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Well Done

May 20, 2019

Before we talk about burgers, we should probably talk about cooking temperatures, and how we order food.

The food safety people will tell you that hamburgers should be cooked to 160 degrees. That’s what they think is the minimum safe temperature, and it’s widely regarded as being well done. Me? I like living dangerously.

However, these days, well done burgers aren’t necessarily the hockey pucks they’ve been in the past. Grind in enough fat, include cuts in the grind from beefier flavored parts of the steer, and sear on a magnificent crust, and you’ve got a pretty tasty patty. Especially if your burger has two of them and a layer of cheese melting in between.

Five Guys may have been the first place to convince me that well done burgers can be a thing of beauty, but now other restaurants and chefs are hopping aboard the smashed diner-style burger wagon. Beyond being delicious, it also saves them the heartache of having to remake orders that are returned to the kitchen for being cooked to the wrong internal temperature. And I suppose there is always the food safety angle too.

But I’m not here to talk burgers. We’ll get into that soon. However, we’ve just begun to scratch the well done surface.

Maybe you can even help me out here, because I’ve come to find there’s an odd assortment of foods that not only can be ordered well done, but are generally improved by doing so. Although I might be missing some.

Well done pizza?

Maybe not when you’re in Brooklyn, but come up to the Capital Region, and even at our better pizza places the pies can come out of the oven on the lighter side. I’ve had some conversations with local pizza makers about this. One said that when he cooked the pies to their proper level of browning, his customers called and returned them for being burnt. He sent me the pics of the offending pies, and I can assure you they definitely were not even close to being burnt.

Burnt pizza is black and tastes like charcoal. These only had a few deep brown spots, and I thought the pies could even be pushed a little further.

Another pizza maker told me that when a well browned pie is put in the slice case for display, it ends up looking old and dried out. But I can forgive slices that are destined for a reheat, to be pulled from the oven a little underdone on their initial bake.

Anyhow, I’ve learned that you can actually order your pizza—and your slices—well done. And what that does is it gives the pizza maker the permission to leave you pie in the oven a little longer. Then you get some extra color on the bottom and end crusts. But it’s not just about visual appeal. It’s also about taste and texture. Because you’re getting a depth of flavor, and a crisp exterior, that’s absent from underdone pies.

Well done chicken wings?

All deep fried chicken wings should be crispy, regardless of if they have breading or not. Should is the operative word here. Because far too often deep fried chicken wings are not crispy. And there is little sadder than biting into a buffalo wing and getting a mouthful of flabby skin.

Now, some folks will blame the sauce. If you toss something fried and crispy with something wet, those crispy edges are going to fade. But if you slather that glorious crackling skin with Frank’s Red Hot properly emulsified in butter, the crispness will hold.

But most of the problem is with the fry. The fry is just not hard enough, and frying is crazy stuff, because you’re using a blunt tool to do precision work. Too long in the fryer and the meat can get tough. Too short in the fryer and the skin doesn’t crisp up. Too hot, the outside is perfect and the inside is raw. Too cool, and you’ll also miss out on that perfect skin.

Personally, I’d much much rather have a dried out wing than a flabby one, so I’ve learned to ask for wings well done. Really, my order is a bit more nuanced than that. Because I ask, “Do I have to order the wings well done, to make sure they arrive with crispy skin?” But that at least starts the conversation and improves my odds of getting decent wings. I say improves, because it’s far from a foolproof solution.

Well done homefries?

Without a doubt. Every. Single. Time. Don’t forget this one. Make it part of your routine. Because griddled potatoes can be some of the saddest, limpest, blandest restaurant sides ever. But at the same place, using the same seasonings, the same grill, the same ingredients, and the same cook, if left on the flat top grill just a bit longer to develop a crust, they are transformed into something actually worth eating.

If you’ve never thought to do this, maybe you want to tattoo the words on a place you’ll see the next time you order breakfast. The side of your index finger, maybe?

The killer is that nobody should have to do any of this. All of these foods should be cooked properly. And it destroys me a bit that the way to get them cooked to spec is to order them well done. But I would rather know how to order something delicious than to be unhappy sticking to a set of principles about foods and their preparation.

So what else am I missing? And can anyone else help me understand why our food is tragically undercooked? Thanks.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 20, 2019 10:32 am

    Depending on the place, I’ve ordered fries well done.

    • May 20, 2019 11:55 am

      That’s a good one. I’ve done the same at In-N-Out, but I wasn’t happy with the well done fries either. Thankfully the double-double animal style is all you need. If you’re still hungry after that, you could always have a second one. Fries. Who needs ’em?

  2. Pam Considine permalink
    May 20, 2019 1:42 pm

    I can’t help you on the “why”, and I agree with all your examples. I’d like to add one… sausage. And maybe even hot dogs. I like them to be well browned…no pale, flabby, steamed sausages or hot dogs!

  3. May 20, 2019 5:58 pm

    Love my pizza well done. Love my wings cooked to death in the oven, don’t even realize they are not fried(try it, really). Enjoyed this one Dan.

  4. May 20, 2019 5:59 pm

    Sweet potatoes too.

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