'Test Kitchen': How To Buy The Safest Meat And Make The Juiciest Steaks
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We've got a great show today for people who eat meat and poultry. Sorry, vegetarians and vegans, but at least we have a good potato recipe coming up a little later. The new book, "The Cook's Illustrated Meat Book," is about how to shop for, store, season and cook meat and poultry and how to prevent contaminating your kitchen with bacteria from the raw meat. My guests are Jack Bishop and Bridget Lancaster who have joined us before with great cooking ideas. Bishop is the editorial director of "America's Test Kitchen" and edited the new meat cookbook. Lancaster is executive food editor of the "Test Kitchen" and contributed to the book.
Bridget Lancaster, Jack Bishop, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's always a treat to have you on the show. So let's start with shopping for meat. If you want to avoid meat from animals that were fed with antibiotics, what should you look for on the label?
JACK BISHOP: Terry, the thing you really want to look for is the USDA organic seal. A lot of other terms may be on the label including the term natural, but those aren't regulated by the government. So you really want to look for that organic seal, which indicates that you're getting a product that - there's no hormones, no antibiotics, no pesticides in the feed. You know, the farming practices are better farming practices, so you really want to look for that seal.
GROSS: So if it says natural, since natural isn't regulated by the FDA, does it necessarily mean anything?
BISHOP: Natural just means no additives, and if you're buying a piece of meat, you know, they haven't added anything to the piece of meat. It doesn't really say anything about the way the animal was raised, which is I think what most people are concerned about. So, you know, in most cases, that doesn't really mean very much when you're shopping for chicken or beef or pork.
GROSS: When you're shopping for beef, some cows are fed with grass, some cows are fed with grains. Are you better off shopping for grass for meat from grass-fed cows?
BISHOP: Well, this is kind of interesting because I think most people would say, that grass-fed certainly commands a higher price. You see it on a lot of restaurant menus. It's supposed to have a bit more gamy flavor, kind of more old-fashioned beef flavor, which is what we were thinking when we did a taste test in the kitchen. And we actually cooked a number of different cuts that were both grain-fed and grass-fed and then did a blind taste test. And the reality is we had a hard time telling the difference. There may be reasons that you want to have grass-fed because you like the way that, you know - the farming practices in terms of the way they're using the land and grazing, but the differences there were much more sort of minor than you would think, given the hype about grass-fed beef.
GROSS: I know you always hear that cows were designed to eat grass and chew their cud as opposed to grains, which their digestive systems aren't really designed to digest.
BISHOP: Yeah, I like to think that, you know, if I were a cow, I'd rather be out on a free range eating grass...
BISHOP: ...Than in a pen eating grain, which that may be the reason to be getting the grass-fed. But, you know, if you really don't know what you're eating in a side-by-side taste test, it's really, pretty subtle and most people are not going to be able to tell the difference.
GROSS: I got to ask, since "America's Test Kitchen" recently came out with a gluten-free cookbook, if you're eating an animal that was fed grains and there were glutinous grains, is the animal's meat gluten-free?
BISHOP: The meat is still gluten-free.
BISHOP: Yes, yes.
GROSS: ...Thank you for settling that.
GROSS: Have you been asked that before?
BISHOP: No, that's the first time, Terry. Good question.
BRIDGET LANCASTER: But that was a great question.
GROSS: But you're confident that that's the right answer?
BISHOP: Yeah, because gluten is a protein that's in flour, and there's no gluten in, you know, meat protein. And so, you know, the only issue would be some sort of cross-contamination issue in the sense that, you know, the meat has somehow been dusted with grain in some way. But, you know, that's not really an issue given how far removed the meat at the supermarket is from, you know, the grain at the farm.
GROSS: OK, let's continue with labeling of meat. If it says free-range, what does that actually translate to?
LANCASTER: Oh, free-range chickens. Well, the - the whole idea is that the chickens are allowed to go and run free out (laughter) in the - graze out in the pasture. But really free-range can be a little bit - a bit of a misnomer. Often they're inside free-range, so they don't have outside access. So really when you see free-range or even pasture-raised, that doesn't necessarily mean that the hens and the chickens are out roaming free and having a party outside they're - they're often inside. So unless you visit the chicken farm, you almost don't know how the chickens are being raised.
