooked a steak before. Since Korean meat is always cooked until it was well-done, that’s exactly what my mom did. She cooked that steak until it was so well-done it curled up on itself, and when she served it to my dad, as he puts it, “There was a little black bowl sitting on my plate.”

Since my dad actually likes his meat rare, only love could have made him eat that steak. I, however, would have been just fine eating it, because I’m not much of a meat person in general and when I do eat it, I like it to be as my husband and dad call it “shoe leather” texture.

Just like people have different preferences for eating meat, people have different ways of cooking it. The most traditionally agreed up method for the most flavor, though, tends to be roasting, and for this post we will look at roasting both meat and poultry since the methods are similar. I will focus on the questions people have recently asked me.

Questions about Roasting Meat and Poultry:

1. Does my roast or chicken need come to room temperature first? The answer is, “No.” One, unless it’s a hot day, it’ll take a long time for your meat or chicken to come to room temperature, and if it is a hot day, leaving the meat or chicken out will increase your risk of bacterial growth. Two, better folks than I who run test kitchens all the time have run experiments, cooking both a room temp piece of meat and one straight from the fridge, with no difference. In the end, though, folks are going to do what they want, and I know many people who would never dare to roast a piece of meat or a turkey without letting it sit out for at least half an hour first. To date, they are all alive and well and enjoying their meat and poultry, so in the end, it’s your prerogative.

2. Should I season before or after? If you were to google this question, you’d find a variety of conflicting answers. What I’ve found in my years of cooking is that you should really do both. Seasoning rubbed onto the roast or chicken before it’s cooking helps to imbue the meat or chicken with flavor, but adding some fresh herbs or spices before serving adds a little spark to the flavors which become a bit stale from cooking in the oven for so long.

The corollary question which folks have asked is about salting meat or chicken. Some folks swear by the brining method of salting a day or two ahead of time. Others say to salt just before cooking. I personally stay away from salt use at all and allow people to salt their meat or chicken on their own when it’s on their plates. For people who want to use salt, though, the answer is that it depends on your taste preference and the type of meat you are cooking. Test kitchen cooks have determined that salting or brining poultry ahead of time really does make for a tastier chicken or turkey. For meats, though, with the exception of lamb, pork and beef don’t receive any benefit from salting ahead of time and often actually makes for a drier piece of meat.

3. What is the best way to season my meat or poultry? Again, you’ll find differing opinions, and in reality, most methods will give you a nice tasting chicken or roast beef. What I have found to be the most flavorful, though, is to make a nice dry rub of seasonings – usually herbs like thyme, oregano, marjoram, basil, rosemary, etc… mixed with black pepper and ground onion and/or garlic powder – and to mix it with just enough olive oil to make a paste and then rub it completely over the roast or chicken.

For a roast beef, I increase the flavor by cutting little slits into the meat and inserting slivers of garlic and/or onion into the slits. This adds flavor inside the meat instead of just outside.

For chicken, I loosen the skin away from the breast and legs and rub the seasoning rub inside the skin as well directly on top of the breast and legs, and I put onions, garlic, and herbs inside the cavity of the chicken. This way you get flavor all around and not just on the skin of the chicken.

A corollary question folks have asked is about butter verse oil: I always use olive oil. One, for folks with dairy allergies, it removes that worry. Two, it’s a healthier oil. Three, you can make a nice rub with it using less than what you’d need for butter.

Having said that, test kitchens have found that using butter can help to keep a chicken moist without the need for basting because it melts as it cooks and seals in the liquids. So, if you don’t have any health or allergy issues keeping you from using butter and like the taste of it, go for it.

4. What type of pan should I use to roast my meat or chicken? The best pan to use for roasting is one that can withstand high and lengthy heat and which just fits your roast or chicken. You don’t want to have a lot of space around what you’re cooking.

People differ on whether you should use a rack or not. I’m a rack person. I have found that if I put my roast on a flat rack and my poultry on a v-rack that the bottoms of the meat and chicken cook more evenly. I do find that I need to grease the racks, though, to make sure the roast or chicken doesn’t stick.

