All the Same, Isn’t It? Not Quite

“And how would you like your prime rib cooked?”

I ask this question every night I go to work in the summer, as one of our entrees is prime rib of beef au jus. The responses vary from “still mooing” to “burnt.” Personally, I like my main course about medium – nice and pink on the inside and with a great, browned edge. Last week in class we learned it’s not only how you cook your meat, but what cut you have, too, that matters. It could very well be the difference between juicy and succulent and, well, something that resembles shoe leather.

The process begins with raw meat and ends with something either delicious or disastrous, depending on how it’s cooked.

One of the first things that happens when you cook meat is the way it browns on the outside. If you’ve ever flipped a steak or a hamburger on the grill, the side that’s just come from being pressed directly against the grate is this brown exterior and a fantastic smell. This is due to the Maillard reaction.

Meat that has recently come off the grill – the brown color is due to the Maillard reaction during cooking.

The Maillard reaction is responsible for the color and flavor of many different foods ranging from coffee beans, dark beers, to breads and, in this instance, roasted meats. Louis Camille Maillard (who the reactions are named after) was a French physicist who discovered and described these processes around 1910. The reaction begins with a carbohydrate – either a bound sugar or a free one – and an amino acid – again, either free or bound in a protein. These two come together and form an unstable chemical intermediate that then goes on to perform another reaction and produces hundreds of byproducts. Brown coloration and a full flavor are the result. The different side chains on the amino acids are responsible for the more complex flavors than the other, typical browning reaction in the kitchen – caramelizing. However, the Maillard reaction takes place at roughly 250 F, significantly lower than caramelization (around 330 F).

As previously mentioned, it’s both the cut of meat and the way it’s cooked that ultimately produce the tenderness and flavor. For our in-class experiment, we took a shoulder roast and sliced it into steak-size cuts to examine the different flavors that resulted from different cooking methods. Seasonings were kept to a minimum (only a sprinkling of Kosher salt), and throughout the experiment a strict eye was kept on temperature, as that was our main way of determining if the meat was “done” (up to the temperature at which it was safe to eat).

Lightly seasoned meat ready to be cooked via the microwave.

The cooking style the class preferred was grilling, where the heat source is below the meat. Temperature was very carefully tracked as the meat was on the grill, and when the interior reached approximately 130 F. The steak had a nice, fairly crispy, dark appearance on the outside. The inside, however, is where the difference lies – especially when one piece of meat has had the chance to rest and the other hasn’t. The meat that had rested before being cut open was much more succulent than the one immediately cut into – and the resulting pool of juices on the cutting board was much smaller for the one that had rested.

Cooked meat cut without the chance to rest.

Once again, the success of this particular cut of meat cooked this particular way – and with most of the meat cooked that afternoon – was the careful attention paid to temperature. The one occasion when temperature was more or less forgotten, though accidentally, was when the shoulder steak was braised in red wine. It came out incredibly overcooked with a dark, dark crunchy brown surface on the outside and none of the tender movement on the inside. Also, considering it’s long time in the pot of wine, it carried a distinct cabernet sauvignon aftertaste. Difficult to chew and incredibly dry, it was not our favorite. Even the steak cooked in the microwave was more moist than the braised.

In conclusion, it is the reaction of carbohydrates and amino acids which produce first an unstable intermediate followed by hundreds of other byproducts that produce the varied flavors and responsible for the brown color of roasted meats. Both the cut of meat and the method of cooking help tremendously when it comes to making a tender, juicy entree.

Meat that is tender, juicy, and delicious.

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