Cooking Meat, Rule Number One: Use Moisture, Time, and Parts

Release Your Passion For Stew

Not long ago, at a party, I met a dark-eyed Peruvian woman with a sultry accent who had just discovered her slow cooker. She’d owned it for two years before a visiting friend released it from confinement in the back of the kitchen cabinet. That whole week they ate nothing but stews. After years of indifference toward it, my new friend had fallen in love with her slow cooker because “it giff so mush flavor!” When I told her that good, complex flavor means good nutrition, and that she should use it as often as she wants, she fell in love with me.

It is a little known fact that when a chef talks about flavor, he’s also talking about nutrients. When he says some flavors take time to develop, he’s saying sometimes you have to wait for certain nutrients to be released. Cooking meat slow is the best way to turn an ordinary meal into something extraordinary—in terms of taste and nutrition. The potential flavor of meat, or any food, derives from its complexity. Depending on the cut, “meat” may include muscle, tendon, bone, fat, skin, blood, and glands—each a world of chemical diversity. When that diversity is released on your tongue you can taste it, and the rich, savory flavor means a world of nutrients are on their way.

You don’t actually need a slow cooker to cook meat slowly and enjoy all the same benefits. All you need is moisture, time, and parts (as many different tissue types as possible: ligament, bone, fat, skin, etc.). Making soup, stewing, keeping a top on to trap the steam, basting often when cooking in the oven—all these techniques keep the moisture inside the meat, enabling water molecules to make magic happen. Here’s how.

The transformation of, say, a cold and flavorless chicken leg into something delicious begins when heated moisture trapped in the meat creates the perfect conditions for hydrolytic cleavage (see figure). At gentle heating temperatures, water molecules act like miniature hacksaws, neatly chopping the long, tough strands of protein apart, gently tenderizing even the toughest tissue. And because water also prevents nearby strands from fusing together, keeping meat moist prevents the formation of the protein tangles that make overcooked meat so tough.

Perfectly done: Hydrolytic cleavage clips proteins strands releasing peptides, making meat tender and savory

How does hydrolytic cleavage translate into taste? It’s simple. Taste buds are small. The receptor site where chemicals bind to them is tiny. So things that impart taste (called flavor ligands) must be tiny, too. If you were to take a bite of a cold, raw leg of chicken, you wouldn’t get much flavor from it. Cooking releases trapped flavor because, during the process of hydrolytic cleavage, some proteins are chopped into very small segments, creating short strings of amino acids called peptides. Peptides are tiny enough to fit into receptors in our taste buds. When they do, we get the sensation of savoryness food manufacturers call the “fifth flavor,” or umami. (Sour, bitter, salt, and sweet are the other four major flavors.)

How does having additional parts (skin, ligaments, etc.) create additional nutrition? Water molecules tug apart the connective tissue in skin, ligaments, cartilage and even bone, releasing a special family of molecules called glycosaminoglycans. You will find the three most famous members of this family in nutritional supplements for joints: glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, and hyaluronic acid. But these processed supplements don’t hold a candle to gelatinous stews, rich with the entire extended family of joint-building molecules. What is more, cartilage and other connective tissues are nearly flavorless before slow-cooking because (just as with muscle protein) the huge glycosaminoglycan molecules are too big to fit into taste bud receptors. After slow-cooking, many amino acids and sugars are cleaved away from the parent molecule. Once released, we can taste them.

Slow-cooked meat and parts are more nutritious than their mistreated cousins for still another reason: minerals. Mineral salts are released from bone and cartilage during stewing, as well as from the meat itself. These tissues are mineral warehouses, rich in calcium, potassium, iron, sulfate, phosphate and, of course, sodium and chloride. It turns out our taste buds can detect more of these ions than previously suspected, including calcium, magnesium, potassium, and possibly iron and sulfate, in addition to the sodium and chloride ions that make up table salt.

Overcooking traps these flavorful materials in an indigestible matrix of polymerized flesh that forms when meat begins to dry out. You can only taste, and your body can only make use of, minerals that remain free and available.

A word about flavor complexity. Although we’ve been told that some taste buds taste only salty, others sour, others bitter, and others sweet, studies have revealed that, though taste buds may taste one kind of flavor predominately, one bud can in fact detect different flavor ligands simultaneously. It turns out, the more, different kinds of flavors there are, the more we taste each one. When peptides and salt ions bind at the same taste bud, the result is not a doubling of flavor, but a powerful thousand-fold magnification in the signal going to your brain.

In this way, our taste buds are engineered to help us identify and enjoy (nutritional) complexity. (This is why hot dogs, for instance—or better yet, actual sausage—taste better with sauerkraut and bittersweet mustard.)

Now, some of you might still pine for your Arby’s or your Big Mac. But keep in mind, the MSG and free amino acids in fast foods are tricking your tongue. The artificial flavoring MSG (a free amino acid, called glutamate) binds taste receptors just as peptides in slow cooked meat would. MSG and other hydrolyzed proteins are manufactured by taking hydrolytic cleavage to its completion, fully breaking down plant or animal protein products into free amino acids while refining them away from other cellular components. Health food stores sell these taste-enhancers in the form of Bragg’s Aminos, which is no better for you than hydrolyzed soy sauces. (Brewed soy-sauces derive flavor from peptides, which are safe.) The problem with these products comes from the fact that certain free amino acids have neurostimulatory effects that can lead to nerve damage (amino acids glutamate and aspartate are the most potent). When consumed in small amounts as part of a meal containing a diversity of nutrients, free amino acids are actually good for us. But when consumed in large quantity without their normal complement of nutrients (most notably, without calcium or magnesium), these amino acids can cause temporary memory loss, migraines, dizziness, and more. This is why the concept of whole foods must be applied to animal products as well as plants!

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7 Responses to “Cooking Meat, Rule Number One: Use Moisture, Time, and Parts”

  1. Dawn Says:

    What insight into meat! I have used a slow-cooker before but I rarely manage to get such good flavors from it. Is there a secret to it? How long is “too long” to let a hunk of meat simmer? I’d love to prepare better stews and roasts for my husband!

  2. Dr. Cate Says:

    Hi Dawn~ Here’s some tips/common mistakes
    Don’t: use frozen vegetables
    Don’t: cook on high for more than an hour, but large and collagenous cuts can take 3-5 hours of low heat gentle cooking and then additional pot warming for several more hours
    Don’t: skimp on seasoning, especially with salt (it’s a pervasive myth that salt causes hypertension, nitrates and junk foods cause hypertension)
    Do: brown meat first (“color equals flavor”—Gordon Ramsey)
    Do: use plenty of aromatic vegetables (Celery, onions, leeks, carrots)
    Do: add stock/broth instead of water
    I hope that helps!

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