GROSS: So what do you look for on the labels when you're buying chicken?
LANCASTER: I still look for pasture-raised or free-range. There are some companies that are known to treat their chickens very well. Bell & Evans is one. And just knowing what to look for, of course you could always ask the butcher behind the counter. I know that some supermarkets will have literature now on the local farms that they sell the meat from. So that's always a good idea.
BISHOP: You know, the problem is even if the animal, the chicken, has access to the free range, you really don't know, were they inside for 99.9 percent of their life or were they outside? I think that whether it's water-chilled or air-chilled is actually a much bigger difference. So after the..
LANCASTER: That's true.
BISHOP: ...After the chicken has been plucked, in the processing, they need to chill the bird. And they can either by do it by putting in a very cold water or put it in a very cold, refrigerated area. And if they do it in the water, the bird picks up a lot of water weight, 5 to 10 percent additional water weight. And so in addition to paying for a lot of water, which doesn't seem like a very good deal, that water kind of washes out the flavorants - it's very bland. And so one of the things that we recommend at the test kitchen is that you look for an air-chilled bird rather than a water-chilled. And if you read the labels carefully, you can see those words on there.
GROSS: OK, and also getting back to beef for a second, you - you suggest not buying select beef, but choosing choice or prime. What do those labels even mean?
LANCASTER: Well, choice, prime, select and then there are a few down the food chain that usually aren't sold in supermarkets - it's basically grading the beef. So it's the amount of fat, the amount of marbling, the intramuscular tissue, and that's really important because you want - especially cuts of beef, pork even, you want often to have that intramuscular fat as it cooks. The meat will stay nice and moist, and it also helps tenderize it because it contains a lot of gelatin or it contains a lot of collagen that converts to gelatin, which is what makes that meat so nice and tender. So you'll end up with a much more tender cut of beef with prime or with choice than you will with select.
GROSS: You say once you've chosen your meat or your chicken and you bring it home, just assume that all meat is contaminated with bacteria. Why is that a safe assumption to make?
BISHOP: Well, the truth is, it probably is. I mean, if you're talking about poultry, the odds are very high. Even with, you know, beef and pork, they're reasonably high. And so I think the idea's best practices at home. And so those best practices are designed to kill those pathogens to make the protein safe to eat.
And so, you know, it's very different - first of all - whether you're talking about poultry versus beef or pork. Poultry really needs to be cooked thoroughly, you know. Nobody wants to eat medium-rare chicken. It isn't very palatable, and it's really not very safe. And so you're really cooking it thoroughly to at least a temperature of 160 degrees.
With meat - beef, pork, lamb - there's really two approaches. If you're dealing with whole-cut - so a steak or roast - any bacteria is going to be the exterior, not in the interior. And so just as long as you brown the exterior or the exterior gets hot - either in the oven, on the grill, in a pan - you're really taking care of killing any bacteria that happened to be in the meat 'cause it's not going to be deep in the tissues.
Ground meat is the exception. Not only is ground meat coming from multiple animals, so there's an increased chance of a problem, any problem is in every single bit of that ground meat. It's not just obviously in the exterior. So that's why a lot of the food safety experts recommend that you cook ground meat until it's well-done and that if you want to be absolutely safe when you're making something like a burger, it should be cooked to 160 degrees. And you shouldn't be eating medium-rare or rare burgers.
GROSS: Also, you just kind of, like, sanitize your kitchen after you're done preparing raw meat and chicken. Just tell us about some of the precautions you take. You say don't rinse the chicken because you are just going to spread bacteria all over the sink, and it's going to splatter.
LANCASTER: Isn't that something? My whole life, I was taught always rinse the chicken before you cook it. As it turns out, when you rinse the chicken, the bacteria goes into the sink. You touch the faucet. You touch the handles. It might splash onto the counter next to it. So it - really, we found that it's much safer to not rinse the chicken. Of course, you want to cook it very well.