5. What is the best method for roasting meat or poultry? Okay, this is where it gets tricky. The consensus is that there isn’t any consensus. Well-known chefs and test kitchen cooks all differ. Some say you should cook at low heat to keep the meat or poultry from drying out and to keep it moist. Some say you should cook it at a high temperature to cook it more quickly which will prevent it from drying out and will keep it moist. Others say you should do a combination of both.

The fact is that all methods work. It really comes down to the type of texture and flavor you’re looking for. Slow roasting meat or chicken at 275 degrees for several hours gives you a more evenly cooked through piece of meat or chicken with a softer, more falling apart texture. This is a good method is you’re cooking larger, more uneven, tougher cuts of meat or a more mature bird.

Cooking the meat or chicken at 350 degrees for 20 minutes per pound for poultry and pork or 15 to 30 minutes per pound for beef, depending on how rare to well done you like it, gives you a nice flavorful piece of meat or chicken without having to do too much work. This is a good method if you don’t particularly want a crispy outside.

Cooking the meat or poultry at a high temperature of 450 degrees for 45 minutes will cook your roast or chicken quickly and give it it a nice crispy exterior.  This method is particularly nice if you don’t have a lot of time.

Finally, the method which I like best is that you cook your roast or poultry at a high heat of 450, 475 or 500 degrees first and then lower the heat for the rest of the cooking time.  If cooking at 450 degrees, you’ll cook your chicken for 35 minutes or your roast for about 15 minutes and then you’ll lower the temperature to 350 degrees. For a roast, cook the meat 12 to 18 minutes per pound, depending on how rare or well done you like. For poultry, cook for about 8-10 minutes per pound until the chicken is done.

Just an FYI about internal temperatures for poultry and meat: If you want your roast or poultry to be at the correct temperature for eating, you cook them in the oven to a temperature that’s about five to ten degrees lower than the temperature you want because even when you take the meat or chicken out of the oven, it will continue to cook.

6. Should I baste my roast or poultry? That’s really up to you. Basting does help to keep roasting meat and poultry from drying out, but there are pros and cons. On the pro side by basting you ensure that your roast or chicken won’t dry out, it adds to the juices you’ll have for making a nice gravy in the end, and it prevents anything from burning on the bottom of your pan. On the con side, every time you open the oven to baste, you’re letting heat escape which might mess with your cooking, and by keeping the exterior of the meat or poultry moist, it won’t crisp up. As well, basting then requires you to do more because you have to baste every fifteen minutes or so.

I personally add liquid to the bottom of my roasting pan, beef or chicken broth, at the beginning and then halfway through cooking. The broth slowly evaporates as the roast or poultry cooks, allowing some moisture to accumulate in the oven and preventing the roast or chicken from drying out without me having to continually baste. Then just before I’m ready to take the roast or chicken out of the oven, I turn the heat back up to 500 degrees for a couple of minutes to re-crisp the exterior of the meat or poultry.

7. Is there anything special I should do to my roast or poultry before putting it into the oven? That depends on you really. I usually try to cut off some of the fat from my roasts. While it’s true that the fat adds flavor, too much of it isn’t good, so I remove as much as I can and rely on my seasonings for flavor instead.

For chicken, there are differing thoughts. Some folks say you absolutely must truss up the bird by tying the legs together. Others say that allowing the legs to be free helps them to cook more evenly and quickly in time with the breast portion. I’ve done both and haven’t found too much of a difference.

The other part of the bird folks worry about is the wings. Because they’re so small the tips can burn. If you’re cooking with any of the high heat methods, you’re definitely better off turning the tips of the wings underneath the bird so they won’t burn. If you’re slow roasting with the very low heat, I’ve not noticed much of an issue.

8. Should I turn my roast or chicken while it’s cooking? The fact is that rotating your chicken or roast will ensure more even cooking. It allows heat to reach all sides of your meat or poultry and it allows the juices to run from one side to the other. That’s why those spit roasted pigs and grocery store rotisserie chickens taste so good. So, if you are inclined to put in the effort, cooking your chicken breast side down and then flipping it is fine. Turning your roast so all sides face the top at some point in the cooking is fine. The effort will be worth it, but not necessarily so much so that you’ll want to put in the effort.

