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Amuse-bouche: Anatomy of a steak



By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist

In my last column, I wrote about a key component of protein called myoglobin, and how it is commonly mistaken for blood in proteins, especially red meat.

Proteins are incredibly complex. At the most basic level, we learn that some cuts of beef are ideal for sautéing or grilling, such as tenderloin or ribeye; while others are better suited for low and slow cooking methods like braising, such as shoulder or chuck roast. An easy rule of thumb to remember is that the closer to the ends of the cow, or the head and feet, the tougher the meat. The middle of the animal is more tender.

So, without getting too technical and scientific, here is an overview of the anatomy of a steak.

Meat is a complex system of muscle fibers, connective tissue and fat. The muscle cells are about the thickness of a human hair and are surrounded by sheer connective tissue that binds the muscle fibers together. These fibers form bundles that are surrounded by more connective tissue, predominantly a protein called collagen.

More connective tissue creates ligaments and cements the bundles to the bones, which is mostly elastin—think “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.”

Scattered among the fibers are fat cells that store energy for the muscles. A lot of fat intermingled with the muscle is referred to as marbling because of the white striations that resemble actual marble.

As the animal grows, ages and exercises, muscle fibers get thicker and tougher, as does the connective tissue. When cooking, collagen begins to melt at about 160 degrees and turns into rich liquid gelatin. This gives meat a lot of flavor and a wonderful silky texture.

More internal activity is at play at lower temperatures.

At 95 to 110 degrees, fat starts to melt, and a steak begins to cook exponentially.

At 120 degrees the fat begins to turn opaque, almost milky.

Near 140 degrees, the capsule around the muscle cells begins to shrink rapidly and squeeze out moisture. Think of ringing out a wash cloth with your hands. The meat usually gets tough and chewy around this temperature.

Fat is the source of much of the flavor in meat. It absorbs and stores the aromatic compounds in the animal’s blood. As the animal ages, the flavor compounds intensify. After the animal is slaughtered, the fat can turn rancid if stored improperly or too long. So, we have a tradeoff. The muscle fibers and connective tissues get tougher as the animal ages, while the fat builds flavor.

Finally, one cooking tip. While cooking a steak or burger, never press on it. Since proteins are mostly water, you are actually steaming the meat when you cook it. When you press on it, you are pressing the water—your primary heat source—out, thereby slowing down the cooking time. As we professionals say in the kitchen, “never press!”

Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the executive chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.

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