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Everyone likes meat dishes that come out juicy and tender, but so often we’re disappointed by both home food as well as restaurant dishes that don’t achieve this, and yet, few cookbooks address the how, and, even rarer, the why. Instead, you read instructions like ‘‘cook till tender". What does that even mean? Cooking chicken breast till tender is very different from cooking chicken leg, and that’s different from cooking leg of lamb. Not understanding the cooking process leads to making dishes where some of the meat is cooked but dry and fibrous, while other pieces are just fine.

It’s difficult to lump all ‘‘meat" into one category because they’re different beasts (pun unintended), and obviously a chicken is not a goat which is not a pig, and so on. So let me tell you a bit about what meat is, and what kind of cooking methods work for different cuts.

Overcooking can dry meat out and make them tough, stringy, and unappetizing. iStockphoto

As you can see from all the science-y stuff, cooking all parts of the animal the same way is clearly not ideal. If you’re cooking a chicken curry and you throw everything into one pot, you will either have perfectly cooked chicken breast and undercooked chicken legs, or juicy chicken leg pieces and dry, stringy chicken breast. What is a cook to do? (Simple; keep the breast pieces separate and add them 10 minutes late into the dish.)

Take a typical boneless chicken breast, for instance. It’s easy enough to tell when it’s cooked. Toss one into a heated steel pan with some oil and cook till it turns white halfway up. Then flip, and cook it till the meat is white all around. Stop the cooking. The meat is done. If you feel like sacrificing some meat for science, take another breast, and this time cook it for a few minutes more. Taste both and you’ll notice the difference.

Now let’s talk about the tougher cuts. These include legs, shoulders, cheeks, and necks of animals. These need to be cooked using the ‘‘low and slow" method, i.e. a combination of low heat and long cooking times. The process of breaking down the connective tissue in these cuts takes time, and it can’t be rushed. But it rewards you with tasty, succulent and flavourful meat when you’re done. These cuts are best suited for wet cooking methods like stewing and braising, or slow roasting in an oven.

Unfortunately, novice cooks often think that cooking on high heat for a shorter time will give you the same results as cooking on a low heat for a longer time. This is not true and will usually give you dry, tough meat. (Don’t be too hard on yourself. I too thought so many moons ago.) So if the recipe says ‘‘simmer for 1 hour" and you decide to instead turn up the heat to high and boil the living hell out of your meat for 20 minutes, you will kill it. In fact, the ideal temperature of the cooking liquid is 80° Celsius, which is below the 100° Celsius boiling point of water.

Cooking the meat in rapidly boiling water will overcook the outer surface of the meat well before the collagen has time to break down, and that’s why you’re getting dry meat in your curry. Overcooked meat looks grey, not pink. (As an aside, ‘‘well done" is a most misleading term for doneness of meat. It should be renamed to ‘‘dry as leather" but it may be too late for that battle.)

The ‘‘low and slow" method can still result in overcooked meat if you cook too long. While the connective tissue needs a temperature of 80° Celsius to dissolve into gelatine, muscle fibre starts losing its juices at 65° Celsius. So cooking past the stage where it easily separates when pressed with a fork is not a good idea. If you want to reduce the sauce to thicken it, remove the meat, reduce the sauce, and then put the meat back in.

Oh dear, I just started getting into the good stuff and I’ve already run out of space. Don’t worry, future columns will delve in more detail into various cooking methods. Consider this a primer on meat, and be sure to email me with questions. And look out for the next column where I take a break from meat and talk about cooking vegetables right.

Madhu Menon is a chef, restaurant consultant and food writer.Respond to this column at indulge@livemint.com

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