During the first year of this blog, I picked up many valuable culinary tips, tricks and techniques from a plethora sources, both digital and real world. This led to significant improvements in our approach to home cooking.
The change that had the biggest positive impact was to cook food to temperature (rather than elapsed, fixed time). This has drastically transformed the quality of our entire home dining experience, as well as being a new avenue of “food adventure” to immerse myself in.
Why Cook to Temperature?
I used to roast chicken for the time given on the packaging, or until it looked “done”. The results were variable and good. Just … good, nothing special. Then last year we bought a Big Green Egg. In exploring Egg-related internet discussions, cooked meat was invariably described as “done” when it reached a specific internal temperature. Exact times were rarely considered, other than phrases such as “it takes about an hour”.
Initially I was skeptical, but after reading more about it, understood why this is. Meat is ready when it reaches a specific internal temperature, e.g. chicken is “done” when the breast meat reaches 74°C/165°F. So rather than guess if food is ready, use temperature to know for sure when it’s done without overcooking it.
Consider a thick reverse-seared rib-eye steak. Normally it’s an educated guess as to when it’s medium-rare, sometimes needing to cut the steak in half to see. By cooking to a specific internal temperature, our rib-eye steaks have been consistently medium-rare and delicious every time, delighting our dinner guests.
Cooking to Temperature With An Oven
The approach isn’t restricted to a Big Green Egg. I now oven-roast spatchcock chicken to temperature, it’s juicier and tastier than when I cooked to time. The picture below demonstrates this, the digital readout doesn’t show well because its display refresh cycle almost exactly matched the camera shutter speed.
This approach can be used for oven roasting duck, pork, beef and many other foods (an exception would be pizza). The picture below shows the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommended internal temperatures for common foods:
When Will It Be Ready … I Need to Cook the Vegetables
I thought it would be difficult to know when to start cooking vegetables so they would be ready when the meat was. Using time, I cook a medium chicken for 1h20m, so with 10 mins to go I boil a kettle to do the vegetables. How can I know this when cooking to temperature? When do I ask our guests to be seated ready for dinner?
Turns out that cooking food to temperature does have a reasonably predictable end time, it comes with practice. For example, when cooking a medium chicken spatchcocked in either an Egg or oven, it will take around 75 mins, +/-5 mins.
More importantly, I know for certain that when the chicken is 15°F off being done, it’s time to start doing the vegetables and get the guests seated.
Sounds Good … How Do I Get Started?
To do this you need a way of measuring internal temperature. There’s a wide range of devices on the market, ranging from simple meat thermometers to electronic devices that allow you to track temperatures when you’re not at home.
I use three devices (affiliate links):
- A Kitchen Thermometer for monitoring temperature unattended (pictured below). EDIT: this is unfortunately no longer available. Instead I recommend using a digitial food thermometer with an alarm and extension cable.
- A Thermapen 4 and AKIR KA31 for instant read temperatures
The Kitchen Thermometer has two probes that can be inserted into meat to give a reading on internal temperature. It transmits a signal that can be picked up on a Bluetooth-enabled device. It tells you the probes’ temperatures, and can be preset to signal when a specific temperature has been reached. Furthermore it can also be set to notify via the mobile device when the meat is a few degrees from being ready, so the vegetables can be put on to cook. I can place the probes into a chicken (in an oven or Egg), and go do something else.
The Thermapen and AKIR are hand-held instant temperature read devices. I use these when I need to check specific temperature points in what I am cooking, or if I am cooking a large number of chicken thighs (or similar) and need to check each one to ensure doneness.
A Word of Caution
Make sure that you put the probe into the part of food further from the surface and/or bones. For chicken, place a probe into the middle of the breast meat. The first time I tried this approach using chicken, I put the probe just below the surface. Needless to say, the chicken was not cooked properly. I made sure it was done before eating.