But the other thing is that after you have cooked - prepared your meat, your chicken - you do want to go back to your faucet and your sink and, of course, your countertops, your cutting board, and you really want to rinse them down with hot, soapy water. And then just a plain, old bleach mixture - it's a quart of water and a tablespoon of bleach - will kill just about anything. And a lot of people like to use plastic cutting boards for the very reason that they can go into the dishwasher. And we found that worked really well. But you can certainly still use wood to prepare meat or chicken. Again, you just need to sanitize with bleach. And you need to sanitize it with hot, soapy water.
GROSS: You know, I eat out a lot at, like, diners and delis. And how do I survive? (Laughter) I mean, I don't think - honestly, I don't see them chasing around the kitchen with, like, bleach and, you know, wearing hazmat suits and everything.
BISHOP: You know, we're tougher than we think we are, Terry. And I think when you're at home, obviously you see the consequences of poor sanitation very clearly. You know, when you get sick when you eat out, it's sometimes not really clear where that happened. And the person who made the mistake in the kitchen doesn't necessarily see the consequences. But I think, you know, Bridget and I do a lot of cooking for our family and our friends. And let me tell you, there is nothing worse than throwing a dinner party or making dinner on Tuesday night and somebody gets sick because you didn't follow good sanitation rules. So, you know, in some ways you want to be even more diligent when it's your responsibility and you're cooking at home.
GROSS: So let's get to actually cooking. First of all, one of the myths you try to destroy in the book is that searing seals in the juices. Apparently, that's not true. Why do people think it's true, but it's actually not?
LANCASTER: Well, I think people think it's true because when you're searing meat, you're kind of tightening the exteriors. So if you think of it that way, it's almost - people have often thought, and I thought originally - that it was trapping that juice inside. But actually, the opposite is happening. Any time that you introduce poultry or meat to really high heat - whether it's a very hot oven or right on the stovetop - that contraction of the meat fibers are squeezing out liquid. So the higher the heat, the faster this happens. So it actually - in theory and in practice - does do the very opposite. It will - if you sear something over high heat, you'll have a much drier piece of meat or poultry than if you cook it at a more moderate temperature.
GROSS: So give us an example of a recipe in which you do pan sear the meat and tell us how you would do it.
LANCASTER: Well, one of my favorite recipes from this cookbook is It's Our Thick Cut Steaks, which are pan seared. And traditionally, the recipe would say something like sear the steaks over high heat and then finish in a moderate oven - a moderate oven's about 300, 325, even 350. And that's how we've traditionally done steaks in the past.
But we looked at what we were saying, that searing meat, especially first, robs the meat of juices. But what we did was we turned things around. So we start the steaks - and they have to be really thick steaks for this to work. We start them in a pretty low oven - 275 - until they reach about 90, 95 degrees. Of course, they're not done at that point. But during the time in the oven, the exterior of the steaks get nice and dry. So that when we go to finally sear them on the stovetop over really, really high heat - just a couple minutes a side - then they're really dry. They have a nice crisp crust on the outside.
Plus if you've seared a steak or a pork chop - anything like that - you'll often get this band of overcooked meat right around the exterior of the meat before the interior is cooked to your preferred doneness. So this completely eliminates it. It brings the entire steak up to a certain temperature - 90 to 95 degrees - and then it sears the steak. We sear the stake on the stovetop to get that really good crust. So the steak is not having to spend as much time on the stovetop getting really, really tight, squeezing out meat. And we found a huge difference between this method and the traditional method and the amount of juices that were left in steaks. And especially these days, if you are buying premium steak, you want to make sure that you cook it to perfection because beef is really expensive these days.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Jack Bishop, the editorial director of "America's Test Kitchen" and Bridget Lancaster, who's the "Test Kitchen's" executive food editor. They have a new cookbook which is called "Cook's Meat Book." And that's from Cook's Country. Let's take a short break. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're talking about cooking meat and poultry. I have two guests from "America's Test Kitchen." Jack Bishop is the editorial director. Bridget Lancaster is the executive food editor. And they have a new book which is called "Cook's Illustrated Meat Book." What is the best way to prepare meat for freezing?
