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Cooking is an act of love, towards ourselves and others. However, it is often a matter of compromise. The most troublesome and frequently encountered decision regards the cooking of proteins, meat in particular. How often have we been forced to choose between flavour and tenderness? To sum the problem up in a few words, a roast that is cooked at length, in the interests of flavour, risks turning into a piece of dry meat. On the contrary, meat that is cooked rapidly to ensure tenderness tends to be less of a delight for the palate.
Cooking meat with the oven and a pan
This is why chefs have come up with the double cooking technique, which may be applied to numerous dishes. In brief, first the food is cooked rapidly at a high temperature in a frying pan and then finished off in the oven. It has now become a very common technique which ensures excellent results but, today, we will learn that cooking is not like a mathematical multiplication: if we invert the factors, the result will not be the same, quite different in fact. If we put our meat in the oven first, and then in the pan, we will obtain a much better result.
How to cook beef fillet
To illustrate the concept more effectively, let’s consider a splendid beef fillet. I mean a nice thick, generously cut fillet steak. We are used to searing it in a pan, which consists in placing the cold fillet steak, taken straight from the fridge at a temperature of approximately 45°C, onto a surface of around 200°C. It will take at least a couple of minutes before the outer surface of the fillet steak approaches 150°C, the temperature necessary to bring about the Maillard reaction, or “browning” of the meat. Since the piece of meat has two sides, we therefore need at least four minutes. In such conditions, the meat tends to release its moisture and that sublime fillet steak risks losing its noblest qualities.
Meat in the oven first
The most commonly used trick to speed up the process and keep the meat tasty and tender is to pour some fat in the pan to increase the temperature of the cooking surface but, in this case, the choice of an oil with a high smoke point is extremely important. Not to mention the risk of burning the meat. It is far preferable, therefore, to start from another premise: if the meat temperature takes too long to rise from 5 to 150°C when it comes into contact with the pan, why not raise the starting temperature of the meat itself? Hence, the solution: put it in the oven beforehand. Yes, I realize this goes against the instructions provided by most cookery books, or whatever you see being done on TV, but this apparently irresponsible action is backed up by a scientific theory. Besides, by doing so, we achieve two more results. First of all, the heat of the oven eliminates some of the moisture and facilitates the Maillard reaction in the pan. In the second place, the moderate heat of the oven activates meat cathepsins, the enzymes responsible for making it tender.
That’s the theory explained, now for the practice, bearing in mind that it is not possible to establish exact timing and quantities: these will depend on the meat, its thickness, the type of oven and heaps of other parameters. However, the meat has to be placed in an oven preheated to around 180°C for a few minutes. Then, it goes straight into a hot pan, where one minute each side should be sufficient. Once cooked, the meat must obviously be wrapped in a sheet of tinfoil and left to rest for fourfive minutes. Finally, a sprinkle of salt and a drizzle of oil, but this will come as no surprise, will it? Thanks to this “inverted” process, you fillet will once more be the protagonist of your dinner parties.