Meat, especially red meat and pork, has been the subject of controversy. It’s higher in saturated fat and cholesterol, so according to some folks, it should be limited or even avoided altogether. Despite being wrongly vilified, we’ll set aside that debate for today as we’ve already covered much of that information and the science in past blogs (“Why You Need More Fat” and “The Truth About Cholesterol“, respectively).
Since you are reading this article, you likely include meat as part of your healthy diet. We don’t blame you: It’s satisfying and delicious. While vegan and vegetarian diets can also be healthy, meat provides valuable nutrients—some of which are not available in plant foods. In short, meat can indeed be part of a healthy diet, as this protein powerhouse provides key nutrients like B vitamins, zinc, and iron.
Yet, the extent of its health benefits depends on how it’s cooked. In fact, cooking meat the wrong way can complete negate, if not outweigh, the potential health benefits.
Ditch the Deep Fryer
You probably are already aware that deep-frying is out. Sure, it can be a quick, inexpensive, and tasty way to cook fish, chicken, turkey, etc., but it can be a vehicle for unnecessary calories and unhealthy, inflammatory fats. Take baked vs. deep-fried cod, for example. The baked version provides just 105 calories and 1 gram of fat for a 100-gram serving. Deep-fried cod, on the other hand, has more than double the calories at 232 with a whopping 12 grams of fat for the same serving size.
Worse, deep-fried foods are typically loaded with unhealthy fats, including omega-6 fats and trans fatty acids, which increase the risks of inflammatory disease, 1 diabetes, 2 heart disease, 3, 4 and obesity. 5 When meat is deep-fried, it’s also more likely to increase levels of toxic byproducts like aldehydes, advanced glycation end-products (AGEs), and heterocyclic amines (HAs). (More on these compounds below.)
How About Grilling or Broiling?
What about grilling and broiling? These are two very popular cooking methods—especially for those of us who are interested in eating leaner meats.
However, because they involve high temperatures (375˚ to 450˚ F for grilling and 500˚ to 550˚ F for broiling), as the fat drips onto the cooking surface, grilling and broiling can lead to the production of potentially toxic chemicals like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which have been linked to cancer. (Interestingly, studies have found that removing drippings can reduce the formation of PAH by up to 89%. 6)
While those are some appreciable downsides to those cooking methods, we know how important it is to cook meat before it’s consumed. After all, cooking:
- Kills harmful bacterial, including salmonella and E. coli
- Breaks down tough fibers and connective tissue
- Makes meat easier to chew
- Enhances nutrient (e.g., protein) absorption
On the other hand, when you cook meat, you do lose some nutrients and antioxidants, depending on how long it’s cooked and what method is used. In addition, as mentioned above, when cooking at high temperatures, harmful compounds can develop which may increase disease risk.
So, how should you cook meat, reduce the risks, and maintain the health benefits?
Low & Slow is the Way to Go
Several cooking options involve lower heats. While it may take a little longer for dinner to hit the table, on the positive side, research shows that it can also reduce the formation of AGEs. 11
By roasting or baking meats at lower temperatures (300˚ to 425˚ F) for longer (30 minutes to an hour), the meat not only stays tender, it also maintains higher levels of vitamins B and C. In addition, if you keep the juices that drip off your meat and serve them with the meat, you can maintain even more nutrients.
You can also cook your meat with “moist heat” (i.e., in liquid), which allows you to keep the temperatures lower and limits the formation of AGEs. 11 Three of the most popular methods are poaching (140˚ to 180˚ F), stewing (160˚ to 180˚ F), and simmering (185˚ to 200˚ F). Just make sure you serve your meat with the cooking juices/liquids (as you would with a stew) to avoid the loss of a great deal of the B vitamins—up to 60%.
What about a slow cooker? Great idea! The lower temperatures (190˚ to 250˚ F) help limit the formation of harmful chemicals. It’s also a very convenient way to prepare dinner. Place dinner in the slow cooker at the beginning of the day, and when you come home six to eight hours later, it’s ready to serve. And even if you use tougher, leaner cuts of meat, you’ll be rewarded with tender and tasty meat. The only drawback is that due to the longer cooking time, you can lose B vitamins, and some of the more delicate meats (like chicken breast) may become too soft or mushy.
Best Ways to Cook Meat Quick
If you want your dinner done in a hurry, grab your wok or skillet and pan or stir-fry. While higher temperatures are involved, cooking times are also greatly reduced, which helps the meat maintain its flavor and stay tender. The quick cooking times also help retain more nutrients and are less likely to oxidize the fats and cholesterol in the meat.
The key drawback of these methods of cooking is the formation of HAs, which are also linked to cancer. 12 Fortunately, there’s a simple way to help reduce the formation of the HAs: use an antioxidant-rich marinade before cooking. By combining vegetables, herbs (e.g., rosemary, sage, mint, tarragon), spices (e.g., cinnamon, ginger, cloves), and even fruits with the meats as they’re cooking, levels of HAs can be decreased by up to 90%. 13 Using acidic ingredients, such as lemon juice or vinegar, can also be helpful.
The cooking oils you use to keep your meat from sticking are also important. Remember to choose oils that can stand the heat, such as avocado oil, ghee, or animal fat.
The Instant Pot® has gained great popularity in recent years and for good reason. It takes all of the benefits of the old-fashioned pressure cooker and minimizes the risks. It’s a fast and easy way to cook meat, poultry, and much more in a fraction of the time. And because it takes less time to cook, it maintains the nutrients in the food while increasing flavor and tenderness.
Bottom Line: What’s the Healthiest Way to Cook Meat?
There are numerous healthy ways to cook meat, so you don’t need to prepare it just one way. While we recommend staying away from deep-frying and limiting grilling and broiling, you still have a number of great options.
Three of our favorite healthy ways to cook meat are using moist heat (e.g., poaching, braising), slow cooking, and pressure cooking. These three methods are both convenient and healthy and leave you with mouth-watering meats that are tender and delicious. And when in doubt, it doesn’t hurt to increase the antioxidants by adding vegetables and spices in a yummy marinade.