Meet your meat

So many choices, so little time. Image by Nate Steiner via Flickr


(Before I begin I would like to sincerely apologise to any vegetarians/vegans reading. Maybe someday my willpower will be strong enough for me to join you.)

I, like most other Italian-Aussies, love my meat. Whether it’s steak on the barbie or nonna’s casserole, you’ll always catch my mouth watering when those juicy smells tickle my nose.

But, to be enjoyed to the fullest, meat has to be cooked well. If your steak is dry, your stew chewy, or your stir fry tough, not only have you disrespected the people eating it, but also that poor animal who died for your disappointment of a meal. Shame on you.
Any aspiring cooks will tell you just how damn difficult it is to whip up a flawless dish, especially with countless cuts to choose from. Which one should you use on the grill, and which one goes on the stovetop?

Never fear my carnivorous friends, let’s dive down and look at what’s going on inside your beef, lamb and chicken, and soon your butcher window woes will be a thing of the past.

The perfect proteins

The reason that cooked meat has a different taste, texture and colour than raw meat is all due to changes in proteins. The changes, caused by high temperature and acidity, are known as denaturation. Denaturing proteins changes their shape. As the shape of a protein is very specific to the job it performs, it’s crucial for living animals to avoid high temperatures that cause denaturation. But when cooking, this is exactly what we want.
Meat contains many different types of protein, each of which denatures at a different temperature. The proteins that are most important to us as cooks are myosin, actin and collagen.

Myosin: a protein that helps muscles contract. Denatures between 50-60°C in land animals (around 40°C in fish).
Actin: also has a role in muscle contraction. Denatures around 66-73°C in land animals (around 60°C in fish).
Collagen: a very strong protein that is common in connective tissue, and in muscles that support a lot of weight. Denatures at 68°C. 

The key to preparing delicious meat is learning how to manipulate these proteins in your cooking.

Staking out for steak

Juicy… Image by stu_spivack via Flickr

Quick-cooking steak cuts tend to be a fair bit pricier than other cuts (think rib eye, filet mignon, t-bone and top sirloin). These are from parts of the animal that are not worked very strenuously, so they don’t have much connective tissue and can often be from younger animals.

Food scientists found that most people prefer meat when it’s cooked between 60-67°C (when myosin has denatures, but actin hasn’t). They found this through a cute little study that assessed properties like “total chewing work” and “juiciness” of meat cooked at various temperatures.

Cooked like this, meat is light pink-grey and the juices run dark red. When actin denatures, it squeezes all the juices out of the muscle fibres, rendering your steak dry and drab.
So basically;
Denatured myosin = yummy ?
Denatured actin = yucky  ☹️

But, of course, a perfect steak has a golden brown outside. This is where the Maillard reaction comes in. This bad boy is the reason your steak smells like steak. The Maillard reaction is chemical reaction where amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) and sugars combine and then break down, forming brand new flavour compounds. It also gives meat its golden shine. Cooking at moderately high temperatures (154°C) for a short time is the best way to get to this happening on your grill.

So, the trick to a great steak, is to balance the high heat on the outside with low heat on the inside. This, my friends all comes down to timing, temperature, trial and error.

Don’t get into a stew over stew

Don’t be stew-pid! Image by Alpha via Flickr

Cuts of meat ideal for stewing don’t require you to fork out as much as steak. This is because these cuts tend to be from older animals, and have a lot more fat and connective tissue. Lots of people commonly cast these aside as “bad” or “low quality” cuts, but they couldn’t be more wrong!
If you tried to cook some top quality rib eye for three hours in juices, you would need metal teeth to chew through it. These tender cuts may be superb for high temperature, quick cooking, but are definitely not the best choice for long, slow dishes like stews, casseroles or roasts.

Connective tissue doesn’t contract, it is more like reinforcements for muscles and organs, providing something to push and pull against. Connective is where we find our third important protein, collagen.
Collagen is found either on the outside of meat in chunks like tendons, or as iridescent skin like silver-skin, which can be easily cut off, or in a network running through the muscle. The only way to deal with the latter is to cook it long enough for it to become palatable.

We know that collagen denatures at 68°C, and when the network starts to break down during long, slow cooking methods, it transforms into gelatin. Gelatin is yet another protein that gives meat that meltingly tender texture. The dryness from the denatured actin is masked by the newly formed gelatin, which seeps into the surrounding juices, and gives your stew that velvety sauce that bread just begs to be dunked into.

Well, friends, now you have no excuse to serve your loved ones overcooked meat ever again. I wish you all the best of luck in your future cooking endeavours!

For more information:
Stew Science: How to Choose the Best Cuts for Beef Stew
Cooking For Geeks

17 Responses to “Meet your meat”

  1. Runjie Yuan says:

    Fantastic post! As a meat-lover, it’s the time to add some scientific guideline into my recipe. Like the emoji in the article, hope I will always have the smile during eating.

