Meat as an Accent in Food Products

January 1, 2004

20 Min Read
Meat as an Accent in Food Products

Americans have mastered the art of "big." Look at our cars, houses, open prairies and steaks - especially our steaks. Steakhouse menus, without irony, refer to the 12-oz. prime rib as the "kiddie cut." So accustomed are we to seeing a mighty plank of meat at the center of our plates - probably because it leaves no room to see anything else - that our founding fathers might as well have written it into the Constitution as an inalienable right.

Lest we literally get too big for our breeches, we should remember that for most of human history, we didn't have the luxury of eating so high on the hog. To this day, many parts of the world still don't. In cultures spanning Latin America, North Africa, East Asia and beyond, the idea of daily meals dominated by animal protein would seem anomalous, if not downright excessive. Indeed, other cultures reserve the big game for special occasions, while packing everyday meals with grains, produce and a conservative smattering of meat for flavor's sake - a practice that, to Americans besotted with The Zone and Dr. Atkins, must seem so 1985.

However, the tidal wave of "all meat, all the time" diets has to crest sometime, however, and as it does, product developers may want to look ahead by looking back to the culinary past: to a time and place where meat, poultry and even seafood served more as an accent to a meal than as the main event.

If the world's traditional diets avail themselves of meat less frequently, it isn't for lack of trying. Red meat, and to a lesser extent, poultry and fish, simply weren't always available. Whether for reasons of geography, climate or economics, people in much of Asia, the Mediterranean and throughout the Southern Hemisphere derived the bulk of their sustenance from plants. Grains, such as rice, millet and maize; legumes; roots and tubers; and wheat-based bread, pasta and couscous delivered concentrated caloric energy in low-cost, high-yield forms.

"It was only the rich people in these societies who used to consume meat," says Christopher Speed, manager, food and nutrition strategies, Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust, Boston. "Red meat was not something that the average poor person who grew up in traditional times would have had enough money to afford. So grains and plant-based products were just more affordable. They were all part-time vegetarian diets." Their scarcity granted flesh foods a rarefied status, and cooks treated them with deference. Basing an entire meal around the catch meant some guests would have to leave the table without getting their fair share. Instead, "meat was used as the garnish, rather than the other way around," he says.

Thus developed cuisines devoted to making more out of less meat. Far from reflecting the straitened circumstances that inspired them, these "peasant foods" defy current notions of deprivation. No one leaves the table hungry after enjoying crisp Turkish flatbreads cobbled with roasted peppers, goat cheese and a sprinkling of ground lamb; bowls of butter-rich polenta draped in tissue-thin slices of sopressata; translucent rice-paper dumplings that distill an ocean of flavor into a single shrimp; or Moroccan tagines so thick with preserved lemons and chickpeas that they need only one game hen to feed a crowd.

In fact, these same dishes woo adventuresome palates to trendy ethnic eateries. As Mario Valdovinos, corporate chef, foodservice, Tyson Foods, Inc., Springdale, AR, points out, "Peasant foods are the hottest thing known to man right now." They cast meat and poultry as part of an ensemble of grains, vegetables, sauces and seasonings. Even in something as simple as a tamale, he says, "The highlight isn't the meat inside. It's that dense and hearty corn-masa cake surrounding it." And in a traditional chicken mole, all of the preparation goes into the sauce, he says, while "the chicken serves as one of the ingredients."

Turning eastward, Christopher Hansen, executive corporate chef, Quest International, Hoffman Estates, IL, cites Chinese dim sum as a perfect example of how cooks turned a little meat into a lot of variety. "You have all these little tastings of dumplings and buns filled with vegetables and meat," he says. "But again, the center of the meal is rice. They might offer it in many different forms (wrappers, noodles, fillings) but rice is the bulking agent of the meal."

Slow-cooked stews and soups help cooks disguise meager stores of meat within a more-filling matrix of beans and broth. Mexican posole and menudo soups, Valdovinos says, "are both fantastically fragrant and aromatic with hominy and pork shoulder or picnic butt." Even the French have gotten into the act with cassoulet - a casserole of flageolet beans and garlic, topped with breadcrumbs and larded with country sausage, hunks of cured pork or goose preserved in its own fat.

