Any suggestions for keeping meat moist for large parties? I'm an off-site caterer and really need a workable solution.
Unfortunately, like in most things culinary, there is no perfect formula for moist meat-the mass of the meat, type of transport container, cooking method, holding time and many other factors must be considered. Once you understand how these things work together, however, you'll be a pro.
Would You Like Red or White?
For catering and very large events I would suggest to use white meat such as pork, chicken, or veal. These are not as sensitive for overcooking and much easier to work with when it is difficult to control the temperature of the meat. If you need to work with red meat, try to keep it in whole pieces and cut on site, as close to serving as possible. The larger event the larger the challenge!
Transporting Your Meat
Make sure you know your transport containers well. There are electrical heating cabinets on wheels or carry boxes. These can be plugged in prior your transportation and brought to a holding temperature of about 80-90 degree Celsius, or 176-194 F. When you arrive to the catering site you can plug it in again. There are also insulated boxes that work like a Thermos, which are more commonly used. The electrical cabinets are very good, but depending on the time for holding, your meats will continue to cook slowly. In an insulated container, without any heat source, other than the meat itself, your meats will keep longer, but will still continue to cook.
Whatever transport container you choose, do not wrap your meat in aluminium foil as it will maintain too much heat and speed up the cooking process that continues after you take it from the oven. Instead, use wax paper, it is the absolute best. Wax paper keeps the meat moist and not reflect heat back to it. It keeps your meat warm just as long as aluminum-foil, but without the unpleasant side effect of the meat over cooking.
For Moister Meat, Turn Down the Oven!
The moisture of your meat is also determined by how you cook it, particularly what temperature you set. If you slow cook your meat it will not continue to cook as much as if you blast your meat at 400 F (200 C). Slow cooking for long period is the best method as it will prevent "bleeding" of the meat juices and it will give you a very nice and even color, inside and out. This method is best obtained in a rather precise convection oven. I would set my oven on 250 F (120 C) and cook the meat with a thermometer in the center.
There are modern convection ovens such as Rational or Electrolux. These fantastic "cooking computers" can be set to maintain exact temperature and moisture, and will even shut off and cool your meat automatically. Still, they can never replace your knowledge on how meat reacts to heat!
"Sous Vide" - Cooking in a Vacuum!
A more advanced method, superior to any method above, is called "sous vide" (meaning "cooked in vacuum"). With this method you will not lose ANY moisture as the meat is cooked in low temperature sealed in a bag. With this method you can also practice cook and chill. The meat is sterile in the bag, keeps well, and is very safe for transportation. On reheating you can put it in boiling water or a convection oven set to 220-250 F (105-120 C) and warm to medium rare or rare without risking ANY bacteria. Use a regular thermometer when you re-heat, but try to not let any liquid come in or go out in the hole you make in the bag.
With "Sous vide" you can easily use portion cut meat. If the portion size is the same on all cuts (and it should be!!), all pieces should be ready at the same time. Remember to be fast when you serve the portion pieces as they cool down much, much faster than a large piece of meat.
Practice Makes Perfect (And Builds Loyal Customers!)
If you master these techniques, your customers will love you, believe me! Ok, not every one will understand the extraordinary skills required to serve red meat medium for a 2000 person banquet, in a tent, in the middle of no where, but all will appreciate the fabulous meal you've provided for them.
Chef Bobo Bergstrom
The Edge Restaurant Bar & Sushi
St. Lucia West Indies