Over the years, countless friends have confided in me about cooking meat at home. Many feel apprehensive in cooking meat, let alone roasting a whole chicken or pork shoulder. Inevitably, several questions arise during our conversation -- how do I prevent my roast from drying out? How do I ensure it is salted well? What is the best temperature for crispy skin?
This guide is all about uncovering the best techniques to roast meat to get you started!
What Exactly is Roasting?
First things first: before we dive into specific roasting techniques, let's discuss what we mean when we say roasting. Roasting is a dry heat cooking method that uses hot air to cook food. For the purposes of this article, we'll focus solely on roasting in the oven, though traditional forms of roasting denote cooking over an open flame.
Typically, the goal of roasting a piece of meat is to brown the exterior surface of the protein while keeping the interior as juicy and tender as possible. That browning, a result of the Maillard Reaction, gives the meat its characteristic complex, slightly charred, sweet, and caramelized flavors and aromas that you regularly associate with steaks and roasts.
What Type of Meat is Best for Roasting?
Large pieces of meat like a whole chicken, pork shoulder, or leg of lamb are great for oven roasting. This is because ovens operate on indirect heat, allowing all sides of the meat to brown more evenly.
Additionally, an oven is typically larger than a single burner on a stovetop and has more space to cook a large piece of protein.
What is the Best Temperature to Roast Meat?
The right temperature to roast meat depends on the type of meat and the desired texture you're looking for. To choose the best temperature, we need to delve into the science behind different cuts of meat.
In animals, there are two main types of muscle fibers: slow-twitch and fast-twitch fibers. Slow-twitch muscle fibers are continually used by the animal and more valuable for endurance. Cuts of meat with slow-twitch muscle fibers have a tough texture with lots of connective tissue.
At around 160°F (and up to 180°F), collagen, a type of connective tissue, starts to break down into soft gelatin. For tougher cuts like pork shoulder, beef brisket, and prime rib, cooking at a high temperature will break down the collagen but yield too much moisture loss, so the result will be tough and chewy. But roasting those cuts at a lower temperature of 200°F to 325°F will break down the collagen at a slow enough pace to retain moisture.
Animals infrequently use fast-twitch muscle fibers (think sprinting), so these cuts are naturally more tender to the touch. Chicken breast and pork loin, cuts made of fast-twitch fibers, cook most optimally at higher temperatures of 350°F to 500°F for shorter periods of time and are well-suited to grilling and searing in addition to roasting.
Certain meats are more flexible and can roast at high or low temperatures, albeit yielding slightly different outcomes. For example, whole chickens can be roasted at a low temperature (e.g., 250°F) or a high temperature (e.g., 450°F). The decision for what temperature to use depends on the desired texture you'd like. At 250°F, the chicken skin will be softer than at 450°F, but the meat will be significantly more tender (at a higher temperature, the meat will be chewier).
Therefore, some cooks often do a combination of low and high temperatures for a roast. If you've ever heard of the reverse sear, whereby meats are cooked at a low temperature and then finished off on the stove, you'll understand what I mean. The low temperature ensures soft, juicy, tender meat, while the finishing sear at a high temperature browns the crust.
I highly recommend experimenting with different temperatures to see what textures you like best!
How Can I Improve the Flavor or Texture of the Meat?
Marinades add flavor to meat and brines increase moisture. Try marinating your meat with a spiced yogurt (which also helps tenderize the meat in the process), buttermilk, or soy sauce marinade.
Wet brines involve soaking the meat, typically in a salt, sugar, and spice bath but can sometimes be cumbersome to find a pot large enough to brine in. On the other hand, dry brines, or dry rub, involve coating the meat directly with salt, sugar, and spices. The salt then penetrates the interior of the meat.
Recipes will typically ask for a brining or marinating time between 4 and 48 hours depending on the size of the meat. Generally, a longer marinade or brine will lead to better flavor and texture, but not always; certain acidic marinades can create an undesirable texture if soaked for too long.
What Special Equipment Do I Need?
For larger roasts, I typically use a roasting pan or a baking sheet lined with foil and a wire rack on top to reserve the juices. Leftover drippings can be made into a pan sauce or basted onto the meat.
I also highly recommend a meat thermometer to confidently check the internal temperature of the meat.
How to Roast Meat (Step-by-Step Instructions)
- Dry the meat: Pat the meat dry to remove any excess moisture.
- Salt, dry brine, or marinate the meat: Salt the meat (and add any additional spices) as desired. At this point, you can dry brine or marinate the meat before roasting.
- Place on a baking sheet: Preheat the oven to the desired temperature. Meanwhile, pat the meat dry again to remove any excess liquid. Place on a baking sheet (preferably with a wire rack) or a roasting pan.
- Roast: Roast in the oven until meat hits the desired temperature. For a slow roast, check the internal temperature and the texture of the meat to see if it's tender enough. Depending on the roast, you may want to rotate the pan every so often to ensure even cooking.
- Rest: Take meat out of the oven and rest for at least 15-20 minutes before serving. This ensures the juices stay sealed in the meat.