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Michael Schlow on Cooking Meat 'Low and Slow'

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Photo: Megan Elmstrom Pappadopoulos

When Radius was open, the burger was the stuff of legend, so when its creator, Michael Schlow, talks about cooking meat, it'd be wise to listen. He's always been a big proponent of cooking things "low and slow," a phrase that comes up a lot in barbecue-heavy sections of the country but less so around these parts. Schlow like to apply to it to the vast majority of proteins. For The Five Days of Meat, here's Schlow on "low and slow" and how you can apply the technique to your summer grilling.

So, you like to cook things "low and slow."
It's been an adage of mine for a long, long time. It's funny, even Mario Batali wrote about it in the intro to my cookbook. I think his line was, "Michael Schlow is the first American chef I ever saw turn the ovens down." I have been a huge proponent of low-temperature cooking of most proteins — I wouldn't say all — for a long time, especially when it comes to meat.

The thought process really was inspired by a dear friend of mine, Craig Shelton. I was sitting having coffee Craig, who is this very smart chef. He graduated summa cum laude from Yale in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, so he understands what is happening to the products, not just cooking them and trying to get good taste out of them. The long and short of it is that we're taught as young cooks to never allow things like confit or a braise to boil. It always has to cook at a low temperature for a long period of time so that it becomes really tender and juicy and has an interesting and good mouthfeel to it. So Craig was experimenting at the time with a confit de porc dish, and we were messing around with it, different cuts and whatnot. I started doing it to everything, to be honest with you.

The steak that I served at Radius for 15 years that ended up in my cookbook — a barrelled-out ribeye, just the center (we'd save the cap for other presentations) — we would sear it and baste it with herbs, salt, and pepper. The trick was to put it on a wire rack so it was elevated over a sheet pan, letting it cook more evenly as the air circulates, cooked in only a 300-degree oven. When you cut into that piece of meat — and you can do this with lamb chops, duck, chicken, anything — the protein is cooked more evenly. It's the theory behind sous vide, too, but that's in a bag and temperature-controlled and over a longer period of time, while this is obviously in the oven.

You can do it with hamburgers, too. The trick to a great hamburger is for it to not see intense heat. If you do a thin patty, that's one thing, but for bigger burgers, don't have it see intense heat the entire time. If a product starts to seize a little bit at intense heat, it starts to get a little harder, a little firmer, and I think you lose something there. You can cook away some of the juices. What ends up happening is the outside of the meat starts to become a little well-done, and those juices are gone; they've been cooked away. But really low temperature for a longer period of time? It's been a style and a technique that I've used for 25 years.

With grilling season here, what are some of the best things to cook low and slow?
In terms of technique, there are two things you can do, and it depends on the type of grill you have. If you have a good old-fashioned grill, you can make two parts — one part is the hot part, one part is sort of the cooler part. If you have a fancier grill with a top shelf, then you create a low-temperature oven. I do this all the time. Let's say you want to make a sirloin steak. I season it really liberally with salt and pepper, some chopped rosemary, some chopped fresh thyme, and that's it. A little bit of olive oil on the meat. I get the grill really hot, I sear the meat on both sides, and then I put it up onto the secondary shelf, close the door to the grill, and turn the oven almost to off. What's happened is it's captured all the heat of the meat. That second shelf now acts as the wire rack, so it's higher than the direct flames, and it cooks more evenly this way. You might have to turn it once or twice.

A great steak or some ribeyes, bone-in — cooking them a little longer and a little slower gives an infinitely juicier piece of meat as a final product, and it doesn't shrink as much. Everything changes by cooking at a lower temperature.

Previously, M.F. Dulock butcher Jesse Hassinger shared some ideas about alternative steak cuts that are good for grilling — tri-tip, etc...
Yeah, tri-tip is great...there are very few steaks that aren't really delicious by grilling. The sirloin, a ribeye, a skirt steak, hanger steak — all of these things. Skirt steak is thinner, but again if you lightly marinate it, grill it, put it up on that top rack, and shut the door, you're going to find that you have a much juicier piece of meat and one that tastes a little bit better.

My favorite steaks to grill would be a hanger steak, sirloin, ribeye...I love cooking a butterflied leg of lamb like that, but that I usually marinate overnight. If you cook it the way I'm suggesting, it'll be really juicy and very flavorful. I think that the texture of the meat is improved by cooking it at a lower temperature. You could still get what people call caramelization, but we have to be careful between caramelization and charring. There's a gentle difference. Charring is bordering on burning, but we love that flavor of charred meat. We love that. So you can still achieve that flavor and a delicious texture on the outside by starting out with high heat and then lowering the heat.

If you think about it, it's really the way people are taught to cook a holiday roast or a prime rib. Blast it first, then low temperature, or vice versa. It works for turkey, too. When I cook turkey for Thanksgiving, I actually take the whole turkey apart, and I cook it at 250 degrees for a long time. I cook it separately — the legs and thighs separate from the breast — and then I blast it to crisp the skin up. It's the best, juiciest turkey you could ever make. I'm not patting myself on the back here, but you try it and you'll become a convert. How many people truly carve a turkey tableside, anyway? Nobody does it anymore; it's really hard to handle once it's out of the oven. The turkey, the way God created it, is not really made to cook evenly. When the breast is done, the legs and thighs are still too rare, and if you cook until the legs and thighs are cooked, then the breast is overcooked, so that's why I like to cook them separately, and it really turns out so much better.

The slow and low has been sort of a hallmark of our cooking for a long, long time. Doesn't matter if I'm doing chicken, turkey, lamb, steak...I always have the same or similar approach. People seem really happy with the final results, so I'm going to keep doing it!
· All coverage of Michael Schlow on Eater [~EBOS~]
· All coverage of The Five Days of Meat on Eater [~EBOS~]

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