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How-To

Give It a Rest: Why Some Dishes Taste Better with Time

Some foods ought to be eaten the second they’re done cooking—pancakes, for instance. But for many other dishes, the situation is reversed: Their best moment comes only after they’ve had some time to rest. Roasted meats, rice dishes, bean salads, meat braises, and some soups fall into this category. These dishes all benefit from a standing period, but each for different reasons, as you’ll see below.

Roasted meat, whether beef, chicken, or pork, needs time for its juices to redistribute. If you cut into perfectly cooked roast beef right out of the oven, the outer portion would look gray and dry, while the center would be red and very rare. But let that same piece of meat stand for 10 minutes or so and it will be juicy and pink when you cut into it, nicely cooked all the way through. The standing time lets the center continue cooking from residual heat and lets juices that were concentrated in the center migrate to the dry outer portion. The meat proteins actually reabsorb their juices.

Meat braises and stews taste better the second day, and a number of processes are at work here. First, the meat reabsorbs liquid from the sauce, making it moister; this reabsorption continues through successive reheatings. Then there’s evaporation, which reduces the liquid and concentrates the sauce. After cooking and reheating, liquid continues to evaporate for some time, even when the dish is refrigerated. With each reheating, more evaporation occurs, and hence, more concentration of flavors.

Finally, browning contributes to flavor in this type of dish. As the stew or braising sauce heats up, it sticks to the sides of the pot, gets hot, and browns. When you stir, you dissolve these sweet, browned compounds back into the sauce or stew. Other reactions are also occurring: Big compounds are breaking down into smaller, more flavorful compounds; small compounds are combining and creating new flavors. Heat speeds these reactions, so every time the dish is reheated, this flavorful activity increases—even continuing when the stew is refrigerated since it takes a long time for the center to get cool.

Risottos, paella, bean salads, and bread salads all improve in flavor after standing for several minutes. Starchy foods like rice, bread, potatoes, and beans are such wonderful vehicles for sauces and dressings because they absorb liquids so well. But absorption doesn’t happen instantaneously. A rest of 10 or 20 minutes can make a huge difference, and you can often even see that the rice, bread, or beans have swollen slightly with standing.

Gazpacho needs time for flavors to “meld and marry.” Gazpacho contains lots of chopped or blended vegetables. The flavor compounds on all these thousands of cut surfaces need an hour or so to release into the mixture and merge. This mixing of molecules enhances the overall flavor of gazpacho and other blended soups as the individual flavors “marry.”

Meat braises and stews taste better the second day, and a number of processes are at work here. First, the meat reabsorbs liquid from the sauce, making it moister; this reabsorption continues through successive reheatings. Then there’s evaporation, which reduces the liquid and concentrates the sauce. After cooking and reheating, liquid continues to evaporate for some time, even when the dish is refrigerated. With each reheating, more evaporation occurs, and hence, more concentration of flavors.

Finally, browning contributes to flavor in this type of dish. As the stew or braising sauce heats up, it sticks to the sides of the pot, gets hot, and browns. When you stir, you dissolve these sweet, browned compounds back into the sauce or stew. Other reactions are also occurring: Big compounds are breaking down into smaller, more flavorful compounds; small compounds are combining and creating new flavors. Heat speeds these reactions, so every time the dish is reheated, this flavorful activity increases—even continuing when the stew is refrigerated since it takes a long time for the center to get cool.

Even raw beef improves with age.

Nearly all beef sold today goes through some aging, a process that gives meat a more buttery texture and intense flavor. There are two ways to age beef. The most common is wet aging—the meat is stored in vacuum-sealed plastic. Dry-aged beef is exposed to air, and while this method results in better flavor and texture, it also causes moisture and weight loss, which drives up the cost. With both methods, the beef must be refrigerated; an optimal aging period is eleven days. Dry-aged prime beef is expensive and hard to find. You can, however, dryage beef at home in your refrigerator (it works best with a thick or large cut, as you’ll have to trim off some of the meat after aging). Unwrap the beef, set it on a rack over a dish lined with paper towels, and refrigerate it uncovered for two to seven days; the longer it ages, the stronger its flavor. As a precaution against bacterial growth, be sure the temperature in your refrigerator is 34° to 38°F. The meat will turn dark and the surface will dry out. When you’re ready to cook, cut away the dried surface.

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