Make the most of your holiday roast with these tips for cooking meat

Dec 4, 2014 at 8:00 a.m. ET
Image: Lauri Patterson/E+/Getty Images

There's no need to freak out if you're cooking a roast for your ultimate holiday meal — once you know these basic tips, buying and cooking meat of all kinds will be a cinch.

It can be daunting when you walk up to the butcher counter or meat cooler only to be faced with what seems like dozens of different cuts of meat, never mind labels like "organic," "grass-fed," "air-chilled," and more. What do they all mean? And which one will provide the tastiest holiday meal?

We're here to help you sort things out. And once you read the tips below, buying and cooking your holiday roast is going to be a whole lot easier.

Buying meat

1. Natural vs. organic

Certified organic indicates that the animal was given pesticide-free feed, wasn't fed hormones or antibiotics and it had access to the outdoors.

Natural doesn't mean much — just that nothing artificial has been added to the meat. It's not an official certification and therefore there isn't really a standard definition for this term. If you're looking for better-quality meat, you're better off going with certified organic.

2. Water-chilled vs. air-chilled

There are two ways to chill poultry after it's been processed.

In water chilling, the bird is submerged in cold water to keep it fresh. The downside is that the meat can absorb 5-10 percent water, meaning you're paying more for less meat. And, the meat itself can taste bland.

Air-chilled poultry is placed in very cold refrigeration. It doesn't take on any extra water, and therefore tends to be more flavorful — plus, you're not paying for any water weight.

3. Grass-fed vs. free range

Grass-fed means that the animals have been served a diet of just grass, not other grain feeds. If you're buying meat certified by the American Grassfed Association, you can also be assured that the animal was not raised in confinement, nor was it fed any antibiotics or growth hormones. Fans of grass-fed meat praise its leaner cuts, which are healthier, and the fact that it is often considered more humane than conventional meat. Because of the leanness of the meat, marinating, braising or cooking with butter can help keep it juicy and flavorful.

Free range is usually a term used for chickens. Free-range birds get to leave their enclosure for at least part of their day, rather than being confined for a full 24 hours a day. However, the term is unregulated at this point, and even birds kept in high-density floor confinement can be labeled as free range. If you're going to shell out the extra money, your best bet is to look for certified organic poultry — which has to be free range anyway — but is also fed an organic, hormone and antibiotic-free diet.

4. Prime vs. Choice vs. Select vs. Angus

The USDA grades beef based on two main criteria: marbling and maturity.

Prime is the hardest to get hold of, with most prime cuts being sold directly to upscale restaurants and hotels.

Choice is likely the best-quality beef you'll be able to get at your local grocery store. This meat is still very high quality, but has less fat marbling than Prime cuts.

Select beef is leaner, and can be tougher than Choice or Prime meat. Because of this, Select cuts are ideal for slow cooking or braising. The longer cooking time helps the connective tissues in the meat break down so it becomes more tender.

Angus beef is actually a brand. Certified Angus beef is always Choice or Prime, and is selected for its marbling, size and uniformity. Only 1.5 percent of beef becomes Certified Angus Beef® brand Prime.

Cooking meat

1. Searing to "seal in the juices"

It turns out this is a cooking myth. Searing before roasting doesn't seal in the juices — in fact, it may have the opposite effect. The high temperatures can shock the raw meat, causing it to expel more liquid. However, searing does improve the flavor of meat by causing a Maillard reaction — the browning of the meat. The solution? Try roasting your meat, then searing it in a hot pan once it's cooked. That way it stays moist, but still has that extra flavor.

2. How to defrost quickly

It's best to defrost meat in the refrigerator, overnight for smaller cuts of meat, and up to three days for large roasts or whole poultry. But there is a quick solution for smaller pieces. Put the meat in a sealed bag, and then submerge in hot tap water for 30 minutes. It's not long enough for bad bacteria to start growing, and is much less dangerous than leaving meat on the counter to defrost.

3. Resting after cooking

One of the best ways to dramatically improve your meat cooking technique is to make sure you let it rest after cooking. When you take a cut of meat out of the oven or off the stove, it's still full of heat. If you cut into it, all of the juices will spill right out, leaving you with a dry and tough piece of meat. Instead, tent the meat with foil and let it rest for 10 minutes. The juices have the chance to redistribute and your meat stays nice and juicy.

4. Use a meat thermometer

Guessing games and meat just don't go together, especially when we're talking poultry. A probe thermometer is the best way to make sure that your meat is cooked to a safe temperature. It also is the best way to make sure you don't overcook it. For instance, if you're roasting your Thanksgiving turkey and realize the breast is done but the legs still need a lot more time, you can save your dinner by cutting the legs from the bird and keeping them in the oven, while you let the breast meat rest. You'll have juicy white meat and perfectly cooked dark meat too.

5. Don't overwork that burger

Squashing the ground beef mixture for your burger or meatloaf may feel satisfying, but handle the meat too much and you destroy its protein structure. That leaves you with a tough, chewy mess instead of succulent, tender meat. Fold in any additions to the beef gently, and form the burger patties with as light a touch as you can muster. And whatever you do, don’t tightly pack your meatloaf into the pan. You may be surprised at what a difference it makes!

See all holiday articles >>

More on meat

16 Meatloaf and meatball recipes
How not to make your Thanksgiving turkey
Merlot and apricot pot roast recipe