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Ask the Food Lab: Does Resting Under Foil Ruin Meat?

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Does Resting Under Foil Ruin Meat?

Does resting food under foil help retain heat or just destroy crispy skin? Or is the skin / crust not affected by a foil tent? Does protein laid bare on a plate loose that much extra heat, that tenting with foil is required? If foil is not used and the protein cools down faster does that help speed up the re-distribution of juices? I'm in the crispy skin / crackling crust crowd so I don't like to tent under foil. Am I terribly mistaken?

—Sent by MichaelGA

We all know that resting meat—letting it sit off heat for a few moments before slicing or serving it—can help it retain more juices when you subsequently cut into it, right? There are conflicting theories as to why this is the case, the most common being that either the juices get redistributed within the meat so that no areas are oversaturated, or that the juices increase slightly in viscosity as they cool, allowing them to stay in place better. Heck, there are even some respectable folks who claim the entire thing is bunk, and they make several good points.

So is resting useful or not? What are the tradeoffs between resting and not resting? And does foil do anything at all?

First off, at least as far as we can measure via mechanical means like a scale, there is absolutely a difference in moisture retention in rested vs. unrested meat.

You can prove this for yourself by cooking a couple of identical steaks (preferably cut from the same larger piece) to the same temperature, slicing one immediately, and allowing the other to rest for 5 to 10 minutes before slicing it and noting the amount of juice lost. You'll probably see something like this:

20091204-resting-steaks-0-min-vs-10-min.jpg

But the question remains: on the palate, is that a noticeable difference?

Well to be honest, it's minor. The real differences you notice are in the textural differences between steak that has a major temperature gradient inside (unrested meat will be much hotter around the edges and cooler in the center) and a steak that is relatively evenly heated inside. The latter tastes more evenly tender with a juiciness that slowly releases, while the former has more contrast, the external layers wringing their juices more like a sponge, while the center remains a little chewier. Some folks like their meat to taste this way. I personally don't.

The other major area of change in rested versus un-rested meat is in the crust. Provided you are pan-searing steaks in a blazing hot skillet or grilling them over a rip-roaring fire, you should be able to develop a great charred, crisp, crackly crust—for many folks the highlight of the steak eating experience.

Resting, they complain, ruins this crust. That is a fact: the longer you wait, the more that crust will diminish, and to get back to your initial question, foil will increase the softening effect of resting. For many people, this is not a trade-off worth making.

But here's the good news: you do not have to make that trade-off. It's absolutely possible to get a steak that has been rested, and has a sizzling, crusty, crunchy, charred crust. How?

Simply re-crisp it immediately prior to slicing and serving.

This is much easier than you think. See, the reason that crust soften is because moisture from inside the steak will begin to steam its way out, saturated what once was dehydrated and crisp. All you've got to do is dehydrate it again by blasting it with heat.

For pan seared steaks, save your pan drippings in the skillet while your steak rests, then immediately prior to serving, reheat those drippings until smoking hot and pour them over the steak. You should see a vigorous crackling and bubbling and your crust will redevelop. Serve it quick before it softens!

For grilled steaks, let your steaks rest off heat after cooking (no need to cover them with foil) while you add a dozen extra coals to the fire (or pump up your gas grill to high and preheat with the lid closed). Just before serving, place the steaks back over the hottest part of the grill and give them a brief 45-second to 1-minute sear to re-crisp the outside. Serve them immediately.

Hopefully this will help everyone in the great resting versus non-resting debate to get along a wee bit better. Wasn't that easy?

Oh—I guess I never really answered your first questions:

Does resting food under foil help retain heat or just destroy crispy skin? It retains a little heat, but there's no need for it unless you are outside on a very cold and windy day.

Or is the skin / crust not affected by a foil tent? The skin and crust are affected by a foil tent, but it's easy to rescue.

Does protein laid bare on a plate lose that much extra heat, that tenting with foil is required? Protein laid on a bare plate can lose extra heat, but again, only if it's very cold and windy out will you need foil (plus, it's better to rest on an elevated rack or wooden cutting board than directly on a plate).

If foil is not used and the protein cools down faster does that help speed up the re-distribution of juices? There is no real significant difference internally in terms of resting time when using foil vs. bare. Bare will rest slightly faster, but not much.

I'm in the crispy skin / crackling crust crowd so I don't like to tent under foil. Am I terribly mistaken? You are not terribly mistaken. Go forth unafraid!

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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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