You probably already know roughly how you like your steak cooked, but what is it about the chemistry of a rare steak that sets it apart from one that is well-done? The science behind the perfect steak is more complicated than you might think, and simple changes in cooking methods can cause significant differences between two identical pieces of meat. Understanding the four basic chemical process that occurs in any steak as it cooks can help you learn exactly what you like, why you like it and how to begin ordering a better steak as a result.
Aging Steaks Before Cooking Them
The traditional method of dry aging beef, or allowing meat to refrigerate for days or even weeks after slaughter, has only recently seen a resurgence in popularity as diners have come to appreciate its rich, full flavor. Rather than the vacuum-sealed, wet aged beef found in most grocery stores, dry aged beef is given time to settle, prompting the enzymes within the meat to both tenderize it and concentrate its flavor. Aging beef without encouraging the growth of harmful bacteria is a delicate operation requiring constant temperature supervision, making properly aged and cooked beef a delicacy.
Searing in Flavor Through the Maillard Reaction
When a cut of meat is first exposed to a hot cooking surface, a chemical process known as the Maillard Reaction begins. This reaction is the same mechanism behind marshmallows roasting over a fire or bread turning darker in the toaster. During the Maillard reaction, amino acids within the meat react with nearby sugars to form the delicious, golden brown crust of the steak. This caramelization is especially evident in cuts such as prime rib or other roasts, but it is an essential part of searing flavor into any steak.
Measuring the Oxidation of Myoglobin
Beef is not red due to blood, as you might think, but instead because it contains the compound myoglobin, which is responsible for diffusing oxygen through the muscles. When myoglobin is heated, it goes from bright red to brown to gray, expelling moisture as the proteins around it begin to denature, or fall apart. When you cut into your steak and see a pink center, you are actually looking at the extent to which the myoglobin was heated from the edges inward, with rare steaks being heated less thoroughly than well-done ones.
Balancing Toughness and Moisture
A chef's job is to take your own personal preferences into account and then cook a steak that is both as tender and juicy as possible. This task is easier when working with quality, aged beef, which will need less cooking time to break down any tough and chewy proteins. As a general rule, however, the rarer your meat, the juicier it will be while well-done steaks may be more tender. Of course, the best way to determine which cuts and cooking styles you prefer is to simply try them all, so head down to a local steakhouse to begin experimenting today.