If there’s one thing that will ultimately result in you producing tastier paleo food, it’s being a better meat cook. There’s a massive difference between delicious, juicy steak and a tough, greying sirloin. Understanding what you’re dealing with and making appropriate cooking choices makes a world of difference to the flavour and texture of your meat.
Now there are a ton of books out there to read on food science. If you’re interested I’ve put a list of references below, but if you just want a quick guide and a few tips to take away before you go back to your own cooking, this series should act as a helpful reference. I don’t have a science background at all either, so I’ll leave out the complicated bits and keep it to the exciting food stuff that will actually make a difference – but there is so much more detail you could go into and this is by no means complete.
To kick things off, I’ll go through a bit of the structure of what’s actually going on in there. You’ll recognise the ‘grain’ texture within meat – when cooked you can see the long muscle fibres that are all bundled together to make a larger piece of meat. For the animal, these are the muscles that make them move and they’re designed to change shape to do this. When heated above about 40ºc these change shape and shrink, so the meat contracts and gets harder – or toughens. The longer you cook it the tougher it gets, so you want to minimise cooking time to get the most tender muscle fibres possible
Holding these together and joining them to the rest of the animal are bits of connective tissue. These have to be quite strong to do this, so tend to be very tough and difficult to chew, so this is what make some cuts of meat quite gristly. There are a few different types but the most important foodwise is collagen. Like all connective tissues its very tough, but starts to break down after spending a long time at 60ºc plus and changes into a soft substance which is then called gelatin. This is used to make jelly, and more importantly Haribo! This means you should cook meat for a long time to make sure you have soft and tender connective tissue.
You’ve also got fat in there, which carries a lot of the flavour and can also act as a bit of a lubricant which can make tough meat seem more tender. And more than half of meat is water!
So what does this all mean? Well, if you’ve been paying attention you’ll notice we have a bit of a dilemma going on: should you cook quickly to keep the muscle fibres tender, or for a long time to break down connective tissue?
The magic lies in understanding your cut of meat, and deciding which you should prioritise. The composition of a cut of meat varies depending on the job it performed for the animal in question and how much work it had to do. Body parts that work hard need lots of that tough, hardwearing connective tissue to make all the movement happen and hold everything together. Lazier parts, or where there’s no bone or complicated joint to hold together, have less.
So a pork shoulder, which has evolved perfectly to hold a pig up and help it have a bit of a run around, has a lot of connective tissue. This means if you cook it for a short amount of time it’ll be rock solid and your teeth won’t stand a chance. But if cook it for 6 hours all the collagen will turn into melt in your mouth gelatin and you’ll have beautifully soft pulled pork that you can carve with a spoon. On the opposite end you’ve got a fillet steak, which comes from part of the cow that doesn’t bear any weight or take on any of the heavy workload. Very little connective tissue and lots of delicious soft fibres, so all you really need to do it get a bit of a browning reaction (we’ll get on to that one next time). and you’re all good to go.
In conclusion – understand what you’re trying to cook and adjust your method accordingly!
McGee on Food & Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture – Harold McGee
The Science of Cooking – Peter Barham
Molecular Gastronomy – Hervé This