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Resting Meat

By Brian Geiger, contributor

January 14th, 2010

Kitchen Mysteries is a weekly exploration of oddities surrounding cooking and food. They could be recipes that fail when they shouldn't, conflicting advice from different sources, or just plain weirdness. If it happens in a kitchen, and you're not sure why, send a tweet to The Food Geek or email to to find out what's happening.

A while back, I asked people about cooking techniques or steps that they have been told to do but weren't really sure why. Molly Fulton responded with:

Hi, Molly,

There are two reasons why meat needs to rest after cooking. The first is because, just because you've taken the meat away from the heat, does not mean that it's done cooking. It's going to heat up some more, then start cooling down. Why?

If you remember back to my kitten and elephant metaphor about temperature, when heat is transferred into molecules, they start to vibrate and otherwise move. Some molecules move easily (the kitten types), and some not so easily (the elephants). Meat doesn't transfer heat well, and so it's made of metaphorical elephants. When elephants start running, they don't stop quickly, so when the meat heats up, it keeps going even after you've removed the heat. Eventually it figures out what's going and slows down, and that's when the meat reaches its peak temperature then cools down. You want to let it cook all the way, so that's the first reason to let the meat rest.

The second reason is not so straightforward. Meat, aside from being metaphorically elephantine, is composed of lots of tightly woven strands of proteins and the like. At cold temperatures, these are very strong, so they're not likely to move or break. However, when you cook them, they lose a lot of their structural integrity. They stretch out, they become brittle and easy to break. Also, the collagen, which is connective tissue that will be woven more or less through the strands depending on the type of meat, goes from being a solid to a liquid.

When the meat cools back down again, the collagen starts firming up, and the various strands start regaining some, but not all, of their strength back. If you cut too soon, and with too dull a knife, you will break the already loosened strands, and the liquids will pour out of the meat easily. If you wait for the strands to gain back some strength, the various strands will be able to withstand some of the damage you're inflicting, and thus you'll retain a lot more liquid.

How long to rest? Well, I've been told by a chef that she rests her meats 8 minutes per pound, and she teaches others to do the same. Harold McGee mentioned in On Food and Cooking that a chef told him to rest for as long as you cooked the meat. These are probably not bad suggestions, but you may want to eat sometime before midnight, so you'll want to wait at least 8-10 minutes for something small like a steak and 20 minutes for something like a roast. If you already have your probe thermometer in, go ahead and cool it to 120°F.

These times and temperatures may vary by type and cut of meat (I'd be surprised if it didn't), but I haven't found a good source exploring the cooling process nearly as well as I've found sources exploring the heating process, so I'm not sure what those differences would be. Still, we're not talking about your entire dish being ruined, we're only trying to preserve as much moisture as possible. Use the guidelines above. If you try something on the low-end of the resting time, and you see a bunch of juice running out of your meat, you probably need to rest it longer. On the other hand, if you bit into it and it's juicy and tasty, then you're fine. The important thing is to understand what's happening so you can use your judgement properly.

posted in: Blogs, food geek, temperature, meat, heat, kittens, juices, kitten, collagen, elephants, elephant
Comments (3)

TheFoodGeek writes: jacjem, I would suggest not letting the meat rest so long. Don't worry about the foil tent, but the goal is to get the meat to around 120°F. If it drops below that, you've rested too long. If you don't like the temperature of meat even at 120, you can cut the resting shorter even than that, but it will be a balance between temperature and juiciness.

SheSavorsSeattle, I am pleased to have been of assistance. And yes, I understand the difficulty of not writing about the subject as a double entendre. I just figured I'd power through and it should be okay. Posted: 9:13 am on January 25th

jacjem writes: It's been difficult for me to let the meats rest and still have a hot or very warm serving at the table. Foil tenting has not worked for me and I don't have a heat lamp in the kitchen. A very warm plate helps a little, but I'm still often disappointed with the meats serving temp.
jacjem Posted: 12:31 am on January 16th

SheSavorsSeattle writes: My boyfriend thinks I'm nuts when I let the meat rest (no, this isn't meant to be funny or sexual, but there's a good joke in there somewhere) I've always been in the habit of letting meat rest based on advice from my mom, the food network and now finally explained on! I'm bookmarking this post so he can read this and understand there's a reason to let your meat rest (even tho he'll claim I asked the foodgeek to write this in my defense (his folly). Thank you for the "why" your meat should rest before eating. Posted: 4:08 pm on January 14th

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