When it comes to frugality, nobody beats Yankees, and despite a penchant for T-bones and double-fisted pork chops, American comfort classics can out-peasant those of the flintiest Toulousian grand-mère. U.S. cookbook shelves burst with Junior League volumes that chart the country's long history of stretching scraps of meat in everything from tuna-noodle casseroles to turkey hotpots. "People don't usually categorize something like biscuits-and-gravy as peasant food," Valdovinos says, "but you've got a white gravy with pork sausage, and again, the highlight isn't the sausage, but the gravy and the biscuit. The pork sausage and pork fat just add that really robust top note, that mouthfeel."

Old chestnuts from church fundraisers and PTA potlucks scratch America's itch for '50s kitsch. Their appeal, and that of other traditional cuisines where meat is the accent, goes beyond nostalgia. Even a nation that can afford a meat-centered supper every night can grow bored of the routine. The old pie-chart approach to the dinner plate - two-thirds devoted to the protein, and a couple of teeny wedges left over for peas and potatoes - went out of favor years ago.

That's why Valdovinos thinks designing with meat as an accent offers diners an ideal "reward system." "It's not just a slab of meat or a chicken-fried steak or a piece of bacon. You get so many other ingredients and flavor elements that are created from layers. And that makes it a new experience."

Consumers explore traditional ethnic cuisines in search of those new experiences. Speed says that immigration and diners' growing familiarity with Italian, Greek, Middle Eastern and other foods results in less fear of trying these cuisines and adopting their attitudes toward meat.

After doing so, consumers might be pleasantly surprised to see cholesterol levels and weight drop. Remember the Mediterranean Diet that gained wide attention during the early and mid-1990s with its emphasis on grains and produce over meat? While its trendiness has cooled, the science in support of it is still strong. The rapid results of high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets notwithstanding, Speed is quick to note that "you actually find that diets with a more balanced approach to carbohydrates, fats, and proteins are more likely to promote longer-term weight loss and lifestyle health." He points to epidemiological and clinical studies confirming that traditional eating styles reduce the risk for certain cancers, such as colorectal cancers, as well as for cardiovascular disease. To choose just one example, a French study published in the June 8, 1998, issue of Archives of Internal Medicine concluded "Patients who followed a Mediterranean-type diet had reduced... combined all-cause mortality, nonfatal cancer, and myocardial infarction compared with those who followed an approximate American Heart Association Step 1 diet. The Mediterranean-type diet also showed a trend toward a decreased risk for cancer."

Another benefit of moving meat from the center of the plate: It costs less. A common theme that Speed hears from people who've switched to more-traditional diets is that not only are they improving their health, but they're saving money, too.

Food processors constantly look for new ways to save money. "Meat, in most all cases, is going to be the most expensive part of your formula," notes Tony Payne, Ph.D., associate director, applications development, Ajinomoto U.S.A., Inc., Paramus, NJ. "When you dial the meat back, you also dial back on the cost, sometimes fairly dramatically."

As bean counters salivate over cost savings, creative folks can look forward to unlocking meat's potential as a flavoring. Chefs can tap into uncharted ethnic territory. Want to combine shrimp and sausage in a paella? Go ahead. Looking to design a stir-fry rice bowl that stresses five-a-day but also gives consumers a dose of the protein they crave? Toss in some strips of seared beef and it's covered. As Hansen says, with meat as an accent, "it's up to the creativity of the R&D folks."

Before dialing back on the meat, product designers need to ask how little is too little. Aside from adhering to USDA standards of identity, processors can't ignore that American consumers almost instinctively equate animal protein with fulfillment. As Speed says, "They know that meat is a very important part of their culinary satisfaction."

Its importance can be explained only through the combined complexities of reaction chemistry, sensory biology and human nature. Having tracked consumers' responses to beef, Betty Hogan, director, new product marketing, National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), Chicago, believes that "There's something almost primal about the way it satisfies."

Then there's the importance of the visual - of "seeing all this meat on the plate and feeling that you have a value-added product, " says Hansen.

Speed points to new findings on food's orosensory effects, particularly fat's ability to promote satiety, while Payne attributes the sense of satisfaction to meat's peptides. "Your body needs time to digest them," he says, "so they just seem to fulfill your hunger more."

