Common Roasting Mistakes and How to Avoid Them
Ever since Man discovered fire, they have been roasting meat. Prehistoric man probably didn't realize why their roasted meat tasted so much better than its raw counterpart, but we know now.
Meats that have been properly roasted have a crisp, flavorful, deep brown exterior and a uniformly cooked interior. That crisp exterior is brought to you courtesy of Maillard reactions--enzymatic reactions that cause sugars and proteins to brown.
Some cookbooks might call this browning caramelization, but caramelization refers to the browning of sugar alone when it is broken down by heat. The Maillard reactions are essential to developing the best flavor in roasted meats.
Like baking, roasting has evolved over centuries. Roasting is a dry heat cooking method characterized by a relatively high heat and an uncovered pan.
Spit roasting, or rotisserie, is a type of roasting that involves turning the meat over a flame so all sides brown evenly while fats (that would normally just drip down into the fire) baste the meat, keeping it moist.
In today's lexicon, roasting means to cook in an uncovered pan in an oven. In order to simulate a rotisserie in which the entire surface of the meat is cooked by radiation and convection, oven roasted meats are often elevated on a rack to keep the bottom of the meat from resting in its own juices and steaming instead of roasting. Moisture is the enemy of a well-developed crust.
Since moisture inhibits browning but we want the interior of our roasts to be moist, it is understandable why many people have problems roasting properly. We're going to take a look at some of the problems people encounter when roasting and solve them so you, too, can wow your family and friends with your roasting prowess.
First though, let's consider some of the variables inherent in roasting that aren't necessarily mistakes, but personal preference.
Roasting Preferences - Up To You
To Sear or Not To Sear
To a large extent, searing is what helps to develop the flavor of a roast. After all, it's the Maillard reactions that produce all those wonderfully complex flavor compounds.
When roasting a large cut of meat, such as a whole chicken, turkey or maybe prime rib, the meat will develop a nice sear by virtue of the fact that the meat must stay in the oven long enough to cook through. However, with smaller cuts, such as tenderloin, you might decide to sear the meat on the stove top before finishing it the oven.
For a more complete discussion of this method, see the chapter on Pan Roasting (coming soon).
To Marinate or Not To Marinate
Marinating and brining are two methods of introducing moisture as well as flavor to your meat before roasting. A marinade is a flavorful acidic solution that serves a couple of purposes.
First, it can bring a lot of flavor to your meat.
Second, the acids can begin to denature, or chemically cook, the proteins on the outside of the meat, possibly resulting in a faster cooking time and minimizing the chance of the meat's drying out.
A brine is a salt-based solution that is useful for imparting flavor deep into meat through osmosis. Unlike a marinade, brining brings about purely physical changes in the meat. Specifically, it carries salt and other flavorings into the cells of the meat.
To marinate or brine meat before roasting is completely a personal choice. Some of the most wonderful roasts I've ever eaten have been seasoned with nothing more than salt and pepper.
If you do marinate or brine to add flavor and as a hedge against drying out, pay particular attention to drying off the meat before putting the meat in the oven. (See Mistake #4)
Bone or No Bone
The benefit of roasting on the bone is that your meat will have more flavor. The downside is that it takes longer to roast bone-in meat. If it is a question of time, you can up the flavor profile of your meat by marinating or by rubbing the meat with a spice blend.
If you prefer the unadulterated flavor of meat and just want to season simply, go ahead and spend the time to roast meat with the bone in. Either way, as long as you follow the rules listed in the rest of this chapter, you will end up with a beautifully roasted piece of meat.
Larding and Barding
Larding refers to lacing your roast with strips of fat, literally running the fat in and out of the meat in a running stitch with a larding needle. This was a very popular technique in past centuries for adding succulence to leaner cuts of meat.
But, that was back in the day before we had ovens that we could hold at a certain temperature for a specified period of time. Today, larding is pretty much a thing of the past.
To bard meat means to add flavor and fat to meat by laying strips of fat over the meat to be cooked. We still see many examples of barding today: meatloaf baked with strips of bacon on top; a fillet mignon wrapped in bacon; even bacon-wrapped scallops qualify.
To Tie or Not To Tie
The more even in thickness and uniform in size your meat is, the more evenly it will roast. That's why, when roasting a whole tenderloin of beef, pork or venison, which is tapered at one end, most recipes tell you to tuck the thin end of the loin underneath.
Recipes that call for you to butterfly a large cut of meat--slice it so it lies open flat like a book--and then stuff and roll it up generally direct you to tie the meat at intervals to keep the stuffing in place.
When deciding whether or not to tie your meat before cooking, consult your recipe. If you're not using a recipe, consider the shape of the meat. If tying it will help it hold a more uniform shape, then you certainly may tie it. Again, unless the meat is stuffed, tying is a personal preference.
When it comes to poultry or game birds, some people like to tie, or truss, their birds before cooking. This keeps the legs from flopping open and the wing tips from burning.
It also ensures that the meat comes out of the oven ready for the Thanksgiving table, in that stereotypical "bird shape." I tend not to truss my birds. I do fold the wing tips up and back to prevent them from burning, but I prefer leaving the legs loose so that the thigh meat cooks more evenly.