After working in the restaurant business for going on seven years, and serving for three, I have heard quite the range of answers to this question (for any kind of meat). I get anything from “NO RED,” “still mooing,” “some pink,” to “burnt.” Put simply, there are a lot of ways people like to describe their meat to look when it is sitting in front of them, and can be a serious problem when it does not look like what they expected. If only they understood that there are multiple components to how a cut of meat will cook, based on the type of cut from the cow, to the surface it is cooked on (flat top vs. a grill) and how done a person prefers it to be. One of my favorite parts of serving (cue sarcastic voice) is when someone orders a piece of prime rib, or NY Strip Steak medium-well (145-155°F) to well done (~160°F) and complain about the size of the meat or that it is dry… Little do they know (presumably) that at temperatures above 135-145°F meat will begin to shrink and lose its juices due to the denaturing of collagen in the cells’ connective tissue sheaths. Nothing like giving this explanation to the next customer that expresses that complaint!
Anyway! After reading about meat and cooking techniques, we decided to see how differences in cooking a cut of meat, shoulder roast in our case, affects the outcome of the meat.
Each individual cut was assigned a different cooking technique: microwave, boil, cast iron skillet (brined and normal), roasted/baked, regular grilled (rested and unrested), brine grilled and braised with Cabernet Sauvignon. Each technique created different tasting and looking cuts of meat!
Alright, so now that I have mentioned it in a couple of the picture captions, let’s talk about what is going on with this browning phenomenon and why some of the cooking methods did not produce the same color. When a piece of meat, or anything you’re cooking starts to get that brown color (seen in the iron skillet cooking method and with the grill marks shown above) something called the Maillard reaction is taking place. This reaction includes the reaction between a carbohydrate and amino acid, where each one could be free or bound as a sugar or protein, respectively. The combination of these two complexes will react to create new molecules that will continue to react and rearrange into hundreds of different molecules to produce an array of aromas and the brown color based on the way the molecules arrange to reflect light! This reaction is able to create even more complex and meaty flavors (compared to caramelization) due to the incorporation of nitrogen and sulfurs to the mix. You can see an overview of this below, and why steaming foods will not produce the same flavor or browning.
(Iona. 2011.“maillard reaction (TV set art) (4).” http://blog.ioanacolor.com/2011/06/maillard-reaction/)
Who knew a color and smell could hold SO much chemistry behind it!? Very cool.
So next time you’re roasting, baking, grilling or frying you’ll know where that wonderful aroma is coming from. This is also why high temperatures are usually used, as this will speed up the Maillard reaction, but don’t push your luck too much or else you could create an entirely different reaction that will bring you from a delicious aroma and taste to a plummeting burnt, bitter and charred piece of meat (around 355 °F).
Another interesting difference between the two regular pieces of shoulder that were grilled was between rested and unrested (cut into right after it came off the grill). Below are some pictures comparing the two:
The rested cut was allowed to set after being grilled; this resulted in a higher internal temperature, as it cooked the inside of the meat more than the unrested cut. For this same reason the cut of meat was also given more time to absorb its juices, resulting in less being lost once we cut into it. Resting is a recommended technique as it also provides a cut of meat that is easier to slice.
We followed a similar alteration in cooking methods for Rainbow Trout looking at the following techniques: broiled, poached, microwave, fried, baked, boiled, pan seared, grilled and ceviche! As with the meat, each technique produced significantly different looking pieces of fish. However, the differences in cooking the trout impacted the taste in a negative way more so than the meat did. I found myself enjoying every bite of the differently cooked meat, but not so much the case with the trout, and this seemed to be a group consensus. Fish proteins are much difference than that of a cut of meat, especially a shoulder cut. Fish muscles are a fraction of an inch in length arranged in sheets, separated by sheets of connective tissue, resulting in delicate and thin fish muscles. This makes fish very sensitive when cooking, whether it is overcooked to a dry fibrous mess, or cooked correctly and sticks or flakes once being transferred from the pan/grill to your plate. This begins to explain why we saw such drastic differences among the cooked trout compared to the differences in the shoulder cuts where the proteins are long, and more compact bundles.
Unsurprisingly, based on the Maillard reaction, the pieces of trout that appear more browned were the most flavorful and tasty! The one exception, personally, was the ceviche! The ceviche was soaked in lime juice and salt, uncooked trout… and took me by COMPLETE surprise, as it was extremely delicious. The pan seared appeared to be a popular favorite; this makes sense… look at that color! The Maillard reaction would definitely be better referred to as the “flavor reaction,” than “browning reaction;” the recombination of sugars and carbohydrates create marvelous differences in our food.