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The Science of a Great Steak

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The editors at Best Health Science Degrees decided to research the topic of:


As we head into prime grilling season, it's time to explore how to make the perfect steak. But this isn't the obligatory graphic about which cuts are best or how long to cook your steak. This is for the steak-loving nerds among us-let's explore the science of steak.

In the Beginning...

... there was aging. If you want a really flavorful steak, start at the start - or when the cow ceased to be a cow and became meat. Most meat is prepared for market very quickly, meaning that most of the flavor in the meat has already been developed. But aging (in one of two ways) allows the meat to naturally build the kind of flavor that no amount of marinating will do.

Dry aging

- Side of beef rests in a refrigerator (usually hanging from a hook)

Wet aging

- Individual cuts sealed in plastic and kept refrigerated
- As the meat rests at an ideal temperature (not so cold it freezes), enzymes begin breaking down the proteins, fats and glycogen, transforming them into amino acids, sugars and fatty acids. These amino acids enhance the natural flavor of the meat.
- The meat will lose up to 5 percent of its water content, meaning the flavor will become more concentrated.
- Is longer aging better? Not necessarily. Meat scientists have found that most of the tasty transformation occurs within a week to 10 days. So that 75-day aged steak you're forking over $75 for may not be entirely worth it.

Fat is Good, at Least for Flavor

- Most animal muscle is about 75% water, 20% protein and 5% fat, carbs and associated proteins. In that 5% is most of the flavor that makes steak so delicious-fat.
- When fat is heated, it melts and lubricates the muscle fibers in the meat, keeping it moist and saturating it with that signature beef flavor. Cuts of meat that contain a number of small pockets of fat, in other words well-marbled cuts, are the most naturally flavorful (and among the most expensive). And the more fat, the more flavor.
- Cuts from rarely exercised muscles on the cow, such as the ribs and loins, have the most fat, meaning the most inherent flavor.

Now You're Cooking

- So you've got an aged, well-marbled piece of meat-now what? No doubt cooking technique can often be the difference between a tender, juicy steak and something that's more akin to shoe leather. Before you fire up the grill, explore the scientific transformation that's about to happen.
- When meat is heated, individual protein molecules begin to break their bonds and unwind from their wound-up coil shape. As the heat shrinks the muscle fibers and squeezes out water, the protein molecules recombine, or coagulate. This denaturing process changes the natural structure of the protein.
- The real star is the Maillard reaction, which occurs when the denatured proteins on the surface of the meat recombine with the sugars present in the meat. This process of combining amino acids with sugar not only creates the meaty flavor, but it also changes the meat's color-in other words, the Maillard reaction is the reason a red steak becomes brown.
- The richly pigmented protein myoglobin stores oxygen in muscle. The more myoglobin, the redder the meat. As the meat is cooked, the myoglobin's color changes depending on the meats interior temperature.
- A rare steak is cooked to about 140 degrees F and remains red in the center.
- When cooked to a temperature above 140 degrees F, myoglobin loses its ability to bind oxygen, and the iron atom at its center loses an electron. This process creates a compound called hemichrome, a tan-colored compound that gives medium-done meat its color.
- As the interior temperature rises to 170 degrees F, hemichrome rises and myoglobin becomes metmyoglobin, which gives well-done meat its brown-gray shade.