Why Meat Acts the Way It Does, and Why That Matters

Food geeks, at least of the kind I count myself, have – for the most part – had almost no effect on American home cooking. Which is fine. I understand. Not everybody is going to sit around thinking of sixteen different ways to use leftover animal fat. But I think more home cooks are thinking about “why” as to opposed to “how.” Which I think will be a king change in how we all approach home cooking.

This hopeful notion struck me over the holiday, when I was in my usual mouthbreating recumbant position on a friend’s couch. I had over the previous 24 hours engaged in a marathon flurry of debate between myself, barbecue oracle Craig “Meathead” Goldwyn, the blogger Kenji Lopez-Alt of Serious Eats, and the chef Adam Perry Lang on the subject of resting meat. (No, I don’t have a great social life. Thank you for asking.) I was watching a Kojak marathon when I looked down and there saw Cooks Illustrated The Science of Good Cooking sitting there under a coaster. I picked it up and found a detailed, empirically provable, and exact explanation of how resting works. This is no esoteric reference work, either; it’s the #57th best selling book on Amazon right now. That’s not the 57th selling cookbook; that’s the 57th selling book! It’s currently outselling John Grisham and A Song of Ice and Fire. What is going on here?

It’s not a one-time phenomenon, either. This past fall saw the release of the Modernist Cooking at Home, a more user-friendly version of Nathan Myrhvold’s back-breaking grimoire, as well as brisk sales of seminal food scientist Harold McGee’s books. This spring will see the release of Taste: Surprising Stories and Science about Why Food Tastes Good, as well the usual flurry of craft coffee and beer books, guaranteed as always to bore the tears out of non-fetishists. The print books are hardly the point, though: you really see the new empiricism on the blogs.

Two of the four people in my meat synod were known to be primarily from online columns: Lopez-Alt is the resident food wonk at Serious Eats, and has over the last few years created an impressive body of work asking questions like “why should hamburgers be smashed?” and “what really happens when you cook french fries twice?” (In fact, the column consists largely of beautifully thought-out recipes, but those are the pieces I like best.) Meathead, meanwhile, is probably doing the most consistently thoughtful, incisive, and thorough meat writing on the web these days – which is not to say that he’s always right. Adam doesn’t write a blog, but he knows more about meat than the rest of us put together, and he was willing to engage privately in a really enlightening way. I think all four of us learned a lot. I used to think that internet was primarily a place for reading Gilmore Girls slash fiction. But now I’ve learned otherwise.

So what I’m going to try to live up to what these guys are doing, and try to bring some science into what has been, let’s just say, a pretty eccentric perspective on home cooking. A person who depended on this column to find recipes for dinner would go crazy from frustration. I try to write about how I think about cooking, and how my dim and twisted understanding of food expresses itself in my cooking. I’m like Rachael, only unlikable and a bad cook. That said, I think what I’ve been doing matters. But starting next week I’m going to try to build some objective science into this. Next week is the subject of the meat synod: the enigma of resting. Write in if you have questions and I’ll try to get them answered intelligently.

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