Good news for newbie chefs! Most go-to animal protein sources are pretty difficult to mess up, says Rocco DiSpirito, professional chef and author of The Negative Calorie Diet. But cooking fish, fowl and red meat can be intimidating, especially if you’ve never really done it. How do you know when that turkey burger is done? Which cut of beef is best? It’s about time you learn how to cook protein once and for all.
Whether it’s chicken, fish, steak, or tofu, the stuff is really good for you. “Protein is what your body primarily needs for fuel,” says DiSpirito. “If you don’t get enough of it, your muscle mass can start to decompose.” According to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, around 10 to 35 percent of our daily calories should come from protein. (If you work out regularly, that number should be on the higher end of the spectrum in order to help repair broken-down muscles.)
From knowing the right cut to purchase to applying the best cooking tricks even the pros use, we’ve got you covered with this beginner’s guide to cooking protein.
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How to Cook Every Type of Meat (And Tofu)
Chicken is a winning option for health-conscious cooks. It packs iron, potassium, and vitamin A, while remaining low in fat. It’s also slow to digest, meaning it keeps you full, and packs up to 25 grams of protein per three-ounce serving, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This bird is incredibly versatile, too. “It gives you a broad, blank canvas to riff on, so you can really experiment with flavor,” says DiSpirito. You can microwave it, bake it, roast it — but the most common way to start is by grilling a boneless, skinless chicken breast.
What to buy: Leg meat has more cholesterol, says DiSpirito, so stick with the breast if you’re watching your intake. Otherwise, it’s OK to enjoy drumsticks now and then, as those legs contain myoglobin, which is what makes the meat dark. It also signals an abundance of nutrients and minerals like zinc, folic acid, selenium and phosphorous. Going boneless and skinless is the simplest way to get started. If important to you, look for organic or humanely raised chicken.
How to cook it: First off, cooking chicken inherently comes with a risk of salmonella. Many people “wash” chicken before cooking it, but DiSpirito says that spreads bacteria instead of preventing it. When you’re done cooking, too, wipe down your surfaces with apple cider vinegar instead of a bleach solution.
If you’re cooking the meat on the grill or stove, chicken needs to reach 160 degrees to be fully done. Don’t go over that, as the meat will start to dry out. DiSpirito suggests beginners use a pocket thermometer that has a digital readout of the meat’s internal temperature. “Once it reaches 150 degrees, pull the chicken off and allow it to rest (or sit away from a heat source) for a few minutes,” he says. “It’ll go up the last 10 degrees by the time you slice into it and serve.”
Try this recipe: Easy One-Pot Baked Pesto Chicken
Fish is a lean source of protein (about 19 to 26 grams for three ounces) and doesn’t have any of the cholesterol that chicken leg has. The FDA recommends eating eight to 12 ounces of fish that have low mercury levels (like salmon, shrimp and cod) each week. They also provide omega-3 fatty acids (good for cholesterol and blood pressure), and iron.
What to buy: Look for local, wild fish (avoid the farmed variety), and opt for a whole fish whenever you can, says DiSpirito. It’s more likely to be fresh and less expensive. (Plus, your supermarket will typically filet it for you for free.) Steer clear of tilapia, says DiSpirito, since it’s usually farm-raised.
How to cook it: “Overcooked fish is not a pleasant experience. You can tell it’s reached that point when there’s a white film of liquid protein that shows up on the flaky layers,” says DiSpirito. Cook it at a low heat to avoid that. You’ll know it’s done when the fish is opaque and separates easily with a fork. White fish, like halibut and flounder, are best served fully cooked (about 145 degrees, according to the FDA). But heartier varieties like tuna can be rare, says DiSpirito.
Try this recipe: Grilled Fish Tacos
Cooking Red Meat
Rare, medium, well done? Cooking red meat can be more advanced. But it’s worth it — lean red meat provides important nutrients like iron and protein. Just indulge in moderation: The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends limiting your red meat intake to 18 ounces per week
What to buy: For kitchen newbies, DiSpirito’s a big fan of skirt steak. It’s “not expensive, really hard to overcook and kind of gets better the more you cook it,” he says. Sirloin, hangar cuts and tenderloin are also great budget-friendly options. When you shop, request a fresh cut or ask how recently the meat was butchered. If you’re choosing from a display case, Dispirito says to keep an eye on the color of your meat. Discolored spots can indicate improper handling, and a darker shade of brown reveals it’s been sitting a while.
How to cook it: Rare starts in the 120-degree range, according to DiSpirito, so use a meat thermometer to monitor your dish. It’s all about practice until you know what rare, medium and well-done range look like when you cut into it. When you’re slicing your meat, cutting against the grain will help preserve a steak’s tenderness and prevent it from being too chewy. Look for the string-like strand of protein, says DiSpirito, and cut perpendicular to that.
Try this recipe: Steak and Quinoa Salad
You’ll get serious bang for your buck with this meat. “It’s got great flavor, is really low in fat, and it shrinks less than chicken or beef when you cook it, so it’s super filling,” DiSpirito says. You’ll also find a ton of good-for-you minerals in turkey, like iron, zinc, phosphorous, potassium and all the B vitamins.
What to buy: “Look for packages that don’t say previously frozen, as that affects the flavor and mouth feel dramatically,” says DiSpirito. If you’re able, shop for local meat that hasn’t been factory farmed. DiSpirito says those are typically on the leaner side because the birds have more outdoor activity.
How to cook it: Turkey dries out quickly because of the lower fat and high-protein content. DiSpirito recommends using a meat thermometer to ensure the turkey reaches 145 to 150 degrees. Once it does, take it off the heat source. Meatballs using ground turkey are a simple way for beginners to get cooking. Another suggestion: Pound turkey cutlets so they’re super thin, then brush them with a puree of olive oil and your favorite seasonings.
Try this recipe: Turkey Meatball Soup
Cooking with Tofu
Is meat off the table for you? With 10 grams of protein in half a cup, tofu is a solid protein option. DiSpirito says you’ll get all nine of the essential amino acids that your body needs but doesn’t naturally produce. You’ll score 434 mg of calcium, too, which covers about 43 percent of your daily needs. That said, DiSpirito suggests limiting your intake because tofu is a processed food. Having a serving of tofu for added protein isn’t bad per se, but DiSpirito recommends choosing other options when possible.
What to buy: It depends on what you’re making: tofu comes in very firm and soft varieties. “The firmer it is, the easier it is to cook without it breaking in the pan,” says DiSpirito. Adding protein to a frittata? Go with a firmer option. If you’re looking to crumble some in a salad, buy a softer variety.
How to cook it: “It’s very easy to cook, and there are so many applications,” says DiSpirito. “It has a relatively mild flavor, so it’s really what you serve with it that’s most important.” He recommends pressing out the water for a firmer texture, then glazing it with balsamic vinegars before throwing it in the skillet for a few minutes.
Try this recipe: Asparagus, Mushroom and Tofu Stir-Fry
Originally published April 2016. Updated June 2017.