Whatever the cause, meat's inimitable flavor plays a role. Sara Reddington, director of the NCBA's Culinary Center, says of beef, "The thing that people want is the flavor, and we can't overlook that." And one could just as easily say the same about pork, chicken, lamb or fish.

Meaty flavor doesn't really exist without heat. Raw muscle is a repository for all sorts of proteins, lipids, carbohydrates and chemicals; thousands of components account for beef flavor alone, Hogan notes. Those components wait for a literal spark to bring them to life, and when it arrives - from a grill, rotisserie, or sauté pan - the chemicals enter into the reaction known as Maillard browning, from which they emerge aromatic, savory and markedly different from when they began.

"That caramelization, which is what happens when the sugars and proteins on the surface of the meat mix together, is really essential to the development of beef flavor," says Reddington.

The sugars break down into furans, which, along with volatile carbonyls, supply roasted aromas to cooked meat. Meanwhile, as proteins denature, the sulfur-containing amino acids release hydrogen sulfide, another contributor to meaty flavor. Pyrazines form on the surface of roasted meats and lend them notes that Hogan describes as "nutty, or cracker-like with bell-pepper aromas." Animals' differing fatty-acid profiles serve as a sort of "species fingerprint" that lets us distinguish fried chicken from roast lamb. The interaction of all these compounds "creates that satisfaction," she says. "So you'd better have enough in there."

That sets up a particular challenge. "Whenever you pull back on one key ingredient," Hansen says, "it's very important to replace it with something." Fortunately, coaxing more flavor out of less meat has never been easier, thanks to technology. Sometimes, though, the cutting edge is simply a matter of making the proper cut - of meat.

Take beef for example. Tony Mata, technical coordinator at the NCBA's R&D Ranch, says, "The No. 1 factor that will dictate the type of cut - the shape, the condition, frozen vs. fresh - is the expected performance of that meat component in the finished product." Because any meat in a reduced-meat system will have to carry the flavor for the entire system, he says it's important to use highly flavorful cuts rather than lean cuts.

Valdovinos agrees. Among the greatest myths about designing products with meat is the assumption that the filet is preferable. "What's interesting," he notes, "is that the filet can be a very bland piece of meat."

Better to go with cuts from the chuck, which Mata promises, "carry quite a bit of flavor and often require simmering as part of the cooking process." They do a particularly good job in slow-cooked soups, stews, chili and casseroles, infusing thick broths or gravies with their richness. That richness comes not only from marbling, but also from the collagen-to-gelatin transformation that occurs as cuts rich in connective tissue simmer - a metamorphosis that provides flavor and a body that leaner cuts cannot, no matter how long they simmer.

In fact, while long, low-temperature cooking tenderizes tougher cuts, similar processing leaves less-collagenous cuts with the grain of an old hiking boot. Hogan says that all chuck sub-primals are flavorful, but not all take well to slow cooking. Mata says the ranch cut is fit for either a steak or a stew, and he also mentions a sub-primal called the chuck roll as containing a number of muscles that "lend themselves well to simmering and extended cook cycles."

Throwing a flatiron steak into a stew, however, would be a minor crime. Extracted from the top blade roast of the chuck, "It's got a lot of connective tissue and it breaks down nicely," Hogan says. "But when you can have the second most-tender cut after filet as a steak, there's no reason to make it a stew."

The same can be said for the popular shoulder tender cut, also known as the heart clod. "That muscle is the third most-tender muscle in the carcass," Mata points out. "It also has a very fine texture, and a very nice flavor. It is probably the closest in eating experience to filet mignon." Like the tender flatiron, it would work in a quick-cooking application such as a stir-fry, noodle bowl or pilaf, but because it is so small and such a prime cut, it commands a premium price.

Quick-cook applications, such as fajitas and stir-fries, need tender meat from the get-go; there isn't time during processing to "melt" out connective tissue. But rather than pay a steep price for a pudding-soft steak, processors could pay a smaller premium for precooked meats. The key to these options, Mata says, is attaining a degree of precook that takes into account any further processing. "The product developer needs the benefit of a product that can withstand that second cook, if you will, when it is reconstituted, reheated and prepared at the plant and at home," he explains. Making precooked even more attractive, individually quick-frozen (IQF) choices let processors portion the meat more easily and put it right into the mix, he adds.

