Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman
Done, doneness: Determining “doneness”—or when something is done, when it must come out of the heat, which can rarely be forecasted by total cooking time—is one of the most important skills a cook must learn. Because it’s a skill, it can never be perfected absolutely; rather a cook refines his or her skill by paying attention to everything cooked and always adding this accumulated observation into an understanding of when something is done. With some meats, doneness can be objective, cooking a sausage to, say 150 degrees. But a thermometer is only as good as the person using it. Pulling a standing rib roast from the oven at 120 degrees will yield different results depending how hot the oven was and how cold the meat was when it went in. If you determine a custard is done and thus pull it from the oven, that custard may well overcook once it’s out of the oven; it’s “done” shortly before its final temperature is reached because of carryover cooking. Braised dishes offer a broader window for doneness than lean roasted items, but it’s still a window and overcooking and undercooking are possible without some care from the cook. A cook should use all his or her senses when determining doneness. Learning to evaluate the doneness of meats by touch is an important skill and can only be achieved by practice. Because an important part of cooking meat is allowing it to rest, one doesn’t necessarily remove it from the heat when it’s done, rather, it’s done after it’s rested. A handy tool for testing doneness is a long thin needle or cake tester that can be inserted into the center of a piece of fish or meat, then held to your skin (wrist or below your lower lip) to know whether an interior is cold, warm or hot.
from The Elements of Cooking, page 112
Just about every culinary school instructor I’ve encountered responds to the question, “How long should I cook this for?” with the same answer: “Till it’s done.” I always found this annoying but their point is a valid one: time is not a reliable indicator of doneness, ever. We need to rely on all our senses, and often tools, to evaluate whether something is done, but there’s no getting around the fact that the only truly reliable tool for evaluating doneness is experience, combined with awareness—a long history of paying attention to your food as it cooks, how firm a steak is when it’s rare (above) and when it’s medium, the sound a loaf of bread makes when you tap it, the amount of jiggle in a custard and then correlating that visual to how firm or loose the custard is once it’s cool. It’s paying attention. Be the ball, Danny.