One of the dominant sources for protein in the United States food industry is meat, particularly beef. I’m fascinated by the different ways that meat can be prepared and cooked to produce completely contrasting tastes even without the help of complementary foods or spices.
Cooking food is somewhat of a controlled decomposition process. Molecules are broken down at an accelerated rate with the help of heat so that the food is more easily digested.
The Maillard reaction is a chemical process that occurs from cooking food at 284 to 329 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat dries the food and rearranges the amino acids and sugars within to produce rings of carbon atoms that reflect light with a brown color. This produces an aroma and is also why walking past a neighborhood barbecue smells so good to me.
There are other interesting ways to speed up the Maillard reaction like raising the pH of the surface by adding baking soda. If the heat is brought up further the food starts to caramelize and burns the sugars in the foods like sauteing onions with some cubed meat to bring out a sweeter taste in a dish.
Smoking meats is also an interesting method. Instead of using the Maillard reaction that required temperatures like frying pans can provide, smoking puts meat in a dry environment for a longer period of time to cook the meat through. I love this method because the meat can be marinated beforehand and will soak any spices or ingredients that I would enjoy such as a maple syrup glaze with garlic.
While the smoker heats up to 155 to 195 degrees Fahrenheit, the meat starts to sweat. The collagen and other connective tissues that hold the meat fibers together start to break down and the juices from the meat start to seep out. Over time, the meat dries and the juices mix together making a stronger and tastier flavor within the meat.
My favorite way to savor the flavor of meat is by browning some with onions so that the Maillard reaction brings out some flavor. I then add vegetables andwater and let it simmer into a stew so that the vegetables soften and the meat cooks through. Then, whole garlic cloves and any remaining spices are thrown in with rice and the temperature is brought up.
The rice soaks up the juices from the meat and other ingredients and a heavy lid keeps steam inside the pot and fibers break down slowly within the meat. That way, the rice contains all the flavors and the fibers of meat fall apart with ease.
The texture of meat in a dish is also dependent on the fat content of the cut. I tend to prefer leaner cuts of meat because they are cheaper and give me more protein. I also love slow cooking and shredding fattier cuts of beef shoulder though. By adding liquid smoke, Worcestershire sauce and shallots, an earthy and juicy consistency melts the flavor on my taste buds.
With technology developing at such a fast rate, an endless stream of culinary gadgets are appearing and chefs are treating their kitchens like chemistry labs. One of the more contemporary methods that are used for slow cooking meat is sous vide. It takes the meat, vacuum seals it so it can ruminate in its own juices and lets it sit in a water incubator at temperatures as low as 140 degrees Fahrenheit. This meat turns out delicious because the meat cooks evenly throughout an entire cut of meat opposed to grilling a steak which does not have enough time to distribute the heat evenly.
Sous vide equipment can be expensive though. Simple heaters that circulate water around in pots start around $150 and commercial stainless steel can go up to $2,000. Some people have golf or luxury yachts in their daydreams, but a clean and lavishly equipped kitchen is truly worth spending a fortune on.