When it comes to meat-as-accent applications, Valdovinos, who helped develop Uncle Ben's(r) line of rice bowls, offers this rule of thumb: "You really don't need more than 3 oz. of protein per serving. Those 3 oz. will have to take the form of slices, shreds, cubes or crumbles that are easy to disperse among other ingredients in the product.

Although processors have many processing-ready cuts that don't require trimming, some circumstances behoove them to do the trimming themselves. Besides keeping costs down, Mata says, "If they have an application that uses ground beef, they can divert the trimmings to that item and harvest the individual muscles for whole-muscle applications."

This frugal trick tips its hat to cooks of yesteryear who had to make the most of the whole beast. Those constraints compelled them to smoke, salt, pickle and ferment meats, too. Aside from masking the flavor of rot, such preservations extended scarce meat over time and space as well: All you need are a few bites of piquant sausage, hickory-smoked bacon, or succulent confit leg of goose to satiate. It's a lesson to take to heart when looking for accent meats that deliver powerful flavor in tidy morsels. Given their fat levels and seasonings, Valdovinos says, these "foundational meats" provide high flavor impact.

Powerful as that impact may be, it doesn't hurt to boost it. After all, spun a little differently, "accenting with meat" is another way of saying "flavoring with meat," and strengthening that flavor becomes more important in products with less meat to go around.

In the past, cooks noticed that pairing meat with mushrooms, Parmesan cheese, and sauces made from fermented soybeans or seafood seemed to spread savory meatiness throughout a dish. Even mustard and roasted tomatoes did the trick. Little did those cooks know, however, that this achieved the desired effects by increasing perception of umami.

That fifth taste, variously described as savory, meaty or just delicious, is one of the flavor drivers that make meat so appealing, Reddington says. Umami ingredients "act synergistically with other ingredients that have umami in them," she says. "Two or three ingredients with umami can give you seven or eight times the flavor. So something like beef and mushrooms, or beef and red wine, or even beef and soy sauce can really pump up that beefy flavor."

As cooking breaks down the proteins in meat, Payne says, it unlocks many of the peptides, 5' nucleotides, individual amino acids and glutamates associated with umami. The same happens when hydrolyzing proteins from other sources, such as wheat and corn gluten or yeast and soybeans, so soy sauce, hydrolyzed vegetable proteins and yeast extracts amplify savory, meaty notes effectively. "When you use a hydrolyzed product, you're actually adding all of those flavor compounds in combination and in a natural form," he says. "So, essentially, what these enhancers are doing is taking the meat flavor that's there and making it stronger, more well-rounded."

Manufacturers that hydrolyze those proteins produce flavor-enhancing ingredients. For years, they conducted the hydrolysis with hydrochloric acid - a somewhat scattershot process that, because it required neutralization with sodium hydroxide, created an enhancer with an excess of sodium chloride.

Payne notes that acid hydrolysis takes a backseat to enzymatic processes that not only produce lower-salt flavor enhancers, but also allow manufacturers to target the hydrolysis to specific spots on the peptide chain. "When you enzyme-hydrolyze a protein, the point at which that enzyme actually clips the protein determines what's on the end," he says. That has a profound effect on how the enhancer affects flavor. Because the amino acids on the ends of the chains are the reactive ones, "if you clip between a couple of really hydrophobic amino acids, or ones that are characteristically bitter, then your hydrolyzed product ends up being more bitter," he explains. "And that's really the problem with some hydrolyzed proteins: You can really get some strong bitter notes."

Given the influence of individual amino acids on the sensory profile, it follows that proteins from different sources - and thus with unique amino-acid profiles - would yield different flavor-enhancing results. The differences can be subtle, but, in general, think of wheat and soy hydrolysates as the "red wines" of flavor enhancers: darker, heavier and better-suited to red meats. Hydrolyzed corn proteins, by contrast, have a lighter savory effect that complements light flavors, such as chicken.