BISHOP: Well, the key is to make sure that first of all the meat is dry before you freeze it. So, you know, if you're taking it out of the package and it's got all those juices, you want to pat it dry because if you leave all that moisture on the meat, that's going to form large ice crystals, which are going to cause a lot of problems. And those ice crystals can damage the structure of the meat and cause a lot of moisture loss when you go ahead to cook it. So the first thing is to pat it dry. The second thing is you want to seal it really well - double layers of plastic and then in foil, is the recommended practice in the "Test Kitchen." And then you want to put the individual pieces...
GROSS: Wait, by plastic do you mean, like, that plastic - that sheer plastic wrap?
BISHOP: Yeah, plastic wrap. And then, once you've got the individual pieces - so you've got an individual piece of chicken breast or steak - you then can slip that into a zipper-lock plastic bag. So you've got two layers of plastic wrap, one layer of aluminum foil and then you've got a sealed, plastic bag with individual pieces so they're not all piling up on each other and sticking to each other. And so that's the best way to freeze meat.
I mean, the issue with frozen meat is that when you go to thaw it, it loses 5 or 10 percent of its natural moisture. And so when you compare a steak that's never been frozen to one that has been frozen, you're going to notice it's a little bit dryer and what you're really trying to do is minimize the damage to the meat or to the chicken so that it doesn't lose more water than it has to during the freezing-thawing process.
GROSS: OK, I think I've confessed to you before that I defrost chicken breast in the microwave because I'm in such a hurry. If I wrapped them in that sheer plastic wrap, it sticks to the chicken and you can't get it off while it's frozen. So...
LANCASTER: So you want to pass.
GROSS: I - I stick it right into the Ziploc bag, and it gets a lot of ice crystals. What can I tell you?
LANCASTER: Well, the other thing that you might want to try is brining before you freeze, especially for lean meat like chicken breast. You brine it in a salt and water solution, and that's going to plump it up a little bit more, add more water into the interior of the meat, so that when you do go to defrost it - it still is going to lose some of its liquid - but it'll have - the net gain is still there. So it'll still be juicier.
GROSS: What's the best way of defrosting beef or chicken so that you're maintaining all the flavor potential, and you're not risking growing a lot of bacteria in the process, and it's not going to take forever?
LANCASTER: Well, we can hit 2 out of 3.
LANCASTER: The best way is in the fridge, unfortunately. So that does take the longest amount of time because the idea is that you don't want your meat to go above 40 degrees - either meat or poultry. Forty degrees is pretty much the beginning of the danger zone, and that's where bacteria starts to form on the meat and on your poultry. So really the best bet is a couple days before you're going to cook it - for a medium-sized piece of meat - the day before, probably for chicken breasts, individual pieces, and pretty much a week before if you're just getting the turkey out of the freezer.
GROSS: So, like, if you're just defrosting meat outside the refrigerator, is it possible that the outside will be warm enough to start developing bacteria even though the inside is still defrosting?
BISHOP: It's not just possible; it's definitely going to occur.
BISHOP: And so I do have a solution for you if you want to avoid the microwave and you are not much for planning.
GROSS: Thank you (laughter).
BISHOP: Now this only applies to small pieces of meat. So a - you know, a chicken breast or an individual steak. It does not apply to a roast or a whole bird. But if you want to put - that's still in its, you know, zipper-lock bag in hot tap water, you know, put it in a bowl, and fill it with hot tap water - we found that actually works. It only takes 30 minutes, so there's not enough time for the bacteria to start growing, as opposed to, you know, if you just throw it out on the counter and it spends eight hours sitting on the counter defrosting. And in about 30 minutes - if you're talking about like a six- or eight-ounce, or even a 10-ounce piece of meat - it's going to be thawed enough that you can go ahead and cook it. And if you need emergency it's a much better way than doing microwave. And you've also solved the whole plastic issue, which - the plastic in the microwave is not so great. There's no reason to, you know, remove the plastic from the frozen meat if you're just putting it in a sealed bag and a bowl of hot water.
