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What Is the Healthiest Way to Cook Meat?

Meat is a staple food in many diets. It’s tasty, satisfying and
is an excellent source of high-quality protein and other
important nutrients.

However, different cooking methods can affect the quality and
healthiness of meat.

This article takes a detailed look at the changes that occur in
meat during cooking. It also provides guidance for choosing the
healthiest cooking methods.

Chicken Roasting in the Oven

How You Cook Your Meat Matters

Humans have been cooking meat for at least 250,000 years,
according to estimates. Cooking meat breaks down any tough
fibers and connective tissue, which makes it easier to chew and
digest. It also leads to better nutrient absorption (1, 2).

In addition, cooking meat properly kills harmful bacteria such
as Salmonella and E. coli, which can cause
food poisoning that results in illness or even death (3, 4).

However, cooking meat can reduce its antioxidant capacity,
depending on how it is cooked and for how long (5).

Nutrients can also be lost during the process of cooking meat.
The extent to which this occurs is strongly influenced by the
cooking method.

What’s more, heating meat to high temperatures for long time
periods can lead to the formation of harmful compounds that may
increase disease risk.

Choosing cooking methods that minimize nutrient loss and
produce the lowest amounts of harmful chemicals can maximize
the health benefits of consuming meat.

Read on for an overview of how different cooking methods affect
meat.

Bottom Line: Although cooking meat makes it
easier to digest and kills harmful germs, it can also reduce
the nutrient content and create harmful chemicals that
potentially increase disease risk.

Roasting and Baking

Roasting and baking are similar forms of cooking using dry
heat. Dry heat cooking differs from moist heat methods, where
meat is cooked in water or another liquid.

The term roasting typically refers to cooking meat in a large
dish called a roasting pan. A roasting pan often includes a
rack to keep the meat above the juices that drip down as it
cooks.

This can also be done with an oven rotisserie, a device that
allows meat to cook on a slow-turning spit. This technique is
usually reserved for cooking large pieces of meat or entire
animals, such as chickens or turkeys.

By contrast, baking is generally used for chicken, poultry or
fish rather than red meat. The meat is cooked in a baking dish
that may be covered or open.

Temperatures for roasting and baking range from 300–425°F
(149–218°C) and cooking time may vary from 30 minutes to an
hour or more, depending on the type and cut of meat.

Generally speaking, roasting and baking are healthy forms of
cooking that result in minimal losses of vitamin C.

However, during long cooking times at high temperatures, up to
40% of B vitamins may be lost in the juices that drip from the
meat (6).

Gathering these juices and serving them with the meat, which is
sometimes called au jus on menus, can help minimize nutrient
loss.

Bottom Line: Roasting and baking are similar
forms of healthy cooking, especially at lower temperatures
and cooking times. Serving meat au jus can replace some of
the B vitamins lost in cooking.

Grilling and Broiling

Grilled Meat and Vegetables

Grilling and broiling are very similar dry heat,
high-temperature cooking methods.

Grilling involves cooking with a heat source directly below
your food, such as an open grill or barbecue. Grilling
temperatures usually range from 375–450°F (190–232°C).

In broiling, the heat source comes from above, such as the
broiler in your oven. Broiling occurs at very high
temperatures, typically 500–550°F (260–288°C).

Grilling is extremely popular because it imparts a delicious
flavor to meat, especially steaks and burgers.

Unfortunately, this method of cooking often leads to the
production of potentially harmful chemicals.

When meat is grilled at high temperatures, fat melts and drips
onto the grill or cooking surface. This creates toxic compounds
called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
that can rise up and seep into the meat (7).

PAHs have been linked to several types of cancer, including
breast and pancreatic cancer (8, 9, 10, 11).

However, studies have found that removing drippings can reduce
PAH formation by up to 89% (7).

Another concern with both grilling and broiling is that they
promote the formation of compounds known as
advanced glycation end products
(AGEs).

AGEs have been linked to an increased risk of several diseases,
including heart disease, kidney disease and skin aging
(12, 13, 14).

They are created in the body as by-products of a chemical
reaction that occurs between sugars and proteins. They can also
form in foods during cooking, especially at high temperatures.

One study found that broiled beef had higher levels of AGEs
than beef cooked by other methods (15).

