Breaking Vegetarian: How to Cook Meat Safely and Successfully

Paste's column on eating meat mindfully

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The seven years I spent as a vegetarian were from age 19 to 26. Before that, I’d never been much of a cook, only occasionally helping out in my family’s kitchen by chopping the vegetables for a salad, or boiling some water for pasta. When I moved out on my own, I muddled my way through, learning to cook grains and some vegetables, and heating soy-based meat substitute products. I’d gone from my parents’ house to a college dining hall to my own vegetarian kitchen with a vegetarian partner, which meant that at age 26, I had almost no idea how to cook meat.

Since I’d grown up eating meat, I wasn’t completely clueless. I knew what medium rare looked like on the inside of a steak, but I didn’t know how to make it happen myself. The first few forays back into meat-eating were incredibly educational, not just in terms of learning how to prepare meat safely and well, but in terms of illuminating just how much there was to consider.

First, there are practical issues of handling meat safely that began before cooking. I didn’t know, for instance, how long I could safely keep packaged meat in the refrigerator before I had to cook or freeze it. I didn’t know there was a different between defrosting meat in the refrigerator or in the microwave. The most significant lesson I learned the first time I cooked meat was that of cross-contamination: the plate, knife, cutting board, and cooking utensils I used to prepare meat had to be washed thoroughly, before being used for anything else, and I had to make sure to keep uncooked meat away from any other ingredients.

This may all sound obvious, but none of these are factors for preparing grains, vegetables, or tofu. Despite the fact that I was an adult, I was very much a beginner when I started cooking meat. I still regularly find myself checking the USDA safe handling guidelines.

Many of my other ex-vegetarian friends echo this learning process. “I think I Google ‘steak cooking times’ about once a month,” said former vegan Steff Lyon. And another friend, MC Geyer, reminded me of one of my favorite kitchen helpers, saying “A meat thermometer became my best friend, and still is. You know when it’s done, and it saves you from overcooking out of caution.”

I use an instant-read digital thermometer that my sister gave me for Christmas two years ago, shortly after I started eating meat again—which is to say, it doesn’t have to be anything fancy. If you want to comparison shop, Wired has an easy-to-understand round up of a few common instant-read models. Whatever kind you use, testing the meat’s temperature guarantees it’s cooked safely without having to rely solely on a recipe’s cooking time, or cutting into the meat too soon.

But the most significant resource I had in the kitchen with me when I started cooking meat was a trusted, seasoned omnivore. It was my friend looking over my shoulder who saved me from putting the cooked chicken breast back on the same plate I’d used to prepare it when raw, and who helped me figure out how to package the leftovers safely. It was he, too, who taught me how disgusting meat packaging smells when left in the garbage for a few days, and taught me how often I would now need to take out the trash.

Flickr/Ronald Sarayudej

I probably could have looked much of those guidelines up myself, but these fell into the realm of things I didn’t know I didn’t know—concerns that wouldn’t have even occurred to me because they didn’t apply to vegetarian cooking.

Having a bevy of meat-eating friends and resources around also helped me discover another realm I hadn’t considered for years: how meat should taste. When I ate my first chicken breast post-vegetarian, I commented that I’d forgotten how hard you have to work to chew meat. I couldn’t believe how chewy it was, and I honestly couldn’t remember whether it was supposed to be like that. After learning the basics of safely handling meat in the kitchen, I had a whole new world open up: how to figure out what tasted good.

The first strategies I used were simply to stay in my cooking comfort zone. I used tried and true recipes and added or substituted meat into them. I made chicken pot pie instead of my usual all-vegetable pot pie. I made fajitas using flank steak instead of fake steak strips. I tried using cubed pork instead of tofu in my stir-frying. A few times, I even realized I’d been adapting traditional meat-based recipes into vegetarian ones, and simply converted them back.

I also had a few cookbooks that offers optional meat add-ins to vegetarian recipes, and I found experimenting with those to be helpful in developing a palate for meat, and an understanding of which favors fit with which types of meat. I’m still a completely trial-and-error chef, so I’ve found a handful of blogs and cookbooks that feel accessible, and whose tastes I trust, which makes sure I keep experimenting with new ideas and ingredients.

I’m also learning that I’ve got a long way to go to keep learning, in terms of cooking both meat and vegetables. Discovering, for instance, that there was an enormous difference between cooking a steak in the oven, on the stovetop, and on the grill, was a revelation, and I thought I hated pork chops until I’d had one that had been brined before cooking. I’ve learned not to give up on a type of meat without trying several different recipes and different cooking methods before I figure out the one that tastes best.

And with meat, as with veggies, I’ve discovered not to ignore unfamiliar ingredients. As former vegetarian Antonia Malchik commented, ”...getting more serious about ethically eating meat made me learn more about cooking beyond steak and roast chicken because, if you’re going that route, using the whole animal is really important.”

One of the best ways I’ve found to go beyond the pork chop and the chicken breast is to buy directly from the farmer, producer, or butcher shop, all of which happen to be excellent omnivore resources. Whenever I buy a new cut of meat at the farmer’s market, I ask the farmer how to cook it, or if she has any recipes she recommends. The people who raise this meat likely cook and eat it all the time, so they can recommend one preparation method or flavor profile over another.

More than anything, learning to cook meat has taught me not to be afraid to be adventurous, with new cooking techniques or new ingredients, and to welcome as many other voices and ideas as possible into my kitchen. That’s something I learned as a child, when three generations of my family crowded in together to make ravioli, and rediscovering that cooking is a communal activity has been one of the best parts of eating omnivore yet.

Suggested Resources:

* Food safety information, including a section about storing, handling, and cooking meat safely.

* The food safety and sustainability arm of Consumer Reports, which includes up-to-date warnings about pesticides, contaminants, and a guidelines for reading supermarket labels to choose the safest, most sustainable meat.

*Almost Meatless: Recipes That Are Better for Your Health and the Planet by Joy Manning and Tara Mataraza Desmond: This cookbook offers recipes that include meat in smallish amounts as an enhancement, rather than a feature. It’s especially useful for those who want to integrate meat in their diet, but don’t have the budget (or inclination) to make it the center of their dinner plate.

*The Adaptable Feast: Satisfying Meals for the Vegetarians, Vegans, and Omnivores at Your Table by Ivy Manning: Manning developed these recipes to be adaptable for vegetarians and omnivores, so not only are they flexible—they offer a template of the thought process necessary to incorporate meat in future meals.

*Flex Appeal: The Vegetarian Cookbook for Families with Meat-Eaters by Nettie Cronish and Pat Crocker: This cookbook takes the position that a strictly vegan diet and a diet that includes some sustainable meat products can be equally ethical, and offers primarily vegetarian recipes that highlight organic and seasonal produce with optional meat add-ins.

Marissa Landrigan’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, Creative Nonfiction, Orion, Guernica, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She received her MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University, where she completed a food memoir titled “The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat.” She currently lives in western Pennsylvania, where she runs the food-themed reading series Acquired Taste, and teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown.