"Dave the inquisitive" asked another of his provocative questions:
Since foodies go for medium-rare, and most recipes optimize for that, there must be a set of different techniques among that small black-sheep subset of the foodie world that actually prefers med-well or well-done, and has found ways to achieve that and still have tenderness and flavor.
For example, I’ve had over-done fillet mignon, and it’s still to die for. So…
Any tips, meat-choices or cuts, cooking techniques, etc, for the well-done crowd?
Medium Rare: Snobbery or Sense?
Medium rare is the ideal for meats like filet mignon, pork loin, and loin cuts, which are simple muscles with little fat or connective tissue. The ideal of “medium rare” is not arbitrary snobbery; it maximizes tenderness and moistness. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt of Serious Eats and Cook's Illustrated have both tested it. As Kenji writes in Serious Eats, doneness is a matter of personal taste, but perhaps there is a subjective consensus and a reason chefs prefer medium rare. Kenji "cooked five prime-grade New York strips at temperatures ranging from 120°F to 160°F and fed them to a group of a dozen tasters."
There is a good reason. As food cooks, moisture starts to release from the cells and become available but as we exceed medium and move toward well done, the meat contracts, squeezing out moisture like a sponge and the maximum fresh meat flavor is long gone. Moisture and flavor are at their peak at 130-135°F.
When people like well done, I think it’s because they are enjoying the seared flavor and most cooks fail to achieve a good sear in medium rare cooking. The ideal is a dark sear and pronounced crust while keeping the interior at 130-135.
Whether we consider them gastronomically right or wrong, those who like their meat well done are our guests. So back to Dave's question. How do we accommodate a range of tastes?
For a pan steak or grilled steaks, we just cook to order, bringing each steak to the desired doneness. For a roast, there are two ways. One is to serve the ends to the well-doners. This is ideal because they are not just getting well-done meat, they’re getting a lot of seared meat, which is probably what they really want. I am not immune to the lure of the end cuts. When there is carved roast beef on a buffet line, I always ask for an end, after I get a normal cut, because the ends are so well seared in a properly done larger roast. Knowledgable servers smile and appreciate the request.
But there are only two ends, so restaurants use a different strategy. They toss the steak into a pan and give it an extra shot of cooking, sometimes in the gravy or juices or finishing sauce. Some places keep some of the roast beef in the warmed juices so that even at room temperature, they pick up color and they serve that to those who ask for more doneness.
How can the home cook maximize the quality of well done meat?
- Pan finish briefly and gently, and in the juices, to minimize damage.
- Serve with butter or a sauce to reduce dryness.
- Use fattier cuts for well done.
More on doneness next week.