Taking a Closer Look at Beef

December 5, 2005

9 Min Read
Taking a Closer Look at Beef


Taking a Closer Look at Beef

By Dave Zino

Beef is more than steaks, roasts and burgers. As consumers, we tend not to think about this as we scan the supermarket meat case. But as product developers, we know more about the remarkable number of available beef options. With a deep understanding of the primals, or major wholesale cuts, and the cuts within each comes an appreciation for beef’s versatility — and for the countless possibilities for new products and new menu items.

As consumers clamor for homecooked meals without having to cook, nothing fits the bill better than beef. The flavor and texture are satisfying — more so, some say, than any other protein.

But beef is not “one size fits all” in the product-development lab. The success of a new product will hinge in large part on proper raw-material selection and knowing the optimal processing method to achieve the desired result.

Beef is a complex protein with many factors affecting texture and flavor. Animal maturity, postmortem aging and marbling are variables beyond the control of chefs and product developers. But the user can control some variables.

Muscle selection, marination or mechanical tenderization, cooking method, degree of doneness, and proper carving are all discretionary. And the selection of flavors to pair with beef can, in the end, make or break the finished product.

Know your cuts

Do you know the differences between mock tender and petite tender cuts? Beef is identified first by primal, then by subprimal, then by cut. Cuts from the rib and loin are the top performers. Within the industry, they are known as the “middle meats.” These less-heavily exercised muscles are naturally tender and have fairly consistent flavor and texture. They should be cooked using dry-heat methods, such as grilling or roasting.

These premium beef cuts would most likely be found in high-end steakhouses menued as rib-eyes, porterhouse and top-loin steaks, the latter also known as New York strip or Kansas City strip. But processors are using them, too, offering high-end convenience with products such as seasoned, fully cooked prime rib and sirloin roast showing up both at retail and in foodservice. Saving labor and time are the key customer benefits here. Adding value to these cuts does not necessarily involve processing or altering the meat since they already display excellent quality.

The chuck and round contain moreheavily exercised muscles and more connective tissue. Cooking slowly using low heat and moisture yields the best results, because this helps break down connective tissue resulting in a tenderbeef- eating experience. Chuck and round cuts are more affordable than the premium cuts and have numerous applications, especially in product development. The characteristics of the muscles within these primals can show considerable variation. Therefore, product designers need to consider those characteristics when using them in applications or products.

While slow cooking imparts desired tenderness, marination is another common method to get to the same result. Restaurant chefs will enjoy satisfactory results manually applying marinades. But in manufacturing, injectors, vacuum tumblers and vacuum massagers are all devices that help promote uniform distribution of marinade. Marinades used for tenderizing typically contain enzymes or acidic ingredients, such as lemon juice, vinegar and yogurt. Commercially marinated beef is more tolerant of overcooking and provides consistency for products developed for both retail and foodservice.

Not every muscle in the chuck and round requires slow cooking or marination. The beef industry conducted a Checkoff-funded muscle-profiling study, a joint effort between the University of Nebraska, Lincoln; University of Florida, Gainsville; and the Cattlemen’s Beef Board and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, Centennial, CO, that showed we can get very tender cuts by isolating specific muscles. Specifically, the flat iron steak, cut from the beef chuck shoulder clod top blade; the ranch steak, cut from the beef chuck shoulder clod arm roast; the petite tender, which is the beef chuck shoulder tender; and the round tip center muscle all benefit from dry-heat cooking methods. These cuts close the gap between high-end steaks and ground beef, giving chefs and product developers more beef choices.

Flavor, inside and out

Beef is flavorful, and consideration must always be given to that flavor, no matter which beef cut is being used. Beef’s unique flavor is acquired from several sources. The old expression, “we are what we eat” also applies to cattle. First, the types of feed used to raise cattle affect flavor. While most cattle eat hay and grass, the majority of cattle in the United States are also fed a high-energy “finishing diet” that increases weight gain and marbling and, ultimately, flavor. The maturity of the animal also affects marbling, muscle quality and the ultimate palatability. USDA graders examine meat as a means of determining degree of palatability — a bright-red color and finely textured muscle indicates a higher- quality meat. Marbling, or intramuscular fat, has a strong impact on flavor, and graders use 10 degrees of marbling. Postmortem aging is also critical in contributing to beef’s flavor. As the natural enzymes in beef break down certain proteins in the muscle, flavor improves. This is true in both wet aging and dry aging. Proper freezing and thawing also help preserve beef’s natural flavor. Fast freezing and slow thawing yield the best results.