9. How do I know when my roast or chicken is done? The best method is to invest in a meat thermometer. Poultry should be at an internal temperature of 165 when you insert the thermometer into the breast near the bone. When it’s done the juices should be running clear not tinged with pink, and the legs should be easy to pull away from the breast.

Roasts vary depending on how you like your meat cooked. Most meats are said to be rare when they’re about 120 to 125 degrees in temperature and the temperature goes up by five to ten degree increments for medium rare, medium, medium well and well-done which is about 160 degrees.

10. Should my meat or poultry sit after it’s come out of the oven before serving? The answer to this is an unqualified, “Yes.”  One, it is true that the liquid which has been drawn out to the surface of the roast or chicken while it was cooking will resettle to the center of the meat or chicken as it cools which makes for a moister dish. Two, your roast or poultry will still be finishing cooking, so you want to make sure it does and gets to the proper temperature. If you didn’t pull your roast or chicken out of the oven a little early and let it get to the temperature you wanted for eating, well, then your dish will be overcooked by the time you serve it. So, in that case you may want to start cutting immediately, but remember that it’ll be a bit dryer then.

Handling Holidays: The Main Entrees

website entrees

“But it’s bleeding!”

Imagine that you’re meeting your future spouse’s parents for the first time. They’ve invited you over for Easter at a cousin’s home and the cousin raises sheep. You’re already nervous because you really want his parents to like you. However, you now learn that, you who are a vegetarian, are about to be served lamb for Easter dinner. More so, the family has just had a lengthy conversation about the best way to cook lamb which apparently is to simply torch the outside a bit while leaving the lamb mostly rare.

You’re expecting the worst, but nothing prepares you for actual reality. When the lamb appears, you glance at the platter and see what looks to you like blood running in riverlets down the lamb’s sides. Your stomach, which has already been lurching horribly due to nerves, can’t take this unexpected sight, and you promptly run from the table and spend the next half an hour incredibly sick in the cousin’s bathroom, wondering if you’ve doomed your chances of ever impressing your future in-law’s.

I, unfortunately, don’t have to imagine the above scene, because I lived it. That experience, though, solidified a few things for me. One, I have never entertained without making sure that everyone who is coming will be comfortable with what I serve. Two, no new experiences where folks have made a dish I can’t eat has ever come close to topping that one, so I’ve been able to handle them with much more aplomb. And three, I’ve learned that when it comes to food, everyone’s tastes are different, and we have to be accepting of that.

So what do you do when you need to cook a main course that accommodates your health needs and is delicious for everyone who gathers at your table who may not need to watch what they eat?

1.  Plan ahead:  Don’t decide the day before what you want to try to make. If it’s something you’ve never made before, be sure to have a practice run, so you can learn what might be a potential glitch in the recipe. If it’s something you have made many times, be sure you have all the ingredients you need so you’re not running out at the last minute to purchase something you forgot.

2.  Forget the fat and focus on the cooking:  The mantra is that meat and chicken and turkey need the fat to taste good, but that’s not actually true. Whether your meat or turkey or chicken is dry and tasteless really depends on your cooking technique.

For meats and poultry, the key to seasoning is to do it everywhere.  Make a rub of herbs and spices and onions and garlic with just the tiniest bit of an oil like olive oil to create a paste and rub it everywhere.  For the meat, you can even put little slits into the meat and put seasoning into.  For the birds, use your hands to pull the skin away from the flesh and put the herbs in between the skin and breast as well as on top and inside the bird.  For inside, add an onion or garlic cloves or veggies like carrots and celery for even more flavor.

Cook the meats and poultry to maximize moisture.  Cook them on high heat for only 10 minutes to get the outside crisp immediately, then tent them with foil and cook on low heat for more even cooking. At the end you can cook them for another few minutes at high heat to finish them off with a nice brown crust or skin.  For folks who are extra wary, you can also use a reduced sodium, fat free stock to baste meats and birds during the cooking process.

Finally, let your meats and poultry rest after cooking.  If you let them sit for at least 15 to 20 minutes, all the juices which have been released will be reabsorbed into the meat and poultry, to allow for moister slices when you do cut them into pieces.

