Corn is such an important staple in our diet because it and/or byproducts of it are used in many different products. We began our class by discussing the intricacies that surround corn and its production from the beginning. After this conversation, we started cooking steaks. Using different cooking techniques for each steak, we ended the class by comparing and finally tasting all the different methods. We also had a couple steaks that were marinated in brine prior to the class as another form of comparison. The methods for cooking each steak that we used were pan seared, sous vide, microwaved, boiled, grilled, and braised.
Fertilizer was the first topic we talked about, from its production to its role in the production of corn. The main fertilizer used on corn today is man-made ammonium nitrate (NH4NO3). This nitrogen rich compound is extremely useful because it provides corn with large amounts of nitrogen ready for uptake. The nitrate and ammonia compound can be readily absorbed by plant roots; microorganisms that sit at the roots of legumes convert nitrogen gas into nitrates while receiving sugar from the plant in a symbiotic relationship.
The industrial process of producing ammonia is interesting because it takes extremely stable nitrogen gas, and under massive amounts of pressure, heat, and catalyzers in the presence of hydrogen, ammonia can be made.
From there, the basic ammonia readily reacts with nitric acid in a simple acid/base reaction to create the salt farmers know and love, ammonium nitrate. But beware, this compound is not very stable and has been known to cause explosions (intentional or otherwise)!!
We then went into a short discussion about how corn goes through the processes of photosynthesis. During photosynthesis, the corn absorbs CO2 present in the air, and produces oxygen and keeps the carbon through this process. Corn is known as a C4 plant because it utilizes nitrogen present in its environment to absorb carbon more effectively in the photosynthetic process (this is why nitrogen fertilizers are so important, particularly for corn).
Finally, we were onto the meat. Using three big pieces of steak (one brine marinated other two normal) cut into nine pieces total, they were separated into the different cooking methods (pan seared, sous vide, microwaved, boiled, grilled, and broiled). Two steaks, one brined and one un-brined, were pan-seared and also cooked under sous vide method, while two un-brined and one brined were grilled. Un-brined steak were used for the boiling, microwaving, and broiling methods.
I personally did the pan searing method using a cast iron skillet. With a little bit of oil and the high heat from the pan, both steaks began the Maillard reaction quickly. The outside of the steak quickly browned and strong aromas filled the air. The brined and un-brined didn’t have too many differences between them besides a slightly visible gray tint on the brine steak and slightly salty taste.
Three steaks were grilled because we wanted to cut one steak open as soon as it taken off the grill, but let the other two cool down and finish cooking or resting. Un-brined steak was used for this process, and what occurred was surprising. The steak that was cut immediately lost most of its juices and was less cooked than the other two steaks. This caused the steak to be less flavorful and tougher than the other two. There was no real difference in the brine and normal grilled steak on flavor in my opinion, but because we waited to cut them, the fluids could sit in the steaks and really soak in the flavor we know and love (it also allowed for the heat to remain in the steak for a little longer to cook the meat more thoroughly).
Sous vide was used for a brined and un-brined steak as well; using this method the steaks were cooked at 72 ºC in water. This ensures a medium rare cook, but because it is fully immersed in liquid, the steak should have the same doneness as the others, but without any Maillard browning. This happened almost exactly as planned, but the flavor and texture of the sous vide steak were chewy–well-cooked, but chewy. Also, the brine flavor was very noticeable in this steak because all the flavors and fluids stayed in the meats as they were cooked.
The boiled steak turned completely gray when submerged in water. It cooked completely through, but resulted in an unappealing color, texture, and taste. The microwaved steak also came out slightly gray; it was less fully cooked through, and had a decent flavor that surprisingly got better the longer it sat out. For both, the Maillard browning could not occur because the presence of water, and inability to reach high enough temperatures.
The last method was braising. Unfortunately, we set the oven to too high of a temperature, so the steak cooked fully through very quickly. Maillard did occur on the top which was not sitting in the broth, but the texture of the meat was extremely chewy and we managed to turn a nice steak into something not nearly as appealing.
If you want to read more about meat: https://www.exploratorium.edu/cooking/meat/meat-science.html
McGee, H., Dorfman, P., & Greene, J. (2004). On Food and Cooking. New York, NY: Scribner.