Keeping cooking times short and removing meat from high heat
before it becomes charred may help reduce the amount of AGEs
produced.

Bottom Line: Grilling is a popular form of
cooking that can produce toxic by-products known as PAHs.
Both grilling and broiling promote the formation of AGEs,
which may increase disease risk.

Simmering, Poaching and Stewing

Simmering, poaching and stewing are similar moist heat methods
of cooking.

Although cooking times are generally longer than for many other
cooking methods, temperatures are lower.

The three methods are classified by the temperature of the
cooking liquid:

  • Poaching: 140–180°F (60–82°C)
  • Stewing: 160–180°F (71–82°C)
  • Simmering: 185–200°F (85–93°C)

Lengthy cooking in liquids at temperatures above 200°F (93°C)
may cause meat
proteins to toughen.

Poaching involves shorter cooking times than stewing or
simmering and is reserved for delicate foods like chicken, fish
and duck.

Research has shown that cooking with moist heat at low
temperatures can minimize the formation of AGEs (16).

On the other hand, the lengthy cooking times for stewing and
simmering can lead to a loss of B vitamins, nutrients that are
typically high in meat and poultry.

Up to 60% of thiamine, niacin and other B vitamins may be lost
from the meat as its juices run off. Fortunately, consuming the
meat’s juices as part of a stew or soup can significantly
reduce these vitamin losses (6).

Bottom Line: Poaching, simmering and stewing
meat at low temperatures helps minimize the production of
AGEs. However, B vitamins can be lost during stewing or
simmering unless you also consume the cooking liquid.

Panfrying and Stir-Frying

Pan Fried Chicken on Gas Stove

Panfrying and stir-frying both refer to cooking meat with fat
in a skillet, wok or pot.

During stir-frying, food is continuously flipped or stirred
with a spatula as it cooks, while panfrying generally doesn’t
involve this type of constant movement.

Although these methods use high heat, cooking times are very
short, which helps maintain tender meat with good flavor.

These cooking techniques also promote the retention of
nutrients and are less likely than many other methods to cause
the cholesterol in fatty meats to become oxidized. Oxidized
cholesterol is considered a risk factor for heart disease
(17).

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On the other hand, panfrying and stir-frying have some
drawbacks.

Heterocyclic amines (HAs) are compounds capable of causing
cancer. They are formed when meat reaches high temperatures
during cooking. Studies have found that HAs often occur during
the panfrying of meat and poultry (18, 19, 20).

Marinating meat in mixtures containing fruits, vegetables,
herbs and spices high in antioxidants may help reduce the
formation of HAs. One study found that adding herbs to a
marinade decreased HAs by about 90% (21, 22).

In addition, it’s important to choose a healthy fat when
panfrying or stir-frying.

Most
vegetable and seed oils
are high in polyunsaturated fats
that are prone to damage at high temperatures. Heating these
oils also promotes the formation of oxygenated aldehydes, potentially cancer-causing chemicals
found in cooking fumes (23).

Palm oil and olive oil have been shown to form fewer aldehydes
than vegetable and seed oils during stir-frying and panfrying
(24, 25).

Other healthy cooking fats that are stable at high temperatures
include
coconut oil
, lard and tallow.

Bottom Line: Panfrying and stir-frying
involve cooking in fat at high heat for short periods of
time. Minimize the production of HAs and aldehydes by using
antioxidant-rich marinades and healthy cooking fats.

Deep-Frying

Deep-frying refers to completely immersing food in fat during
cooking.

Meat and poultry are sometimes, although not always, breaded or
coated in batter prior to being deep-fried.

Benefits of deep-frying meat include enhanced flavor, crispy
texture and excellent retention of vitamins and minerals
(26).

However, this cooking method also poses potential health risks.

Deep-frying has been shown to result in higher levels of toxic
by-products like AGEs, aldehydes and HAs than most other
cooking methods (12, 24, 27, 28).

The amount of fat absorbed by the meat during deep-frying can
also be significant, particularly if it’s breaded or battered.

Additionally, the unhealthy vegetable and seed oils typically
used for deep-frying may do more than increase calorie intake.
This method of cooking has been linked to increased cancer and
heart disease risk (29, 30).

