Part 1 focused on creating the right texture when cooking meat. Part 2 brings us on to flavour, and how to get the most out of it.
It can be quite tricky to describe what meat actually tastes like, without either describing as ‘meaty’ or using a difference type of meat as a reference: hence the ubiquitous ‘tastes like chicken’. The best flavour that you can get from meat is, as far as I’m concerned, that savoury, intensely meaty taste – also known as umami.
Umami is often added to processed or pre-prepared foods in the form of MSG, but is also naturally occurring in a lot of different things. Strongest and most common is in aged or fermented foods ( for example cheese, soy sauce) but also exists in varying levels in tomatoes, fish, mushrooms, human milk and a whole heap of other things.
When cooking meat there is a specific way you can add or enhance the umami flavour – by using the Maillard, or browning reaction. This reaction takes place between certain amino acids and certain sugars at certain high temperatures (140ºc and upwards), and creates certain umami-rich flavour compounds and a darker brown colour. It also creates a very characteristic smell. Naturally there’s a lot more to it than this, but in very simplistic terms, that’s what you need to know. If you’d like to know more, and it is a very exciting topic, I suggest you check out the reading list in part 1 or do a bit of Googling.
The Maillard reaction is by no means exclusive to meat: it creates the dark crust on bread and other baked goods, and it gives flavour and colour to milk-based caramels like dulce de leche. When it does happen with meat, it gives you that harder, sometimes crispy brown crust that you get on a well cooked steak or chicken wings. All meat goes brown when cooked, but this is a very specific dark colour and a very obvious smell when you’ve got it right. It adds that extra umami flavour on top of the meat’s taste and is definitely worth understanding so you know how to create it, and how to control it.
As I said above, the Maillard reaction happens at and above 140ºc, so to create this environment you make sure you’re reaching the right temperature. Clearly you’re not going to get a thermometer out every time you cook, but if you think about a few basic things you’ll be able to get this right.
Firstly you need to think about your cooking method – to do this properly you’ll need to be frying, grilling, roasting or baking. Anything wet won’t work because you’ll never get above the boiling point of water, which is 40ºc below the temperature you need.
The next one to consider also involves water. Because of the reasons just mentioned, you’ll never be able to get the reaction going in a wet pan. As meat contains a lot of water that gets released when heated, you can often find your pan gets quite wet even though you haven’t added any liquid. This happens to a greater extent on cuts of meat with a large surface area – mince, for example, can be quite problematic as it’s got a lot of surface to release water. The trick here is to make sure your pan is hot enough to evaporate any water released very quickly, before it builds up and reduces your cooking temperature.
You also need to think about the textures bit I covered in part 1. Don’t overcook your meat just to get a browning reaction: make sure your pan is hot enough before you add your meat to the pan, otherwise it will start cooking (and release tons of water) at lower temperatures but not get the browning reaction. In order to then get the reaction you’ll then run the risk of overcooking your meat and it’ll get tough. Likewise you can use this method in conjunction with a slow cook method – just start off the process at a high temperature for a short time to get the browning, and then turn it down for the rest of the cook. For example, you can fry the meat for your stew before adding any liquid or you can start your roast beef off at a very high temperature.
Finally, make sure you don’t take it too far. At 180ºc a different reaction takes place, and your dinner burns. Just keep an eye on things and catch it early enough!
One last note: if you create these amazing flavours, don’t waste them. The crunchy brown bits stuck to the bottom of you roasting tray or frying pan are full of delicious meaty umami flavours. Deglaze your pan by adding a splash of wine, juice, stock or water and heating it up again on the hob. Stir vigorously and scrape the bottom of your pan until all the stuck on tasty bits have dissolved, reduce it a bit if required, and you have an amazingly tasty sauce or gravy.