Meet your meat
(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
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.
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
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