Carryover Cooking: A Problem Or Overrated?
Just because you have taken food off the heat, doesn't mean you are done cooking. Cooking can continue for 15 minutes or so, even at room temp. This is called carryover cooking and, even though the cookbooks say it can be significant, in most cases it is nothing to worry about.
Here's the concept: Hot air cooks the outside of the food. The outside of the food cooks the inside of the food. Even when you take it off the grill or out of the oven. The question is, how much?
Here is how it works: In the illustration here, in the left frame we see a cross section of a piece of meat while it is being cooked. In the first frame it is absorbing heat from hot air on all sides. The hot air warms the surface of the meat, and the molecules start vibrating rapidly. These throbbing molecules get their neighbors pumped up, they pass along the vibe, and the party continues slowly and gradually towards the center by conduction, like a wave at a football game, until all the molecules are dancing like teenagers at a rock concert.
The speed of this wave depends upon the heat of the cooking air, what the food is sitting on, and the natural resistance of the meat which, at about 75% water, is not a very conductive medium.
In the center image the meat has been removed from the oven (remember, a smoker and a grill with a lid is an oven). Yet heat continues to be passed towards the center, slowly cooking it even though it is sitting at room temp. But because the surrounding air is now cooler than the meat, some of the heat is escaping into the room.
On the right, the meat has come close to an even temp throughout and now it is cooling as heat escapes. As a result of carryover, the meat can rise in temp 5 to 15°F even after you take it off the grill or out of the oven. So when you check the temp of your steak it may be just where you want it, 130°F, medium rare. But if you let it sit on a plate, especially if you tent it with foil as some recipes tell you to, the center of the meat can easily work its way up to 140°F, and that is no longer medium rare.
The cooking process is also influenced by the method of cooking. Put a steak on a hot black cast iron pan, which is thick and holds a lot of energy, and it will transfer heat to the surface of the steak in a hurry, turning it dark brown in minutes, while the inside of the steak will heat less quickly because the heat is being passed through water.
That's why, when you put a steak on a grill the grates make dark lines on the surface, because the metal is a better heat conductor than the hot air in between the grates. Infrared grills and sear burners pump heat into the meat's surface almost as efficiently as conduction. So a steak cooked with infrared will carryover more than a conventional grill.
Thickness of the meat is another crucial factor. Thick pieces of meat are like batteries, holding more energy in the form of heat than thin pieces of meat. Meanwhile, meat, which is about 70% water, sweats as it heats. Moisture evaporates from the surface and cools the outer layer, slowing down the whole process.
Because most of cooking is meat cooking meat not air cooking meat, it doesn't matter if you open the lid of your grill to sneak a peek. Yes, you will let out hot air, but the outer layer of the meat is still hot and it continues to pass heat on down to the center. For proof, read my article debunking the myth that "looking ain't cooking".
Most cooks say to plan on carryover and calculate it into your plans, but this is nigh impossible. The amount of carryover is directly related to how much heat is stored in the meat's outer layers and how much surface area there is in proportion to meat. If the meat has been cooked at a high temp then there is likely to be a load of heat stored in the outer layers. Some of it works its way down towards the center, warming the center. How much? Depends on how hot the outside of the meat is and how deep the heat has penetrated. But at the same time, much of the heat escapes into the air. How much? A lot more at room temperature because the air is so much cooler than the meat.
How much will meat rise in temp due to carryover? Big hunks like roasts hold a lot of heat, so they might rise 5°F or so in the center. I have never seen a rise of more than that. But thin meats, even thick steaks and burgers will not rise much, perhaps 1 or 2°F because the exterior is not storing a lot of heat and there is so much surface area exposed to air. Tenting or wrapping with foil will hold in more heat, but it will also soften the surface crust.
So no guideline in a cookbook can be applied to all meals. The solution is to use a really accurate digital meat thermometer, take the temp in multiple locations, remove thin cuts at vedry close to target, and serve it immediately. Plan on large roasts increasing up to 5°F. Once you start cutting up meat, the heat rapidly dissipates and carryover stops instantly.
What about resting the meat? Fohgeddaboudit. Click here to read why you shouldn't let your meat rest.
This page was revised 1/20/2012
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