It doesn’t matter if you’re roasting at high heat, grilling over an open flame or going at it low and slow, every piece of meat (no matter the cut) experiences the same internal transformations – the only thing that varies is the speed with which those transformations occur, and that all depends on how you cook it.
Believe it or not, there are biochemical changes going on inside that steak, pork roast and brisket to get them to their “perfect” doneness. It’s a process called denaturation and it involves the breaking down of protein strands by the application of extreme conditions (i.e time and temperature) that ultimately render meat moist and tender.
Denaturation begins at roughly 105°F and continues upwards to temperatures in excess of 200°F. Changes in proteins can be seen in the form of changing colors (i.e. red to brown) and can be tracked at each stage by the use of a meat thermometer. Ideal cooking temperatures found on the chef-recommended temperature chart are indications that sufficient denaturation has occurred to render the meat to the color and texture of your choice.
However, just knowing what color and texture it is isn’t good enough for us. We want to know (and we assume you do, too) what’s happening to your meat as it passes through the various temperature stages.
As meat approaches 105°F, the calpains (calcium proteins) begin to denature and lose activity; this happens until about 122°F. Since enzyme activity increases up to those temperatures, slow cooking can provide a significant aging effect during the cooking process. At 125°F meat is rare. Ideally, you’ll want to sear the meat quickly to kill any surface bacteria.
Above 125°F, meat begins to develop a white opacity as heat-sensitive myosin (motor proteins) denature. Coagulation produces large enough clumps to scatter light and red meat becomes pink. This is where the meat moves from rare to medium-rare (130°F).
Further cooking (towards 140°F) begins to breakdown the red myoglobin (iron/oxygen-binding protein) and turns it into a tan-colored hemichrome. It’s at this point that meat turns from pink, to brown and then to grey.
During this time, meat releases a lot of juices and begins to shrink noticeably. In very rapid succession it can move from medium-rare to medium to medium-well. And, if you’re not careful, you can very quickly overcook your meat.
At 160°F, connective tissue begins to liquefy. Proteins repel the water and constrict causing them to get closer together and grow stronger. This is what gives well-done meat it’s tough and dry texture. At the risk of ruining your main course, you would never want to take your higher quality cuts of meat to this temperature.
However, if you’re cooking low and slow with traditional BBQ cuts, it’s taken you hours to get to this point and things are just getting warmed up. As you accelerate past 180°F and up to 200°F, collagen begins to melt and turn into gelatin. This gelatin is able to absorb up to ten times its weight in water. The moisture that is repelled by the protein is absorbed into the gelatin and the meat stays moist.
In some cases, it can take up to 12 hours for a pitmaster to complete a cook on a pork shoulder or beef brisket. The prolonged exposure to the low heat of a barbecue pit will sufficiently render the fat in a tough piece of meat and leave it moist and flavorful.
(*Never forget to take into account that the internal temperature of the meat will rise during the rest. If you remove a piece of meat from the grill when it’s hit your preferred temperature it will likely be overcooked as the residual heat takes it above your desired temperature. Removing your meat from the heat when it’s a few degrees away from your ideal temperature will ensure that it’s perfect when it’s completed the rest.)
The only question that’s left is, “How do you like it cooked?”
Jay Kiefer says
Medium Rare every day
That makes two of us!
Scott @ Outdoor Cooking Magic says
I prefer my meats well done. I know that’s not the preferred answer, but that’s how I like it. So the challenge is get there and no more, so that the meat doesn’t get dried out.
franklin troiso says
I am going to cook a 10 lb. pork butt until it turns into pulled pork. I know the inernal temperature should be 200 dwegrees. I have cooked 5 to 7 pound pork butts at 225 degrees but a ten pounde would take almost 20 hours figuring 2 hours pe pound. also, forthe first time i will brine the meat. Will this make any diffeenwe in he cooking time?? I have seen soe rexcipes callingfor a temperature of 325 degrees and cooking a ten pound roast for 8 and a half hours.
Any sugestions plese
Hi Franklin – Thanks for the comments and questions. First, brining will not effect the cook time or temperature. It will however effect the taste. Brining is a good way to get flavor deep inside the pork shoulder without an injection. As for cooking, are you smoking the meat, or cooking it in the oven? Either way, low temp (225-250°F) will take a little longer, but nowhere near 20 hours. I can cook at 13lb pork shoulder on my cooker at 250°F in about 6-8 hours. Rather than focus on time, use an oven thermometer to monitor the temp of the shoulder while it’s in the oven and you won’t have to worry about the clock. When it hits 195°F remove it from the heat and let it rest. If you’re pressed for time and need to cook it a little higher – say 325°F – make sure you wrap the meat as soon as you see a rich mahogany color – otherwise you risk burning the bark. If you have anymore questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.
franklin troiso says
Jesse – Thank you for your quick reply and I am afraid i need anoher quick one. I will be cooking the roast in a regular oven. The reason i wanted to know how long to cook it is because it has to be ready around 6 pm. I would still loke to cook it at 225 degrees so how long do you think i will have to cook it a that temperature to have it ready for 6 pm. I am also using my new thermapan for the first time and am looking forward to that also.
To be safe, I would start the cook at 10am. If by 4 you’re not at least up to 170°F+ you can crank up the oven a few degrees and get the ball rolling a little faster. The key is to try and leave it alone for as long as you can. For the first 4 hours I wouldn’t even open the oven door. Remove it about 30 minutes prior to serving and let it rest. Also, you’ll want it to cool down a bit before you pull it. When using the Thermapen remember to probe the thickest part of the shoulder and that will give you a good indication of overall doneness.
franklin troiso says
Jesse – Thank you so much for this good advice. I will do it exactly as you suggested. Onwe more thng. When you cook your roast do you cover it with foil at any time during cooking. I usually cover it for th4e first two hours and then remove it for the rest of the cooking time
In the case of Pulled Pork, leave it uncovered for as long as you can to get a nice bark on the outside. Only cover it when the color starts to change (i.e. it gets black). If you haven’t brined it yet, here’s a quick tip to get a nice smoky flavor (like it just came off the pit) – add a bit of liquid smoke to your brine. After about 4 to 5 hours spritz it with apple juice every 30 minutes or so to keep the surface cool and add a little flavor.
franklin troiso says
Jesse – I can’t thank you enough for your useful information and i will for sure visit hee again and let you know how it turned out.
franklin troiso says
Jesse – first off, the pulled pork came out simply perfect but the cooking times and temperature wee all screwed up. I starte3d it out uncov ered at 10 am at a temperature of 275. Did not even open up the oven door for the first 6 hoursand then when i checked the internal temperature it was 170 degrees just like you said it should be. After 7 and a half hours the roast looked great but the internal tempeature was no where near the 195 mark so i uped it up to 325 degres for the final half hour. at 8 hours i rechecked the roast and it was still below the 195 and i tried to pull some meat off the bne without much success so i left it in for another half hour but it was sill not done so it stood in the oven for another hour and and a half.. so total cooking time turned out to be 7 and a half hours at 225 degrees and another hour and a half at 325. I have a picture if wich i can post here because it looked down right delicious. It was perfect. he meat just about fell of the bone.
I cooked this roast in a new stove so i will check to see if the temperature was true the next time i go up to MA which is where i will be moving to shortly.
Thanks again for all your help.
It helps to understand what kind of meat. I’m about to cook a ham. This sounds as if it is written for beef.
The concepts here are applicable across meats, so pork, beef, lamb…they all behave similarly.