Cooking Tips · Techniques

Cooking Healthy Proteins

In the last Cooking Tip, I talked about choosing healthy proteins. In this Tip, I want to discuss how to cook those proteins so they are delicious as well as healthy.

As I mentioned in the last Tip, other than healthy fatty seafood, most of the best choices are lower in fat. That means they can easily dry out and be unappealing to eat. To prevent this, you need to take care when cooking them.

The best way to ensure your meat is not overcooked is to cook by internal temperature, not by time or appearance. I love the Thermapen by Thermoworks but there are other good thermometers out there that are less expensive. I wrote an earlier Tip on thermometers with more information.

When you are cooking that protein, you want to monitor the internal temperature intermittently and remove it from the heat before the internal temperature gets too high. For all meats, there will be what is called “carry-over cooking”. Once you take it off the heat, the internal temperature will continue to rise a few degrees – less with smaller pieces of meat, more with larger ones. So, you should pull it off a few degrees before hitting the desired temperature.

Below are some target numbers for different proteins. For a printable chart, click here.

  • Ground meat
    • Beef, pork, veal, lamb – 160°
    • Turkey, chicken – 165°
  • Fresh beef, pork, veal & lamb – 145° with a 3 minute rest
    • Note this does not account for varying temperatures between rare and well-done.
  • Poultry – 165°
    • Some feel that legs/thighs are more tender when cooked to 170-180° as it better breaks down the connective tissue.
    • Since chicken breasts are often over-cooked and unpalatable, see this article about cooking your chicken to a slightly lower temperature but holding it for a particular amount of time.
  • Salmon
    • Wild – 120°
    • Farmed – 125°

Another way to improve flavor among beef & pork is to salt at the appropriate time, which is either a minimum of 45 minutes before cooking or immediately before cooking. If you salt in between those times, you are assured of a drier end product. For more information, see this Tip.

Now for some great ideas with actual recipes. First, I highly recommend you become skilled at making pan sauces. They can add wonderful flavor without much added sugar or fat. See this Tip for how to do this. Adding a quick and flavorful sauce to your beef, pork or poultry can easily enliven your dinner table.

Proteins do not need to be the main star of your dinner table. Why not add them to a great dinner salad? One of our favorites is this Summer Salad with Cumin-Crusted Salmon. Not only will you be eating some great fiber but also healthy seafood. The seasoning rub on this salmon is also just a great one to use whenever, not just with this salad.

How about fish tacos? Try this recipe for Fish Tacos with Black Bean Salad from AllRecipes or Salmon Tacos with Collard Slaw from America’s Test Kitchen.

Let’s move to Poultry. Have you ever noticed how large chicken breasts are nowadays? Most chicken breasts that are for sale in the store are at least 8 ounces and, at times, can weigh 10-12 ounces. If you are paying attention to portion control, you should limit your intake of meat to about 3-4 ounces per serving. So, when you see a recipe that calls for 4 breasts and it says that the recipe will serve four people, that is based on much smaller breasts. Weigh your chicken pieces before cooking and then only use the amount that will give you that 3-4 ounces per person.

Another thing to notice about chicken breasts is that they always have one end thicker than the other side. If you cook them whole, the thinner side will be overdone before the thicker end is cooked through. You can solve this problem in a number of ways. You can pound the breasts to an even thickness before cooking. You can slice the chicken into two so that one piece is thicker and the other thinner. Then, cook them, monitoring the temperature and taking the thinner one out when it is done and continuing to cook the thicker one. Finally, something that I like to do is to cut the chicken either into similarly sized strips or cubes and cooking them. This is a quick and easy technique that works great unless you wish to serve an entire breast.

The important thing is not to overcook your chicken. That is best done by monitoring the internal temperature. An interesting method I ran across a few years ago is this method on It is very easy and turns out great results. I like to use this method and then slice the chicken for sandwiches rather than buying the much less healthy deli meat.

Here are some other recipes that I like. First up is one from Ellie Krieger –– Balsamic Chicken with Baby Spinach. There is great flavor plus wonderful nutrients from the spinach and tomatoes. Serve with whole wheat couscous for another burst of nutrition. Here is a “go to” recipe for when you need a quick but tasty dinner – Caramelized Onion Chicken from Cooking Light. Note that it does contain jam, which is high in sugar. However, it only uses a small amount. For a company-worthy but healthy dinner, try this one from Epicurious – Sauteed Chicken with Shallot-Herb Vinaigrette. I will caution you, though, that the marinating time listed is too long. See this Tip for more information.

I love pork but do try to limit my intake of it. Cutting a pork tenderloin into medallions, cooking them stovetop and then making a flavorful pan sauce is something so easy to do. Pork also pairs so well with fruit. Here are a few ideas.

I am not a fan of beef and so, it is easy for me to have it only rarely. If you are going to indulge in a steak, review last week’s Tip on which cuts are best and the above info on making a pan sauce. That will allow the steak to be shown off but enhanced in a healthy way.

For an interesting take on burgers, try these Cherry Burgers. For a spicier bite, here is an interesting Southwest Burger from Cooking Light. Finally, a delicious winter dish is this Beef Tagine with Butternut Squash, also from Cooking Light.

I hope this gives you some help in putting fulfilling but still healthy meals on your table!