GROSS: Jack Bishop and Bridget Lancaster of "America's Test Kitchen" will be back in the second half of the show. Bishop edited the new book "The Cook's Illustrated Meat Book." Lancaster contributed to it. I'm Terry Gross, and this FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about how to prepare meat and poultry with Jack Bishop, the editor of the new book "The Cook's Illustrated Meat Book," and Bridget Lancaster, who contributed to the book. They both work with "America's Test Kitchen," where Jack Bishop is the editorial director and Bridget Lancaster is the executive food editor.
Let's talk about making a good hamburger. Why don't you give us your favorite recipe? And I just want to say about this that you suggest - I remember when my mother was making hamburgers, she'd like, you know, pat them and pet them a lot. And you have this, like, hands-off approach. You like to touch the meat as little as possible. Why?
LANCASTER: Well, every time you touch, grind, move, look at ground meat, it starts to release a protein that's really, really sticky called myosin. So the more that you pack it or damage - basically when you grind beef, you're damaging the meat fibers. So the more you damage it or touch it or pack it, the more of that sticky protein will be formed. And a sticky protein sometimes might not be a bad thing, for instance, for something like a meatloaf where you want a bit more cohesion, but for a burger where you're going to bite into it, you want it to almost just hang together.
So our approach does - well, we start off with grinding our own meat, so we do use the sirloin or steak tips so you get that really beefy flavor and a good amount of fat. But our secret is a little bit of short rib meat, which is much fattier and richer, so these are kind of these ultimate burgers. So we grind that, and you have to be really careful not over grind it, so we cut the beef into small pieces. And then we - instead of using a meat grinder, you actually don't need one at home; you can use your food processor. We grind it in batches, just pulsing the food processor, until the pieces of meat are relatively small. After you grind that in batches, then that's where your hands-off approach really comes into play. You spread the meat out on a rimmed baking sheet, and you want to look for any pieces of fat that really didn't grind well or connective tissue. It's your opportunity to be as choosy about the meat that you're about to eat as you want.
So after that, we kind of bundle the meat into mounds and then very gently pack the meat into patties. And by pack, I really mean it's almost a hands-off - you're - it's like you're cradling a newborn baby almost. You have to be very, very gentle with it. And the best part of that is the surface of the burger itself is not completely smooth. It's got all these cracks and crevices in it. So when you go to cook it, you're going to have really nice crust that forms on the sides of the beef.
GROSS: OK, so you've put together the perfect burger. How are you going to cook it?
LANCASTER: So we're going to cook the burgers in a skillet. They're really, really tender, so we have another recipe that's very similar that will go out on the grill, but these are way too tender to go on the grill. They will just fall in between the grates thrill. So we want to start these on really, really high heat. And you remember, we're going to cook these until they're medium. But before you cook it, you want to refrigerate the patties because that's going to help them to set up and be a little bit more - a little bit less fragile before they go into the pan. So they go into a really, really hot skillet; it's a dry skillet. You add oil to the skillet and you want to heat that oil until it's just smoking - that's really key. A lot of people will start burgers or any meat into a pan that's not hot enough. And so you're not going to get that sear, that bit of smoke that's going to char the outside. So you want to start that in a really, really hot skillet and cook it, put them right into the skillet, don't move them for about three minutes.
GROSS: Why not?
LANCASTER: If you do move them at the very start, the burgers are sticking to the pan, so this is not a nonstick pan. This is a regular pan because we want to develop more crust, and a nonstick pan tends to not develop as much crust on the burgers. So you put them right into the preheated skillet that has a little bit of oil in it and leave them alone - three minutes. After three minutes, they will start to release themselves from the pan because on the underside, they're starting to steam a little bit, so that helps the burgers to release from the pan. So you have to take a spatula, a really nice wide spatula that's going to hold the entire burger, and flip it over. And it's about another minute on the second side before you can put cheese on it and then another minute. And then the burgers are ready to eat. Of course, it's always a good idea to toast the buns right in the skillet as well.
