How to Cook Any Food to Perfection
By Michelle Dudash, RDN
Whether I’m at a friend’s backyard BBQ or a restaurant, I often witness overcooked steaks, crunchy-on-the-inside potatoes, and charred chicken breasts. I’ve even received undercooked meat from time to time at restaurants—especially in the case of a fine steak, because it’s a cardinal sin to overcook a good slab of beef. Even good cooks periodically over- or undercook food. But with practice and by recognizing subtle cues, you can minimize these mishaps, whether you’re baking salmon, roasting asparagus, or searing steak. Here are some of the finer points I covered during my culinary workshop at Today’s Dietitian’s Spring Symposium in May.
Steaks and Roasts
The best way to tell if a steak has reached desired doneness is to push the pad of your fingertip gently on the center top of the steak. If your finger sinks or squishes in, the steak is still very rare. If the meat springs back, the meat is around medium or medium rare. If the meat is firm and barely yields to gentle pressure, it’s well done. Chewier cuts like pork chops feel firmer across the spectrum.
You may be asking, “Why shouldn’t you cut into the center of the steak to test for doneness?” Cutting into meat immediately after cooking it, or worse, while cooking it, will cause the juices to run out into the pan or plate rather than redistribute back into the center of the meat.
When determining doneness of whole cuts of beef and pork, your best bet is to use an internal thermometer by sticking it into the thickest section of the meat, away from the bone. The meat will continue to rise in temperature after cooking, by 5° to 25°, depending on the poundage.
The fork is one of the best tools to use to test most vegetables for doneness—from broccoli to asparagus to sweet potatoes. The fork should easily slide into the thickest section of the stalk or tuber. If the fork requires forcing or gets stuck, cook the vegetables for a bit longer.
Deliciously caramelized roasted vegetables, such as crispy Brussels sprouts, require high heat (425° F convection or 450° F convention) to become crispy on the outside and fork-tender on the inside.
Grilled Chicken Breast
Just because chicken should be cooked well done, or reach 165° F, this doesn’t mean the bird has to be dry. In fact, chicken breast can be downright juicy when cooked properly. For best results, pound thicker sections into submission with a mallet, ladle, or small sauté pan to ensure even cooking. Often, with a sharp knife blade positioned parallel to the cutting surface, I cut the chicken into two fillets from each breast.
If you overcook chicken breast, you can slice it and pour some hot broth over it, which absorbs back into the meat. Serving overcooked poultry with a sauce also adds back moisture.
Just remember: Once the pink flesh has disappeared, it’s probably done.
True Whole Grains
Using a timer is a must for perfectly cooked grains such as rice and quinoa, since it’s important to avoid lifting the lid prematurely. After the rice and liquid come to a boil and you reduce the heat to low, replace the lid until the timer goes off. Turn off the heat and allow the rice to sit an additional five to 10 minutes before uncovering and stirring. Furthermore, I find that the amount of liquid listed on the package directions tends to result in an overly wet final dish. If you’ve had this problem, try reducing the liquid by 1/4 cup and adjust from there.
If there’s liquid left in the pan, test for doneness by biting into a grain or pressing it between your thumb and finger. If you find chalkiness in the middle, cover the pot and simmer for a few more minutes. If the grain is cooked through, however, you can either drain off the liquid or continue cooking uncovered to evaporate the residuals.
PS: Stirring grains when they’re somewhat close to being done but are still simmering causes mushy grains. Just don’t do it.
The first cue to listen for in the case of fish is soft sizzling, even if you have to lean in a little. Then, look around the edges to see whether the juices are bubbling. These are your early signs that fish is done. After one or both of these signs are evident, gently press on the center of the thickest part of the fish. Most types of fish are very delicate, so it will be soft unless it’s overcooked. Extreme flaking can be a sign the fish is overcooked. Perfectly cooked fish easily partitions with a fork or butter knife.
Some final words: taste, taste, taste. Always taste the food before serving it. From here, you may determine whether the dish meets your quality standards. You usually can correct a cooking error if you catch it soon enough.