Let’s Talk Food: Steaks at room temperature or not?

Iabsolutely love any food articles researched and written by Kenji Lopez-Alt. His mind is similar to that of my son Dean’s regarding the science of cooking.

Kenji stuck a temperature probe into the center of a thick-cut strip steak right out of the refrigerator and monitored it as the steak warmed up. After 20 minutes, the temperature rose to less than 2 degrees. In fact, even after two full hours, the temperature had barely risen by 10 degrees — a little more than 10 percent of the way toward the final serving temperature of 130 degrees.

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This next bit helps if you think of the energy coming out of the burner and the energy stored in your re-heated skillet or grill as a large reservoir of water. There are three different buckets you are pouring that water into as you cook the steak. The first bucket is the temperature bucket: the heat energy required to raise the temperature of the meat. The second is the evaporation bucket: the energy required to evaporate surface moisture from the steak. The third bucket is the browning bucket: the energy that goes into triggering the Maillard browning reactions.

On the surface of the steak, those buckets are filled sequentially. Until the temperature rises to 212 degrees, no evaporation occurs, and until most of the surface moisture has evaporated, very little browning occurs.

Now here’s the thing.

Of those first two buckets — temperature and evaporation — evaporation is by far the larger. It requires vastly more energy to evaporate water than it does to heat it up. In fact, even if your refrigerator is set at a temperature just above freezing, it still requires 50 times more energy to evaporate the moisture on the surface of the steak than it does to raise its temperature all the way from freezing to boiling.

All of this is to say the starting temperature of your steak has a negligible impact on how it cooks. What really matters is how dry the steak is. Simply blotting your steak with paper towels before searing it will improve it far better than any amount of room temperature resting will. Similarly, salting the steak about 40 minutes in advance — long enough to let salt draw out liquid and then for that liquid to be re-absorbed leaving a dryer surface — will also improve it.

You want a steak with the brownest surface and juiciest interior ever?

Place the raw steak on a rack set on a baking sheet and place it uncovered in the refrigerator for a couple of nights. The surface will form a very dry skin that subsequently browns in record time. Ironically, the dryer your meat is to start, the more moist it will be at the end. After browning, all you have to do is finish it off in a moderate oven.

Wolfgang Puck, a famous TV chef, says this in his cookbook: “Let the roast come to room temperature before roasting. This should take about an hour.”

I tried it with a 3/4-inch steak and a really accurate thermocouple. It took just more than an hour for the center to come to room temperature. A 4 1/2-pound pork shoulder 3 1/3 inches thick took, are you ready for this, 10 hours! After two hours it was only 49 degrees in the center, and after four hours it was only 56 degrees. Just a bit longer than Puck thinks.

Worse, after five hours it began to smell funny. Why so long? Remember, meat is about 75 percent water, and most of it is trapped in cell fibers. This make it a great insulator. So even though the center of a pork butt is only 1 3/4 inches from the surface, it takes 10 hours for the 72-degree heat to penetrate. A mere 30 minutes in the oven at 225-325 degrees will warm the meat as much as an hour at room temperature of 72 degrees.

Now I know that, in theory, all contamination on whole muscle meats such as steaks and roasts will be on the surface and not deep into the meat. I understand that within minutes on a hot grill all of them will be dead. But I also know the population can double in 20 minutes at room temperature. So the idea of leaving a steak at room temperature for more than 30 minutes or so gives me the creeps, especially if there are cracks and pits where microbes can hide. Especially knowing that some processors use blade tenderizers, tiny knives that cut into the muscle to soften it, but in the process push surface contamination deep into the center. This is a practice that should be banned.

However, Bon Appetit has a different opinion and states leaving meat out to sit at room temperature before cooking won’t kill you, but instead will give you a juicier, more evenly cooked steak.

This is especially true for thick cuts or even a whole chicken for roasting.

The basic logic is, “If you’re trying to cook the inside of a piece of meat to a particular internal temperature, like 135 degrees for pork or 160 degrees for poultry, the center will come up to temperature faster if it starts at a higher temperature.

If a tempered turkey is roasting in a 325-degree oven, the thickest part of the breast will hit 160 degrees before the meat closer to the surface has had a great a change to overcook. It means more even cooking all the way through, and less time to lose moisture while cooking it juicier.”

But Bon Appetit wants it made clear that handling raw meats takes smart food safety practices and you shouldn’t go crazy and leave meats out overnight or out in the sun for hours. The prevention of food-borne illness is of upmost importance.

So given the two schools of thought, you need to make the decision: allow the steak to sit at room temperature for 30 minutes or not?

Foodie bites

The Hawaii Community College Culinary Arts program is open for your business today through Friday. The Cafeteria is open 10:15 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Call 934-2559 for take-out orders, to ask what the dessert of the day is and to ask whether poke bowls and poke bombs are available.

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The Bamboo Hale also is open. This week, Feb. 20-22, the Asian standard menu and the cuisine of Thailand will be featured. Call 934-2591 for reservations.

Email Audrey Wilson at audreywilson808@gmail.com.

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