GROSS: There's a recipe in the book for poached chicken breast. And I'm interested in hearing about that.
BISHOP: Yeah, I love this recipe Terry because it seems so old-fashioned, like, who's going to poach a chicken breast? I mean, could there be anything more boring than a poached chicken breast? But we said you know what? It has the advantages of if you do it correctly, poaching is a very gentle cooking method. Poaching means that you're cooking at a sub-simmer, so you're below 212 degrees. And of course, when you're cooking a chicken breast, the biggest issue is that it can dry out. And so poaching, in theory, should prevent it from drying out. So we do a couple of interesting things. First of all, we love to brine chicken. That means, you know, letting it soak in a saltwater solution. But in this case, we actually cook it in the brine. So we combined salt, soy sauce - which will sort of boost the meatiness, the umami flavor of the chicken - a little bit of sugar and a little bit of garlic because the flavor compounds in garlic are water soluble, unlike a lot of spices and herbs, and you can get some garlic flavor. And then in order to make sure that we have absolutely even cooking - so we've got four quarts of water, we put the chicken on a steamer basket, like what you would cook your broccoli in, and let it sit in that brine for 30 minutes. And that steamer basket ensures that the bottom isn't resting on the hot pot and so that you get even cooking. So after 30 minutes, then you turn the heat on, so it's had that 30 minutes to brine. It's kind of taken off a little bit at the chill of the fridge. And then once the water reaches 175 degrees, you turn off the heat and you let the residual heat in the pot finish cooking it. And because the water has never gotten above 175 degrees, there's absolutely no risk of, you know, overcooking the chicken. I mean, the chicken can't get hotter than the water temperature. And if you turn it off before it's done, by the time the chicken is perfectly cooked, the water has cooled off just enough and you've got this perfectly poached chicken breast. You throw out that liquid - you know, in a lot of French restaurants, they would try to, like, turn the poaching liquid into a sauce. You know, with all that salt and all that sugar and soy sauce, it's not very flavorful. But you serve it with, you know, a warm vinaigrette, maybe with some cherry tomatoes and basil with pesto sauce, with a creamy, tangy yogurt sauce that has some spices and maybe some sliced cucumbers in it, like a tzatziki - it's a really great way to cook your boneless, skinless chicken breasts.
GROSS: So you let it sit in the brine in the pot first, then you turn on the heat, let it get to 175. Once it reaches that, you turn it off and let the chicken sit in the hot water to continue cooking.
BISHOP: Yeah, and then the cooking - so it's 30 minutes before you turn the heat on, about 15 minutes to get the water up to the 175 degrees so that the water's 175, the chicken at this point is nowhere near done. But then you turn off the heat and then you've got, depending on your pot, another 10 or 12 minutes. And at that point, the residual heat is very gently cooking the chicken up to its final internal temperature. When the chicken reaches 160 degrees, it's done.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're talking about cooking meat and chicken. And my guests are Jack Bishop and Bridget Lancaster. They're both with "America's Test Kitchen." Jack is the editorial director; Bridget is the executive food editor. And there's a new book called "The Cook's Illustrated Meat Book." So let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR and if you're just joining us, we're talking about cooking meat and poultry. I have two guests from "America's Test Kitchen" who have joined us several times before. Jack Bishop is the editorial director, Bridget Lancaster is the executive food editor and we're talking about the new book from Cook's Illustrated and "America's Test Kitchen" which is called "Cook's Illustrated Meat Book."
So let's talk about roast chicken. You have a recipe in the book that's called Weeknight Roast Chicken so I assume that means it's good for a busy weeknight when there's not a whole lot of time for food preparation. So what makes this recipe quick - relatively?
