Everyone has a different idea of what makes the perfect steak, but most of us strive for a meal that is tender, flavorful, and safe to eat. In this article, we will take a closer look at the science behind cooking steak to learn how to make a mouthwatering masterpiece of meat.
Aging: This is the process of preparing beef for consumption mainly by breaking down the connective tissue. There are two ways to treat the meat and naturally build the kind of flavor that marinating cannot do.
A) Wet Aging: The individual cuts are vacuum sealed in plastic bags and kept refrigerated for a period of time; this method is popular with producers, wholesalers, and retailers because it takes less time and there is no moisture loss.
B) Dry Aging: The side of beef rests in a refrigerator (usually hanging from a hook). The process changes beef by two means. Firstly, moisture is evaporated from the muscle. The resulting process of desiccation creates a greater concentration of beef flavor and taste. Secondly, the beef’s natural enzymes break down the connective tissue in the muscle, which leads to more tender beef.
Good Fat is Good
Most animal muscle is roughly 75% water, 20% protein, and 5% fat; carbohydrates; and different proteins. In this small percentage, it makes up most of the flavor that makes you crave for a steak.
This is because when fat is heated, it melts and lubricates the muscle fibers in the meat, keeping it moist and saturating it with that signature beef flavor.
As a general rule, cuts from not very exercised muscles on the cow, such as the ribs and loins, have most of the fat, meaning the most natural flavor.
Let’s cook it now
You have an aged, tender, perfect cut of meat, so now you have to cook it. No doubt that the cooking technique can often be the difference between a tender, juicy steak and something that is more akin to shoe leather. Before you fire up the grill, explore the scientific transformation that’s about to happen:
When meat is heated, individual protein molecules begin to break their bonds and unwind from their wound-up coil shape. As the heat shrinks the muscle fibers and squeezes out water, the protein molecules recombine or coagulate.
This denaturing process changes the natural structure of the protein.
Now, the real star is called the “Maillard reaction,” which occurs when the denatured proteins on the surface of the meat recombine with the sugars. This process of combining amino acids with sugar not only creates the meaty flavor but also changes the meat’s color. In other words, the Maillard reaction is the reason a red steak becomes brown. The richly pigmented protein myoglobin stores oxygen in muscle, so the more myoglobin, the redder the meat.
As the meat is cooking, the myoglobin’s color changes depending on the meat’s interior temperature. A rare steak is cooked to about 140 F and remains red in the center. When cooked to a temperature above 140F, myoglobin loses its ability to bind oxygen, and the iron atom at its center loses an electron. This process creates a compound called “hemochrome,” a tan-colored compound that gives medium-done meat its color. As the interior temperature rises to 170F, hemochrome rises and myoglobin becomes metmyoglobin, which gives well-done meat its brown-gray shade.
Enjoy your summer grilling!
By Pablo Liberato