Mythbusting: Letting Meat Come To Room Temp
A lot of recipes, especially those for big roasts, say that you should take the meat out of the fridge an hour or two before cooking and "let it come up to room temp."
Here's the theory: Say you want a steak to be served medium rare, about 130°F. If your fridge is 38°F, then the meat must climb 92°F. But if it is room temp (72°F), then it need to climb only 58°F. It will cook faster and there will be less overcooked meat just below the surface.
Here's a picture of a page from a cookbook by Wolfgang Puck, a famous TV chef with many restaurants. He says a big ol' roast should come to room temp in about an hour.
I tried it with a a 0.75" steak and a really accurate thermocouple. It took just more than an hour for the center to come to room temp. A 1.5" steak took just over two hours for the center to come to room temp. A 4.5 pound pork shoulder 3.5" thick took, are you ready for this, 10 hours! After two hours it was only 49°F, and after four hours it was only 56°F in the center. Just a bit longer than Chef Puck thinks. Worse, after five hours it began to smell bad.
Why so long? Remember, meat is 70 to 75% water, and most of it is trapped in cell fibers. This makes it a great insulator. So even though the center of a pork butt is only 1.75" from the surface, it takes 10 hours for the 72°F heat to penetrate. A mere 15 minutes in the oven at 225 to 325°F will warm the meat as much as an hour at a room temp of 72°F.
Now I know that, in theory, all contamination on whole muscle meats like steaks and roasts will be on the surface and not deep into the meat. I understand that within a minute on a hot grill all of them will be dead. But I also know that the population can double in 20 minutes. So the idea of leaving a steak at room temp for more than 30 minutes or so gives me the creeps. But more important, over extended periods of time, putrifaction and rancidity set in, and the flavor profile changes and the meat starts to smell bad.
And it should go without saying, never leave burgers or ground meat at room temp for more than a few minutes. Ground meats have can be contaminated on the inside while whole muscle meats are far more likely to be contaminated on the outside only. For more on the subject, read my article on food safety.
A better way
Here's a technique that works better for really thick steaks: Place the meat in a zipper bag or wrap tightly with plastic wrap. Squeeze out as much air as you can. Put it in a pot of warm water, not hot, and leave it there for about 30 minutes. You will warm the meat significantly, giving it a head start on cooking, sort of like a poor man's sous vide.
It works because water conducts more energy than air. It warms the bag quickly and the bag warms the meat quickly.
This page was revised 6/27/2012
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