BISHOP: Well, if you have a lot of time and you want to salt the chicken, you want to brine the chicken, you want to air-dry the chicken in the refrigerator kind of like you would air-dry Peking duck, you can make a fabulous roast chicken, but those all take at least a day, it seems. And so what do you do when you come home from work, you want to take the chicken out of the package and you want to sit down for dinner very quickly? And this recipe was designed with that goal in mind and so it's a totally counterintuitive recipe. The first thing you do is you turn the oven on to 450 degrees and you put a 12 inch skillet on the rack in the oven. While the skillet and the oven are preheating, you're patting the chicken dry, you're oiling it a little bit on the exterior - just a teeny bit of vegetable oil, some salt. You're tying up the legs with a little piece of kitchen twine and just tucking the wings back behind the breast and behind the back. And at the point where the oven is preheated, you then put the chicken directly into that skillet in the oven and because the skillet is so hot, it is going to start cooking the dark meat much faster because the dark meat is in contact with the pan. You know, one of the challenges when you're cooking a roast chicken is that the breast meat ideally cooked to 160 degrees, but the dark meat - the legs and the thighs - need to get up to 175 degrees. And you know, a lot of times in order to get the dark meat fully cooked, you end up overcooking the white meat so by putting the chicken into this hot pan that's been heating in the oven - and you're putting it breast side up - the bottom of the chicken, which is where the dark meat is located, begins to cook more quickly. So that's the first part of the recipe and then it gets really interesting. At the 30 minute mark you turn off the oven temperature and what you're doing is, you know, if you're cooking something in a really hot oven, you have a very short window to get it just right, in terms of figuring out when it's perfectly cooked. But if you allow that temperature to go down - and so if you've turned off the oven, 30 minutes later when the chicken is done the oven is really pretty cool at that point and the window for getting the chicken perfectly cooked is a little bit longer. There's also a lot less of a heat differential between the outer layers of the meat, the meat right underneath the skin and the meat at the bone. You know, when you're cooking in a really hot oven, the meat near the bone can be underdone or bloody and meanwhile you've overcooked meat right underneath the skin. Because this bird finishes in a turned off oven, that heat differential between the outer layers of the meat and the inner are minimized so that you get perfectly cooked chicken from skin to bone. It's a 60 minute recipe, but that first 30 minutes is sort of supercharged, turbocharged because the pan is so hot and then the final 30 minutes are very gentle because you've turned off the oven heat.
GROSS: I somehow feel that our interview will not be complete unless I ask you for a favorite potato dish to accompany all the delicious meat and poultry dishes that you've described - so can you each share a favorite potato dish? French fries, or mashed potato, roasted potatoes, anything that you think would be yummy with some of the dishes that you've already described?
BISHOP: Well, I'm going to do buttermilk mashed potatoes and one of the reasons why love this recipe is that it is so dead simple. You actually don't boil the potatoes and then drain them and then add the dairy. You cook the potatoes right in the buttermilk and you're doing this in a covered pot. You're kind of like, braising the potatoes in the flavoring agent. You add a little baking soda to them to help break them down and then when you've gotten the potato cubes nicely cooked, you mash them right in the pot. At this point you add some butter to them but, there's no that last-minute draining of the potatoes in the colander, in the sink and trying to remember to find the colander and then you know, getting them back in the pot to mash them. It's just a one-pot operation, really simple. I love the tang of buttermilk with the mashed potatoes, I think it sort of cuts through all of the richness from the melted butter and it is just an absolutely great way to cook mashed potatoes.
LANCASTER: I would say one that I make often, it is called Syracuse salt potatoes. They're little red potatoes, creamer potatoes and you want to buy the potatoes so that they're very small and even-sized because you cannot cut them open and that's because you start them in cold water with cups of kosher salt.
GROSS: Cups of kosher salt?
LANCASTER: Cups of kosher salt. It is amazing. So you cover the potatoes with water, cups of kosher salt, bring them up to the boil. And what happens during that time, the salt doesn't penetrate all the way through the potatoes. As you're pouring in the salt you're thinking, what have I done to my blood pressure? So you're cooking these potatoes in all this salt. They come out, you pour them - you drain the potatoes and you put the hot potatoes on a rack that's put over a rimmed baking sheet and as they cool down just slightly, there's a little frosted - they almost look like glazed doughnuts. There's a frosting that kind of forms on the outside of them and it's that salt residue, but the salt, what we found, was that it changed the boiling point of the water so you end up with a potato that's actually creamier on the inside. So that's why you don't want to cut open the potatoes because any cut in the potatoes is a way for that salt to penetrate too much. So you just serve that with melted butter, with chives in it for dipping. It's great with barbecue, it's great with anything.
