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Zen and the Art of MeatZen and the Art of Meat

December 1, 1998

7 Min Read
Zen and the Art of Meat

Zen and the Art of Meat
December 1998 -- Cover Story Plus

By: Fred Genth

  Humans have eaten meat in many ways, shapes and forms for thousands of years. Early man discovered that placing animal meat near fire makes it tastier, and easier to chew and digest. Many years later, certain parts of indigenous plants joined the meat - probably accidentally. These spices and herbs eventually were added intentionally, and seasoning was born. Discoveries about preservation were made, again by accident. Seawater or food falling on a salt bed probably led to salt use. This miracle chemical became one of the staples of trade for the world.  These early efforts in product development all occurred by chance. Finally, many centuries later, the food profession was born. Experimentation became an art form, but was still trial and error. Brave souls tried all sorts of bizarre combinations. Ever think about the first person to break open a "rock" at the beach and eat the slimy thing inside? Oysters now are eaten every day.  All these experimenters became what are now known as chefs, building the backbone of today's food development.Where in the world  This mini history lesson serves as a convoluted segue into the manner that I view product development at Monfort, Inc. Whenever I am faced with ethnic or regional products or tastes, I go to the product's place of origin. Using books, literature and the Internet, I investigate not only native spices and herbs, but history. This would include the traditional kitchen, the climate, and any major trade or global conquering that might have occurred.  With Holland for example, the Dutch trade routes focused heavily on Indonesia, resulting in that culture influencing Dutch cuisine. Though no indigenous tropical plants are grown in Holland, some tropical flavors find their way into the nation's mainstream cuisine via trade. Also, Holland is close to the North Sea - in fact, 30% of the land was reclaimed from the sea - which exerts an influence on the cuisine.  When I look at the traditional kitchen, one of the factors that weighs heavily on my thinking is the type of fuel used in the food's preparation. Smoke notes might need to be added to allow for the use of an open wood fire in normal cooking. The Asian method of stir-frying and the use of the wok came about as a response to the lack of adequate supplies of hardwoods, which are capable of producing a good bed of hot coals for long, slow cooking.  I try to keep these things in the back of my mind when thinking of how the protein needs of a people living in a certain region are met. This will help reduce trial and error during the development process.A steak in development  The lion's share of product development takes place in the lab. However, the selling process cannot be avoided. While showing a new steak product, one must keep in mind the customer's pre-conceived notions of what constitutes the perfect steak. Asking open-ended questions will direct you to this goal. What flavor profile are you seeking? How will the final product be cooked? Will it be held at serving temperature for a while? What is the final "build" going to include? What is the skill level of the people who are going to prepare the product for service? The final showing should then include an example of this gold standard. Using this technique, you and your customer can truly judge what you're trying to sell.  This pre-conceived perfect steak, in many cases, is not related to the final finished product. This is truer with an ersatz product than with a true steak. When you create a meat product, your expectations are raised above what you are actually seeing. Thus, your customer will expect a restructured steak to eat better and taste better than a USDA prime or choice steak. It's your job to show them the best possible product, probably out of their price range, while showing the ersatz model. Using this technique, the chances of success will improve logarithmically.  One must not forget the company's capacities as well. If the product will require a multimillion-dollar capital expenditure, will there be enough volume to pay this back in a reasonable time? Before we even pick up the first piece of meat, I answer this question. We all have a fiduciary responsibility to our respective companies; we are not in business strictly for the fun of it.  Taste profiles represent another important part of the puzzle. Tastes differ greatly. What you consider an excellent flavor, your customer might perceive as tasting like a packinghouse floor, or vice-versa. It always behooves you to show a multitude of flavor profiles, narrowing down the field and selecting flavor notes from each sample. From these exercises, you will be able to give your customer what will yield the best finished product.  One point to keep in mind is the innate flavor differences between fed steer, grazed cow and bull. Each one has its own distinct taste; the taste of a fed steer being preferred. Bull meat possesses a flavor similar to the animal itself - strong. Using straight bull meat would be a problem, but its use in a blend for a processed-meat product would help increase the natural beefy flavor.  The flavor from grazed cow meat has a very grassy taste. Its fat is yellow, and its grassy, greasy flavor can permeate whatever it goes into. However, the use of soy sauce and natural butter flavor helps to mitigate this off-flavor. Overcoming these flavors might prove challenging, but the price/quality comparison must be weighed. Using blends of meats from different sources offers another option. Your specification can be based on flavor or on the price of either domestic or imported trim.  The restructured steak won't be served in a white tablecloth restaurant whose average check is more than $30. It will be seen more in the fast-food or family-type restaurant. Knowing the customer base will help take you down the road of success. You can again tie this socio-economic demography into consumers' inherent likes and dislikes. This isn't stereotyping, but the use of cultural likes and dislikes. This, coupled with your knowledge of new emerging trends, will go far in simplifying your product-development efforts.
  It also is important to examine how the finished product will be served. A steak intended for a steak sandwich requires a texture that allows it to be bitten cleanly with the bread. Re-orders will come very slowly if, when an individual takes his first bite of sandwich, he is left with a handful of bread and the steak dangling from his chin. Conversely, a too-soft bite will result in a very expensive hamburger. The bite can be controlled utilizing mechanical or enzymatic tenderization as well as properly using binding proteins.  This is why all products must be tried not only in the actual final production environment, but on the type of "build" that most closely will resemble the final one. This final production test needs to take all parameters to their extreme. If holding time is involved, it will be necessary to check the product at longer than the normal timing. This is particularly true when using enzymatic tenderizers: If not fully de-activated during the cooking process, some surprising changes can take place in the flavor system. The consumer shouldn't be the one to discover these changes.Beyond the basics  Thinking "out of the box" is a necessity. Any venue should be examined for ideas. Even a trip to the hardware store can spark the beginning of ideas for an ideation session. These sessions are extremely useful, and there are no bad ideas. The more bizarre the idea, the better, as it helps stimulate the attendees' creative juices. Homework-type exercises allow participants to enter the session ready to go. Field trips also are helpful by changing the venue in which thought patterns occur.  Trial and error - something unavoidable - can be mitigated via classical techniques and time-proven flavor applications. The new, radical products will be found more times than not, by accident or by thinking way outside the box. When performing your next project, try some of these ideation techniques first for your base product. Success surely will follow. Then try some "what ifs" and see where that goes.  Fred Genth, C.E.C., is director of product development and executive chef at Monfort, Inc., Greeley, CO. He is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. He has been a troubleshooter for the Hilton Hotel chain and is former owner of several popular restaurants. A founding member of the Research Chefs Association, Genth serves on its board of directors. He also is a member of the American Culinary Federation and the Institute of Food Technologists.Back to top

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