The Violent Secret of Meat
My problem with meat was that I was too nice to it. Like a lot of tentative amateur cooks, I was intimidated by meat, especially great meat—its heft and grandeur, its copious marbling, its protruding bones and prohibitive cost. The idea of ruining it scared the hell out of me, like a jittery milquetoast pushed by his buddies to approach a model. So many things can go wrong when you cook meat. You can leave it on too long, leaching its lifeblood and leaving it a leathery mummy. Or you can take it off too soon, exposing guests to a sick-making vista of gore. You can splatter hot grease, creating terrifying small fires or filling the house with the stench of smoking fat. You are always scared, always worried. And no man cooks meat well whose heart is weak and timid.
I came to embrace a martial philosophy not through any insight of my own but by once getting so mad that I forgot to be a bad cook. I was fighting with my first wife one winter night and I stomped into the kitchen, recklessly jacked up the heat under my cast-iron pan, and slammed a steak onto its smoking surface. I was rewarded, almost instantaneously, with the violent secret of meat. My rage spent, I found a surface of burnished mahogany and an interior still red and raw. I took my time bringing the meat to medium-rare and ate it with a feeling of triumph. Meat, I now understood, called forth not measured skill but courage and animal aggression. Finally, I was in control.
Meat isn’t like bread. You don’t put it in an oven and forget about it until the bell rings. You need to be alive to it, to encounter it, to batter it into shape. You bash it with jagged hammers if you have to, and then drop it onto smoking steel to scream and sizzle its life away. You don’t touch or tap meat to see how it’s doing; you poke it, hard, as if you didn’t care at all how it felt about the matter. This principle is equally true for grilling. When I cook fat-flecked rib steaks or thick slabs of bacon over an open fire, I feel nothing so much as a pyromaniacal glee; the more explosive the flare-ups, the more empowered I become. The more cataclysmic the initial encounter between meat and heat, the healthier their subsequent relationship will be.
Correctly cooked meat is a paradox. A great steak or chop or chicken should be two opposing things at once: a brown and jagged surface, all crust and crackle and the taste of snapping fat; and a pink, soft, yielding interior, all sweetness and supple mouthfeel. The steak breaks under your will in two different ways: On the outside, a biochemical change happens that meat geeks call the Maillard effect, a circus of reactions that cause a permanent change in both the meat’s color and taste. Once you’re done, put the meat on the other side of the grill or in a warm oven, somewhere the heat is gentle and slow—somewhere where, beneath the burnished surface, the inside will slowly and secretly change, its fat melting, its collagen softening, its tissue constricting by imperceptible degrees, like wet leather in the sun. This two-step process defines meat mastery. Period.
The key is not to be submissive. You can give a steak a blackdappled, bronze-gold exterior in less than two minutes. But you can’t creep up on it. You need a grill so hot that you can’t put your hand over it for more than a second or two, or a pan that bubbles and burns butter more or less instantaneously. Afterward, the steak doesn’t even know what happened to it. The searing is a kind of second stun line. Dumbfounded, it goes into slow, soft heat, inert and pliable, there to gradually cook through to the degree you want. It’s good if you start this process with a little anger. The best meat deserves nothing less.
This article appeared in the July 2013 issue of Esquire Philippines. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.