GROSS: And you're not ingesting an inordinate amount of salt?
LANCASTER: No, no, they are not too salty and I actually have kind of salt sensitivity and this particular recipe really surprised me as well, but it's a family favorite now.
LANCASTER: Definitely try it.
GROSS: Do you have any favorite meat or poultry dishes from your childhood that are considered old-fashioned now, but that you really love to prepare?
LANCASTER: I have one that comes to mind. My mother, whenever we would have a bad day, my mother would always make - I love this still to this day - she'd take chicken breasts and salt and pepper them and dip them in butter and then in cracker crumbs and bake them. And as simple and easy as that sounds, that was one of our favorite meals growing up. And of course, us kids would try to eat all of the cracker bits that came out, the buttery cracker bits that came out of the oven that were all toasty. That's definitely one.
The other one - pot roast. Pot roast definitely meant it was Sunday because that thing took forever to cook. And you know, the meat was just fall-apart, broth from the pot roast, we would spoon that over roasted potatoes or mashed potatoes - and it's just really good comfort food. I think that's what these large roasts, you know, a whole chicken, turkey, hams, they kind of to me almost speak of a family table or an old-fashioned time where the food took time and then you sat at the table and you took time to eat it, as well.
GROSS: Jack, what about you? Do you have favorite meat or poultry recipes from your childhood that might seem a little old-fashioned now but that you love?
BISHOP: When I was a kid, nothing would make me happier than fried chicken and I've got to say, I haven't grown up and lost that taste for fried chicken. And so there is nothing like chicken that you fry yourself at home. It's really very, very simple. You know, we brine the chicken in a little bit of buttermilk that's been spiked with some salt and then - you know, it improves the juiciness and the flavor - and then we put it in a rub that's got flour, a little bit of baking powder - which is something that my mother didn't do, but it really improves the lift and you get sort of a really crunchy crust - and then we add a little bit of buttermilk to that flour rub so rather than a fully dry rub, it's kind of like shaggy bits. And those shaggy bits fry up into the really big, crunchy exterior. We do it in a Dutch oven in the test kitchen rather than a cast-iron skillet, it kind of minimizes the mess. There's less splattering on the cook top and we actually use the lid on the Dutch oven for the first half of the cooking time, which helps the oil temperature to recover more quickly so it prevents greasiness. Greasy chicken means that your oil wasn't at the proper temperature, it was too cool and so putting the lid on the pot when you put the chicken in, at least for the first half of the cooking time, helps that temperature climb back up and ensures that you don't get greasy chicken, but you get absolutely crispy, crunchy fried chicken.
LANCASTER: I remember when we developed this recipe and that finding of adding buttermilk to the flour mixture to create that really kind of - those pieces before they went on the chicken, that was an accident. When we were just dipping the chicken into a flour mixture, we always found that the first few pieces that went into the oil, you know, they had that smooth crust - still really good, but the smooth crust - but it was the last pieces because after you dipped the chicken in the buttermilk and you dipped it into the flour mixture, it started to get these little bits. And those were the pieces that everybody went for because they were super crunchy and really substantial and that's a good example of an accident - a happy accident in the test kitchen.
GROSS: It's always so much fun to talk with both of you and I always learn so much about food. Thank you so much for talking with us.
LANCASTER: It was a pleasure.
BISHOP: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Jack Bishop edited the "Cook's Illustrated Meat Book." Bridget Lancaster contributed to it. They both work with "America's Test Kitchen." On our website you'll find some of the tips they gave on the air, as well as their recipes for old-fashioned burgers, buttermilk mashed potatoes and oven-fried bacon. This is FRESH AIR.
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