  2. Angela Li says:

    Glad I read this article before I started preparing for my steak tonight! I loved the puns you used inside, just made the article so catchy to read along~ Time to incorporate science into cooking!!

  3. eciarrocchi says:

    It’s pretty nifty how a lot of old papers are still relevant today! I think it would be interesting to see if the study was repeated in 2016, whether people’s preferences would have changed…

    Great questions; I could write a whole other blog post about how to prevent foodborne illnesses! Like proteins, different bacteria are destroyed at different temperatures. For example, Salmonella and Tricinella are killed when held at 58C for a sufficient amount of time, Listeria monocytogenes dies when held at 45C and Bacillus cereus is killed when held at 55C. As I mentioned, things can get really complex when you take into account “doneness” of what you’re cooking, how you cook it, how long it’s cooked for, and official government guidelines regarding safety. There’s a fabulous chapter in Cooking for Geeks (chapter 4) which goes into detail much more eloquently than I could ever dream of, and it even has graphs that make my geeky lil’ heart flutter. I definitely recommend having a look.

    As for white meat: chicken is considered “done” and safe to eat when it reaches 74C, and pork is considered “done” between 60 (for medium) and 71C (for well-done). (again really cool schematic on page 178…) 😉

  4. eciarrocchi says:

    That’s very kind of you, thanks for such a lovely compliment. It’s funny how even as science geeks, we often forget that there’s such amazing stuff going on right before our eyes! As I mentioned to Larissa, if you’re interested check out Heston Blumenthal, he does some really remarkable things with food and chemistry.

  5. eciarrocchi says:

    Thanks Larissa! The science that goes on during cooking and preparing food is fascinating! Heston Blumenthal has really capitalised on the scientific approach to cooking. If you’re interested or have never heard of him I’d definitely recommend checking out some of his shows, he does some mind-blowing stuff.

  6. Shakira Milton says:

    Soooo good! I really would love to eat some roast now. You are a great writer. It was an attention-grabbing and enjoyable read. I was also well informed on red meat and understand why it tastes so bad when I make steak sometimes. Thank you!

  7. Tal Cohen says:

    I’ve read that haem plays a big role in the development of ‘meaty’ flavour, acting as a catalyst in interaction it has with free amino acids, vitamins and sugars during cooking (the idea behind the burger at, and the way of the future!)

    Was it mentioned at all in the sources you read? I wonder if a study has been done on links between haem-content and flavour…

  8. Holly Winter says:

    Thanks for an interesting read! I thought your punny headings were especially tasty!

  9. eciarrocchi says:

    Thanks for reading Nam, and don’t worry, for such a long time I thought so too! I think once you understand these properties you can really take advantage of so much more in your cooking! Also it just goes to show that to be an impressive cook, you don’t need to spend your entire weekly budget on top quality cuts.

  10. eciarrocchi says:

    Hi Lei! Sorry for the confusion, by ‘steak cuts’ I mean the certain parts (or cuts) of an animal that people use to cook steak. Each ‘cut’ is from a different area on an animal’s body. This is a really handy infographic to see where each cut of beef is from:
    I’m sure there are guides for other animals too.
    Eye fillet, sirloin and T-bone are some of the most popular beef steaks, and they all come from the top part of the cow.

    I hope this helped! Please don’t hesitate to comment again if I still haven’t clarified properly! 🙂

  11. Amber Craig says:

    Interesting post… I am in two brains about this. One like you if my will power was great enough I wouldn’t eat meat especially with you drawing clear links to animals. On the other hand, I now think cooking the perfect is so complicated that I just wont strive for the best ha

    Thanks for the fun facts about meat! Happy chewing 🙂

  12. Larissa says:

    This post was really interesting. It was really easy to relate to because most people either cook or have eaten those different type of meats at some point. I found it engaging and interesting. I spend a lot of time cooking and sometimes have no idea what’s going on right under my own nose.

  13. Marie says:

    What a delicious post Ebony! Thanks for the tips, combining science and cooking, two of my favourite things. I didn’t realise when proteins in meat denatured they formed so many new compounds and these are things we actually enjoy in flavour when eating them. Your writing is fabulous and flows elegantly.

  14. Jinia says:

    Hi, Ebony! Your preference is quite old (1982), but I don’t really care because its finding is useful and interesting.

    I am wondering, will the pathogen bacteria in meat be dead at that temperature? And, is there any difference temperature between red or white meat?

  15. Lung-Yu Liang says:

    Hi Ebony,

    This article is very juicy! You took interesting examples to explain protein denaturation! In my discipline (biochemistry), protein denaturation is always an annoying issue for experiments……

  16. Lei says:

    Thanks for the post. It is a very interesting article. I got a question: What do you mean by steak cuts?

  17. Nam Nguyen says:

    Thanks for this article. You totally corrected my long-term misunderstanding that we should use top-quality cuts for all methods of cooking. Knowing the temperature at which certain types of protein denature would also help manipulating the kind of meat texture as well! Well done!