The final component of flavor is the one that is completely controlled by the chef or product developer: pairing other flavors with beef, which can be quite challenging. Unlike many other proteins, beef has a distinctly prominent flavor, and sometimes the “less is more” rule truly applies. Beef that is simply seasoned can be a meal in itself. For example, a raspberry-chipotle sauce would work wonderfully with chicken and pork due to the softer flavor profiles of those proteins. However, if the sauce were paired with beef, the sweetness from the raspberry would compete against beef’s natural flavor. Through years of work in the Beef Checkoff Program’s Culinary Center, we have seen manufacturers apply the same sauces and seasonings across proteins, some of which just don’t work with beef. In the case of beef, it is best to avoid sweet sauces and certain strong, “perfumey” herbs.

Not all beef tastes alike. There are differences in flavor across cuts. Flavor intensity is the most-varied feature. Some of the mildest cuts are from the loin. The cuts with the most-intense flavor are from the chuck. For example, the flat iron steak, cut from the top blade, has a hearty beef flavor. In either case, product designers need to use great care if flavors are added.

The secret weapon: umami

Umami, known as the fifth taste, is described as meaty and savory or delicious (umami is derived from umai, the Japanese word for “delicious”). It is the taste of glutamates — the salts of glutamic acid, an amino acid — and other small molecules called nucleotides.

Understanding the power of umami is very important when developing new beef products. A great steak topped with a mushroom-wine sauce tastes so delicious because the beef, mushrooms and wine all provide umami. When paired together, umami-rich foods work synergistically. That is, the flavor combination is not just one plus one, but an explosion of almost eight times the amount of flavor.

Other umami-rich foods include aged cheeses, soy sauce, cooked potatoes and oily fish. As these foods age, ripen and ferment, their umami compounds dramatically increase. For example, underaged beef contains less umami than properly aged beef, whether it is wet-aged or dry-aged.

The challenge for product developers is to find the right balance of these flavors to achieve harmony. Begin with an evaluation of the beef cut to be used. What are the flavor characteristics and what is the intensity? How many “layers” of flavor can be applied? And how much should be used? The goal is to create a symphony of flavor, not an acid-rock band of flavor. A few drops of fish sauce — another good source of umami — added to a sauce or formulation will add a savory kick to it, but too much fish sauce will overpower everything.

Getting it right

When a chef or product developer “gets it right” with beef, everybody wins. Some great examples of valueadded products done well are fully cooked frozen or refrigerated pot roast, meatloaf, shredded beef and short ribs. These types of products have been proliferating in supermarkets and gaining in popularity in foodservice. And while one might think that buying prepared products limits serving options, nothing could be further from the truth.

A fully cooked pot roast or brisket stands on its own as the main dish, or can become a main ingredient in many applications, including nachos, quesadillas and lasagna. Cooked, shredded beef opens all kinds of doors for ingredient use. It can become a prominent ingredient in panini applications, an Asian salad, a Mexican pizza, tamales or a stuffing for won tons.

Conditions are ripe for even more successful beef innovations. Chefs and product developers merely need to look around them for inspiration. Current culinary trends are very beeffriendly and can provide myriad ideas. Asian-influenced cuisines are exploding, and complement beef well. Look to Vietnamese, Thai, pan-Asian and Asian fusion cuisines for possible applications. It is no wonder that flavors from these cuisines pair so well with beef. Many of them, including soy sauce, oyster sauce, bonito and fish sauce, provide umami.

Overall, we are seeing more indepth flavors worldwide. Our sophistication takes us beyond Mexican cuisine to regional Mexican cuisine. You no longer go to an Italian restaurant; it’s a restaurant featuring Tuscan cuisine. Latin flavors continue to get bigger and bolder with the emergence of Brazilian-style steakhouses opening up across the country. Tomatoes, aged cheeses and mushrooms, central ingredients to these foods, also complement beef well. Needless to say, it is an exciting time to be in the beef industry.

As Americans’ palates evolve, the number of global cuisines that can feature beef will continue to grow. This means more opportunity to develop and market more beef items. Sales and profits are clearly attainable for the product developer or chef who can unlock all the potential beef has to offer. Use tools that the industry provides, such as those available from the Cattlemen’s Beef Board and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association that can aid product development through hints and tips for purchasing different beef cuts, suggested on-trend applications for those cuts, and much more. And taste, taste, taste. Don’t be satisfied until the end product sings.

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