Flavor enhancers raise the issue of labeling. Consumers tend to shy away from products with MSG, sodium inosinate and guanylate, and even innocuous-sounding hydrolyzed yeast and vegetable proteins. Manufacturers have responded with ingredients that look better on labels, yet work just as efficiently. For example, Kim Peterson, senior food applications scientist, Proliant, Inc., Ames, IA, notes that her company enzyme-hydrolyzes beef stock to produce a flavor enhancer free of MSG, nucleotides, and yeast or vegetable hydrolysates. It appears on a label simply as "beef stock."

Flavor enhancers magnify savory notes present in a product. To start with more savory notes, product developers can turn to meat reaction flavors. Their production mirrors the same Maillard reactions that produce flavors intrinsic to meat, but on an industrial scale.

Manufacturers often use meat, poultry and their stocks and broths as protein sources for these flavor-producing reactions. Combining protein sources with reagents - sulfur-containing amino acids, reducing sugars, fats, and vitamins such as thiamine are standard in the industry - and controlling for time, temperature and pH creates a reaction flavor.

The choice of reagents and protein, as well as manipulation of the reaction conditions, lets manufacturers tailor-make reaction flavors. They can generate single-flavor ingredients capable of recreating roast-beef notes, grilled chicken or a mild, white-meat turkey, for instance. They can also produce flavors suited to label-reading consumers. For example, "The starting material for our chicken and beef flavors is our stocks," Peterson says. Thus, all of those flavors will list their species of stock as the initial ingredient, followed by salt, reducing sugars, chicken fat, or whatever other ingredients took part in the reaction.

Chicken or beef stock can serve as an effective flavor in itself. Cooks have capitalized on the savory appeal of stocks and broths for ages, making everything from risotto to ramen meatier. Broth pastes and powders can go where their liquid counterparts never went before. The nature of the broth itself hasn't changed - as Peterson says, "When we make our stocks and broths, we're just taking bones with the adhering meat and cooking them in water under pressure, much as the home consumer would." However, their functionality has changed - for the better.

Spray- or drum-drying broth yields powders with a concentrated meaty flavor and, in the case of the latter, roasted notes that heighten the savory effect. With broth powders, Peterson says, "you're not paying to ship water" and they eliminate the frozen storage needed to avert water-activity problems in liquid broths, which weigh in at about 32% solids.

Adding salt to pastes ensures shelf stability. However, Peterson notes, "Getting paste out of a bucket is more labor-intensive than dumping a bag of powder into a product." Pastes have true-to-the-stock flavor,   retaining the delicate flavor notes that sometimes flash off during a powder's drying process. But all broth forms produce a comforting, easy-to-read label. "It's just beef stock, chicken stock or turkey stock," Peterson says. "And that's what consumers want to see."

Stocks and broths can bring out a dish's meatiness, but to accentuate key textural and flavor components from chicken skin or beef marbling, Peterson suggests frozen beef tallow or chicken fat. Processors can incorporate either directly into moist applications such as casseroles and stews, or plate it with the salt, sugar and other dry ingredients for dry mixes. "That way," he says, "when it's rehydrated with the water, you still get that nice mouthfeel from the fat."

Professional chefs roast the bones and aromatic vegetables for stock because it deepens the flavor and gives it a palpable richness. This is particularly the case with meat, where so much of the flavor is a consequence of cooking. Developers should take this lesson to heart when amplifying the meaty flavor. Given the limited flavor development of most convenience foods - roasted notes don't develop in a microwave or boil-in-bag - adding smoked, grilled, seared or roasted flavors become even more crucial.

Industry is learning the lesson that the aesthetics of layering flavors can be key to designing with meat as a flavor accent. Valdovinos cites the example of a Vietnamese pho - a classic comfort soup from a culture well-versed in accenting with meat: "The highlight of that dish is not so much the shaved beef flank or sirloin, but the layers of flavors. They're so clear in that broth: You taste the orange peel, the star anise, the ginger. Then you've got the rice noodles, and the fresh basil and sliced jalapeños. Again, the meat is one of those accents. You put everything in the pot, and it works its own magic."

Kimberly J. Decker, a California-based technical writer, has a bachelor's degree in consumer food science with a minor in English from the University of California, Davis. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area, and enjoys cooking and eating food in addition to writing about it.

Back to top

Subscribe and receive the latest insights on the health and nutrition industry.
Join 37,000+ members. Yes, it's completely free.

You May Also Like