Why Fat Doesn't Make for Flavorful Steak

schatzker_fatflavor_6-28_post.jpg

rhosoi/flickr


To read Mark Schatzker's description of the birth of his quest for the world's best steak, click here for the first item in this series.

"Fat is flavor." I presume you're familiar with this phrase—nay, mantra. You may have even uttered it. "Fat is flavor" is what you might call a core grilling value, the one rule about red meat that everyone can agree on. Its universality is such that you almost expect to find "fat is flavor" enshrined in the Constitution.

And the truth is, it practically is. The government believes in that fat is flavor the way it believes in taxes. When a grader from the United States Department of Agriculture assesses a carcass of beef, the feature he prizes above all others is fat. Specifically, he's looking for marbling: the little dots and curls of fat within meat. A more marbled steak is a tastier steak. Everyone knows that.

And everyone is wrong.

Want proof? Put a teaspoon of butter in your mouth. It's rich, certainly. It tastes thick and fills your mouth the way down fills a pillow. But is it flavorful? Is butter "intense"? Now try it with vegetable oil or lard. Same thing.

Or better yet, go buy yourself a USDA Prime steak and eat it along with a wild venison steak. You'll observe two things. First, the venison is way leaner than the beef. Second, it is exponentially more flavorful.

So if the flavor of a steak doesn't come from fat, where does it come from?

That, it turns out, is an easy question to ask but a difficult one to answer. Unfortunately, it doesn't boil down to anything so simple as a single macronutrient like fat.

When Mottram cooked this phospholipidless beef, he found it didn't taste like beef at all.

At best, beef flavor is poorly understood. Despite thousands of meat scientists working in universities all over the world, we are still a long way away from a complete scientific understanding of why a given steak tastes the way it does. (And this has a lot to do with the fact that meat science, just like the meat industry, cares more about things like the rate at which cows gain weight or how to improve their fertility than it does about flavor.)

But there are two things we do know about beef flavor. And the first is that fat does have something to do with it. Just not the fat you—or the USDA—is thinking of.

In 1982, a British food scientist named Don Mottram undertook an interesting experiment. He set out to find exactly what fat had to do with flavor. So he performed an experiment where he removed different kinds of fat from beef, and then cooked and assessed the result. He tested the cooked de-fatted beef with a gas chromatography machine, which measures the "volatile aromatic compounds" that create the perception of flavor, and also subjected it to a panel of "13 assessors experienced in evaluating meat flavour."

Presented by

Mark Schatzker is a freelance magazine writer and frequent contributor to Conde Nast Traveler. He is the author of Steak: One Man's Search for the World's Tastiest Piece of Beef. More

Mark Schatzker is a freelance magazine writer and frequent contributor to Conde Nast Traveler and a humor columnist for the Globe and Mail newspaper. He has been nominated for a James Beard journalism award and has received numerous magazine awards. He is best known for his Conde Nast Traveler story and wildly popular blog that took him around the world in 80 days without ever taking a plane. (Not as easy as you'd think.) Steak has been a longtime obsession in Schatzker's writing and a couple of years ago, after suffering one too many bland and overpriced strip loins, he decided that he'd finally had enough. Where, he wondered, can a person find a decent steak? Thus began another world odyssey, the culmination of which is Steak: One Man's Search for the World's Tastiest Piece of Beef.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Health

Just In