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Moist Heat Makes the Most of Your Meat

Generally, the only food you ever want to fully cook at a rolling boil is pasta. But that doesn't mean cooking in hot liquid is off limits. On the contrary: Moist-heat cooking uses liquid to conduct heat and is a simple method that can put delicious and wholesome meals on your table with little to no fuss.

Types of Moist-Heat Cooking

There are several ways to use liquid as your primary means of preparation. Most depend on two main factors: The size of the piece of meat you're cooking and how tough it is.

Braising is used to prepare meat and poultry. It typically starts with browning the protein (although it doesn't have to). Liquid is added, followed by vegetables and herbs to season it. The braise (also referred to as stew or ragout) is covered and cooked slowly over low heat.

Stewing is similar to braising. Recipes relying on this technique typically require greater quantities of liquid.

Poaching, Boiling and Simmering are methods of cooking meat, poultry or fish completely covered by the liquid. The liquid may have started at a boil but can be maintained at a low bubble to moderate cooking temperature.

Steaming has long been known as a healthy cooking method because it can retain more of a food's nutrients during the cooking process than many other methods. A bamboo or metal steamer keeps food above water simmering at the bottom of a pot, and your ingredients cook without being submerged.

Regardless of your chosen method, meat plus liquid and some low, steady heat can render a tasty meal every time.

The Moist-Heat Technique: Braising Tough Cuts

A family meal in the 1950s often centered on recipes calling for larger cuts of meat. With advances in technology, more choices became available to us, including the popular boneless, skinless options that make everyday cooking easier.

While boneless and skinless cuts lighten your load in the kitchen, others, like roasts and fibrous stew meats, have been overlooked. People assume it's hard to make a tougher, or even bone-in, cut tender.

Enter braising. Few cooking methods so effectively allow the rich flavors of the connective tissue and collagen found in tougher cuts of meat to be released. As a bonus, these cuts tend to be cheaper, saving you money on your grocery bill.

The key is to cook these cuts at a temp that turns the muscle's connective tissue into gelatin. Generally, meats must be cooked to 160° to break down the tissue, but at 140°, those same fibers start losing their juices. How do we keep things moist? By braising slowly, to what we often call "fork tender."

Since braising is likely your first go-to moist-heat method, here's a 1-2-3 tutorial on doing it right:

  • Brown the meat and vegetables first before adding your liquid of choice. Browning is optional but done quickly in a very hot pan. This step adds extra flavor that can't be replicated.
  • Add your liquid (water, wine, stock or a combination thereof) to the same pan as your ingredients and bring it to a boil. The recipe should call for enough liquid to come about halfway up the sides of your meat and vegetables.
  • Braise the ingredients by covering the pan and lowering the heat, letting everything simmer until tender. Or, if you prefer, place the entire pan in the oven (as long as its ovenproof) and bake it at a low, constant temperature, typically around 225°.

Think Small, Too

Big cuts of meat aren't the only things that become tastier when cooked with moist heat and liquid: Flat, tender pieces like chicken breasts, fish filets and chops of any kind cook up deliciously thanks to liquid's oh-so-even transmission of heat. The process—called poaching—follows steps similar to the braising ones outlined above. Complete steps 1 and 2 as directed. For step 3, poach the poultry, meat or fish that you're cooking in the boiling liquid.

When poaching smaller pieces, your overall cooking time may be only a few minutes (refer to your recipe). But after just a few seconds, it's a good idea to add some cooler liquid to the pan to lower the temp just a little. This ensures that what you're making will have longer to cook through without cooking too fast on the outside while remaining undercooked in the middle.

A suggested temp for the poaching liquid is about 180°.

General Moist-Heat Cooking Tips & Tricks

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  • When braising stews or main courses like pot roast or short ribs, heavy-sided cooking vessels like those made of cast iron work best because they retain heat and allow dishes to cook evenly.
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  • Even when dieting, you still want great-tasting food. So, try a moist-heat method for cooking poultry or fish in flavorful broth. It's a great way to cut calories, and when served with steamed or blanched vegetables or even a crunchy, fresh, raw salad, you've got an elegant alternative to boring grilled protein.
  • -
  • Even when dieting, you still want great-tasting food. So, try a moist-heat method for cooking poultry or fish in flavorful broth. It's a great way to cut calories, and when served with steamed or blanched vegetables or even a crunchy, fresh, raw salad, you've got an elegant alternative to boring grilled protein.