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"How does meat gets its flavor?"

Dear Anne and Sue,

I was wondering if you had any more information about how meat gets its flavor?

— Mckenzie Harper


Still have more questions? You'll find more answers in our archived monthly feature articles by the Inquisitive Cooks.

(Meet the Inquisitive Cooks)

Hi Mckenzie,

You've asked a fascinating and complex question. The genetics of the animal, and the exercise and the feed it gets, are perhaps the place to begin, as meat starts with its own inherent flavors.

Then, as meat ages prior to reaching the marketplace, it further develops flavor. This happens as enzymes in the meat break down its proteins, which then react with sugar compounds naturally present in the meat (we don't often think of meat containing sugar do we?).
Flavor also varies from one cut of meat to another, according to where the cut comes from on the carcass. Compounds called extractives, which carry flavor are more abundant in the well-exercised parts, since muscles acquire extractives as they develop. So less-tender (well exercised) cuts such as chuck and brisket are among the most flavorsome cuts. And while a tenderloin steak may be more tender, flank steak often has more flavor.

Cooking also develops flavor and melting fat is a major contributor. A steak that's well 'marbled' with fine streaks of fat running throughout is more flavorsome than a steak that's very lean. The presence of marbled fat is so important, that it is a major factor in determining grades of beef, with the higher grades having more marbled fat.

Think about the last time you barbecued a hamburger. Did you brown it at a high temperature to start? Browning meat gives it a whole new set of flavors. This is why cooks often sear the outside of stewing beef before adding moisture for gentle simmering. It's also why a steak that has a crispy, brown exterior is quite a different eating experience from one that's cooked, but not deliberately browned on the outside. Read about the Maillard Reaction, and its role in browning meat in What Gives Meat its Flavor?

Of course the other ingredients you use, and the cooking techniques, whether grilling, stewing or braising, have a major influence on meat's ultimate flavor. And the stage to which meat is cooked also makes a difference. Flavors are carried in the juices of meat, so if cooking is prolonged, juices are lost as muscle fibers shrink squeezing out the juice. So a roast of beef that is cooked until it is well done, may not be as flavorsome as one that's medium-rare.

On the other hand, long, slow cooking with moist heat (methods such as braising which incorporate water, wine or broth), help develop the flavor of less tender cuts. Since many flavor compounds are water soluble, incorporate the juices in the final dish for maximum flavor. Then there's aroma, a huge part of our perception of flavor. The olfactory system in the nose is 10,000 times more sensitive than our ability to taste. So much of what we notice as we savor a rich beef stew, is really what we are smelling. More than 662 compounds have been identified as components of the aroma of beef.

So the flavors in meat have many origins. And as you cook you actually direct how flavors are enhanced or subdued. This is part of the intrigue of cooking.

For more information about beef, check into Canada's Beef Information Center or Beef USA
Good luck with your project. Anne & Sue




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