Do you want to learn how to cook any type of protein (beef, pork, chicken, and fish) like a pro, but aren’t sure where to start? Here are six strategies you can confidently take with you into the kitchen or out on the grill from a licensed culinary arts educator.
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Have you found yourself interested in wanting to learn how to slow roast salmon, make a grilled flank steak, cook a rack of lamb, or make a whole chicken all on your own? If you’re looking to learn, I am here to help.
As a culinary arts teacher, recipe developer, and full time food blogger, I often get asked a handful of the same questions over and over again from readers, Instagram followers, and students alike. If you haven’t spent a lot of time cooking in the kitchen, working with different proteins or cuts of meat, it can often feel really intimidating to just jump in and get started.
I wanted to break down six categories in which you can gain some basic knowledge for proper cooking methods, food safety tips, and overall cooking techniques to take with you both into the kitchen and out to the grill. While you may not know everything yet, I hope this is a good place to start building your confidence and get you to create some incredible dishes all on your own.
1: Food Safety
The first thing I always taught my students was the basics of food safety. I’ve successfully certified hundreds of students in becoming Food Safety Managers in my time as a teacher and will give you a brief overview of things you need to know as a home cook.
When working with different types of raw meat (beef, pork, poultry, and seafoods) you need to make note of how to properly prepare and cook meat to avoid the spread of foodborne illness. These are some basic things to always note when meal prepping :
- Always wash hands before and after touching raw meat or seafood. You should be a pro now that you’ve survived all of 2020.
- Wear gloves when handling raw meat (especially ground beef or chicken) to help reduce transmission of bacteria or viruses. No gloves? Use tongs or just wash your hands when needed with hot, soapy water.
- Avoid preparing meat on wooden cutting boards (bacteria can find its way into the crevices of the wood). I like a plastic cutting board I can pop in the dishwasher.
- Use sharp knives! You’re less likely to cut yourself when trimming or preparing meat if the knife needs very little pressure to slice through fat, cartilage, or fish skin for example.
- Keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot. Bacteria grows the easiest between 70 F. and 135 F. That being said you still want to keep cold foods below 40 F and hot foods over 135 F when possible.
- Stop defrosting frozen meat on your counter! Given the info I just wrote above, the average American home is probably around 70 F. Leaving food out for several hours to thaw promotes bacteria. Use your microwave to quickly defrost or run under cool water. The safest method however, is to thaw in the fridge a few days in advance.
2: Checking The Temperature
Given that food safety is always your first concern, knowing how to cook your food to a safe internal temperature is important. Checking temperature also aids in taking the guess work out of knowing when your steak is going from medium rare to well done!
How do I know when meat is safely cooked? Use this minimum internal temperature chart listed by the FDA as a general guideline for cooking proteins:
145 F – Seafood, shellfish (shrimp, oysters, clams, etc.), any whole cut of meat or pork (pork loins, steaks, hams, chops, roasts, etc.).
165 F – Anything ground (beef, pork sausage, chicken, etc.), Leftovers you’re reheating, casseroles, any poultry (chicken, turkey, duck)
Pro Tip: While these are the safety guidelines from the FDA, it is also important to note that many people cook beef cuts like steak for example, well under the recommended 145 F. temperature (medium rare is usually under 135 F.). Additionally, when I BBQ or cook wings, I enjoy reaching higher temperatures for cooking technique purposes. This is just good base knowledge to help you make a judgment call.
Always check the temperature by finding the thickest part in the center of any protein you are preparing for accuracy. If you measure multiple times, insert the thermometer in a slightly different spot too.
3: Using The Right Tools
What’s the best way to properly measure the internal temp? With a meat thermometer of course! Instant read thermometers work the best in my opinion and having one that will accurately read the thickest part of a chicken thigh, a whole turkey, or a ribeye is very valuable.
Here are my favorite thermometer types:
Other beneficial tools for searing , roasting and grilling typically include items like:
(These are the most common tools I mention in multiple recipes. I’ve linked my exact brands I love and have in my kitchen.)
- Cast Iron Pan
- Kitchen Shears
- A Reliable Chef’s Knife
- Oven Mitts
- Baking Sheets
- Cooling Racks (for elevating food and for fat rendering)
- Parchment Paper / Aluminum Foil
4: Removing Moisture
When it comes to actually cooking any form of protein, your goal is (usually) to get the meat to brown. That delicious brown sear is what helps give our food flavor! Have you ever cooked a steak or pork chop or even ground beef, and found it to come out looking gray and without those pretty sear marks? Well, that’s typically because of moisture.
I’ve mentioned moisture removal so many times in various recipe posts (like how to reverse sear a steak or how to make crispy chicken wings), but let’s break down how to properly brown and sear our meat.
Browning actually is from the break down of natural amino acids in the proteins found in meat. As it breaks down, the meat changes and caramelizes. We call this reaction the Maillard Reaction.
Browning cannot occur however, if you have too much moisture on the surface of your meat (always pat your meat very dry before cooking) and if you cook at too low of a temperature. Steaks sear at a high heat temperature for example, that’s above 550 F.
5: How Fat Equals Flavor
Have you ever heard the saying, fat equals flavor? Well it does, 100%. Different types of protein cuts have different levels of fat present. Fish and seafood are leaner meats, while beef and pork are typically higher in saturated fat.
Understanding how to render fat (like getting bacon crispy or making the chicken skin crunch when you roast it), or how to avoid drying your foods out while cooking is a tough balance to learn. You can also add fats like butter or olive oil to your leaner proteins if desired to help add more flavor.
So what does this all mean? It means you will have to learn and identify the right cooking methods using direct or indirect cooking for various protein types and how to adjust for less or more fat.
6: When To Cook Directly or Indirectly
The final basic strategy to take away from today, is knowing when to cook direct or indirect. All proteins can be cooked using indirect heat (this is like smoking on your grill or baking in your oven). I’d also say, most meats can be cooked using direct heat as well (frying in a pan or searing over a flame on the grill). Many times, I use a combination of both methods (like I do here with these Greek Chicken Kebabs and Butter Chicken Kebabs).
A good rule of thumb is that the leaner the meat cut, the slower you generally want to cook it. This helps it brown, while still breaking down the internal muscle and cartilage without loosing too much of the natural juice and flavor.
Use direct heat for foods like: Basic grilled chicken, searing a flank steak, searing fish skin or rendering fat quickly.
Feeling confident yet? I hope this was a help guide to get you started on your cooking journey!
Interested in diving more into BBQ? Get this guide for 10 Recipes Every BBQ Lover Should Master as well.