The keys to cooking meats well are attentiveness and careful temperature control. Meats can overcook and dry out in minutes.
Don't rely on recipe cooking times or simple formulas to guarantee a good result. Recipes can't account for significant changes in cooking time caused by small variations in meat thickness, temperature, and the temperature of grills and ovens and pans.
Bring most meats to room temperature or even warmer before cooking. This reduces cooking times and the usual surface overcooking while the inside heats through. But cook thin cuts directly from the refrigerator, to give the surface time to brown.
Cook meats in large pieces and on the bone to retain the most moisture and flavor. The more meat is cut up, the more surfaces it has through which juices will get squeezed out.
Cook most meats in two stages. An initial dose of very high heat kills surface bacteria and browns and flavors the meat surface. A finishing period of low, carefully controlled heat cooks the meat through slowly and gently while preserving its moistness and tenderness. Keep the finishing cook-through as close as possible to the final inner temperature you want.
Check meat doneness early and often. If you're using a thermometer, check its accuracy beforehand.
When cooking at high temperatures, stop when meat is still slightly underdone, by 5 to 10°F / 3 to 5°C for steaks and chops, 15 to 20°F / 7 to 10°C for large roasts. The hot surface will continue to heat the interior for some time.
To cook tender cuts so that they're juicy, heat them to rare or medium rare, an inner temperature between 125 and 140°F / 52 and 60°C. Loin roasts, most steaks and chops, poultry breasts, including duck and squab, and ground meats are tender cuts. Chicken and turkey breasts are less juicy but more pleasing at slightly higher temperatures, around 150°F/65°C.
To cook tough cuts relatively quickly, so that they're tender but dry and fibrous, heat them to an inner temperature of 180 to 200°F / 80 to 93°C. This common method will dissolve connective tissue into gelatin and produce tender meat in 2 to 12 hours, depending on the temperature and the cut. It works best with cuts rich in gelatin and fat, which can lend moistness to the dry meat fibers. These include pork shoulders, chuck roasts, and pork and beef cheeks.
To cook tough cuts so that they're tender and their fibers retain some juiciness, heat them to an internal temperature of 140 to 160°F / 60 to 70°C. This modern method will require cooking for 12 to 24 hours or more to dissolve connective tissue into gelatin and produce tender meat.
Cook ground meats, pâtés and terrines, and fresh sausages in the same manner as tender meats, briefly and moderately to retain juiciness. To make sure bacteria are killed throughout fresh sausages, poach them to an internal temperature of 140°F/60°C, hold that temperature for 30 minutes, then cool them briefly and flavor their surface quickly on the high heat of the grill or frying pan. Cooking isn't necessary for cured or precooked sausages, or for prepared pâtés or terrines.
KEYS TO GOOD COOKING provides simple statements of fact and advice, along with brief explanations that help cooks understand why, and apply that understanding to other situations. Not a cookbook, Keys to Good Cooking is, simply put, a book about how to cook well.
Excerpted from Keys to Good Cooking by Harold McGee Copyright © 2010 by Harold McGee. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.