Bottom Line: Deep-frying results in crispy,
flavorful meat. However, it tends to produce more harmful
chemicals than other cooking methods and is associated with
increased cancer and heart disease risk.

Slow Cooking

Slow Cooker

Slow cooking involves cooking for several hours in a slow
cooker, sometimes referred to as a crock pot. This is a large,
electronically heated ceramic bowl with a glass lid.

Cooking temperature settings on a slow cooker range from 190°F
(88°C) for the low setting to 250°F (121°C) for the high
setting. These low temperatures minimize the formation of
potentially harmful compounds.

The major advantage of slow cooking is its ease and
convenience. Meat can simply be seasoned and placed in the slow
cooker in the morning, allowed to cook for six to eight hours
without needing to be checked, then removed and served at
dinnertime.

Slow cooking is similar to simmering and stewing meat.
Unfortunately, it also results in the loss of B vitamins
released in the juice as the meat cooks (31).

Slow cooking makes tougher cuts of meat, such as brisket,
tender and flavorful.

However, it can sometimes cause poultry and other delicate
meats to become overly soft and mushy, especially with longer
cooking times.

Bottom Line: Slow cooking is a convenient
method of cooking meat at low temperatures using moist heat.
Disadvantages include some loss of B vitamins and an overly
soft texture for certain meats.

Pressure Cooking

Pressure cooking is a form of moist heat cooking that has
regained popularity in recent years because it allows food to
cook very quickly and uses less energy than other methods.

A pressure cooker is a pot with a sealed lid and a safety valve
that controls the pressure of steam that builds up inside.

The steam’s pressure raises the boiling point of water from
212°F (100°C) to as high as 250°F (121°C). This higher heat
results in faster cooking times.

The main advantage of cooking in a pressure cooker is that it
significantly decreases the time it takes to cook meat or
poultry.

What’s more, pressure cooking leads to less oxidation of
cholesterol than some other cooking methods, provides flavor
and tenderness to meats and minimizes vitamin losses (32, 33, 34).

One disadvantage is that if the device needs to be opened to
check food for doneness, this temporarily stops the cooking
process.

Also, similar to slow cooking, pressure cooking may result in
some types of meat becoming overly soft.

Bottom Line: Pressure cooking uses moist
heat and pressure to cook food quickly. It provides good
nutrient retention, but may not be suitable for all cuts of
meat.

Sous Vide

Vacuum Packed Meat Ready for Sous-Vide Cooking

Sous vide is a French term that translates to “under vacuum.”

In sous vide, meat is sealed in an airtight plastic bag and
cooked for one to several hours in a temperature-controlled
water bath.

With certain types of meat, such as steak, sous vide cooking is
followed by quick pan searing to provide a brown crust.

Sous vide uses the lowest temperature range of all cooking
methods: 130–140°F (55–60°C). Cooking at these temperatures can
help reduce the formation of potentially harmful chemicals.

Also, because the cooking time and temperature can be precisely
controlled, the meat is reported to be more tender and evenly
cooked than meat cooked with other methods (35, 36).

In addition, all juices produced during cooking remain in the
bag with the meat, resulting in better retention of B vitamins
and other nutrients.

Cooking a steak sous vide can take an hour or more, which is
considerably longer than grilling. On the other hand, the meat
can be safely held at the desired temperature for several
hours.

Furthermore, according to one manufacturer, all sous vide
cooking bags have been independently tested and found to
contain no bisphenol A
(BPA) or other potentially harmful chemicals (37).

Bottom Line: Sous vide is a form of cooking
at low temperatures in a sealed package immersed in a water
bath, which results in a tender meat consistency, even
cooking and excellent nutrient retention.

What Is the Healthiest Way to Cook Meat?

From a health standpoint, the best ways to cook meat are slow
cooking, pressure cooking and sous vide.

However, all methods of cooking meat have advantages and
disadvantages.

Some of the most popular types, including grilling and
deep-frying, are concerning due to the high levels of toxic
by-products they create.

Poaching and other forms of moist heat cooking at lower
temperatures produce fewer of these compounds, but can result
in the loss of vitamins.

Choose healthy cooking methods, such as slow cooking, pressure
cooking and sous vide, whenever possible.

However, if you grill or deep-fry your meat, you can reduce the
risks by removing the drippings, not overcooking the meat and
using healthy fats and marinades.

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