For tender cuts like a pork tenderloin or turkey tenderloin, just trust the meat. Once you season it with your herbs and spices, you can simply cook them at 350 for an hour, and they’ll taste great.  You choose to make a nice glaze to brush on instead, too.

For ham, you can omit the glazes that come packaged with the meat, and either cook it without or make your own less caloric version and just cook the ham according to instructions.

3. Make it yourself: If you’re making something like chicken cordon bleu, make your own bread crumbs. Whether you use 100% whole wheat bread or a gluten free millet bread, you’ll add more fiber to the crumbs which is good, and you can then season the bread crumbs as you’d like without all the salt. Contrary to thinking, it literally takes about two minutes to make your own crumbs.  A couple of tips:  For gluten free bread, use frozen slices.  For both breads, if the bread is already at room temperature, toast them on the lowest setting and cool before processing. If adding herbs and spices, throw them in with the slices you’re about to zoop in the processor, because that will meld the herbs and spiced into the crumbs.

If you’re supposed to use a certain type of bottled glaze or marinade, find a recipe that you like and modify to omit the salt and sugar and fat, using the tips I’ve put into past posts.

If the recipe calls for a bottled spice that includes salt, create your own mix, using herbs and spices from your cabinet which you combine with onion and/or garlic powder and black pepper.

4. Look for better options: If you’re making something like a stuffed, rolled pork tenderloin and the recipe calls for crumbled sausage, use a turkey variety. If you’re supposed to use cheese, find a lower sodium, reduced fat variety or a vegan substitute instead. If the recipe calls for ham and you really want to use ham, use half the amount and slice it into smaller pieces to distribute the taste throughout something like a cordon bleu. If you’re supposed to use meat to stuff a meat, try using sauteed vegetables instead. If butter is required, use a heart healthy and dairy free oil instead.

5. Think outside the box: Maybe this is the year you don’t make a chicken cordon bleu or ham for Christmas. Maybe you created a stunning whole wheat or gluten free roasted vegetable lasagna. Or maybe you make a spanikopita, only you use olive oil instead of butter and lower fat cheeses. Or maybe you try your hand at a vegan manicotti which used vegan cheeses and pureed cashews and is stuffed with butternut squash.

Chicken Cordon Bleu

(This is for four chicken breasts; we always double the recipe and use a 9 x 13 pan. If you aren’t allergic to dairy, you can use low fat real cheese!)

Ingredients: 

1/4 cup reduced sodium, fat free chicken broth

2 tsp minced garlic

1 tsp herbs of choice (oregano, thyme, basil, rosemary, etc…)

1/2 cup breadcrumbs (make your own!)

1 tbsp grated vegan Parmeson

1 tsp paprika

4 chicken breasts (smaller 4 to 6 ounce portion, not the huge ones!)

herbs of choice (oregano, basil, thyme, rosemary, etc…)

black pepper

4 thinly sliced pieces of fat free ham or turkey ham (the ultra thin deli style works well)

chopped fresh baby spinach

1/4 cup shredded vegan mozzarella

Cooking Instructions:

1. Lightly coat an 8 inch square pan with your choice of “grease”. (I usually brush a very light coat of olive oil.) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Combine the broth with the garlic and herbs and microwave for 20 seconds until it’s warm.

3. Combine the bread crumbs with the Parmeson and paprika.

4. Pound the chicken breasts to a uniform thinness.  (We put the breast between parchment paper and pound them with the bottom of a heavy ice cream scoop.  If you have a meat mallet, that works, too. Recipes will often tell you to pound between saran wrap. Do what works for you.)

5. Sprinkle both sides of the chicken breasts with the herbs of your choice and black pepper.

6. Place one slice of the ham, some chopped baby spinach, and 1 tbsp of the mozzarella on top of each chicken breast and roll up the breasts in a jelly roll style.

7. Dip the rolled chicken breasts into the chicken broth and cover with the breadcrumb mixture.

8. Put the breasts into the baking pan, seam side down, and pour the remaining chicken broth over the chicken breasts evenly.

9. Bake for about 30 minutes until the juices from the chicken are clear and the chicken is golden brown.

10. You can serve immediately or cover them with foil to keep warm until it’s time to serve them.