Summer holidays are the time for putting away candy in favor of fresh fruit and ice cream, and for moving the cooking outdoors because the kitchen gets too hot. If your perfect cookout includes grilling a nice steak, you might want to learn a bit of the science behind the process. Meat scientists are willing to share what they’ve learned about grilling steak. First, they advise us on what to look for when selecting steaks at the butcher shop.
The biggest influence on the final flavor of that steak, though, is how you cook it. Flavorwise, cooking meat accomplishes two things. First, the heat of the grill breaks the meat’s fatty acids into smaller molecules that are more volatile — that is, more likely to become airborne. These volatiles are responsible for the steak’s aroma, which accounts for the majority of its flavor. Molecules called aldehydes, ketones and alcohols among that breakdown mix are what we perceive as distinctively beefy.
The second way that cooking builds flavor is through browning, a process that chemists call the Maillard reaction. This is a fantastically complex process in which amino acids and traces of sugars in the meat react at high temperatures to kick off a cascade of chemical changes that result in many different volatile end products. Most important of these are molecules called pyrazines and furans, which contribute the roasty, nutty flavors that steak aficionados crave. The longer and hotter the cooking, the deeper into the Maillard reaction you go and the more of these desirable end products you get — until eventually, the meat starts to char, producing undesirable bitter, burnt flavors.
Read what science has to say about the way you prepare steak at Smithsonian.
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