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."