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November 2000
Vol. 30, No. IBC.
The Last Word

Table of Contents



Fight fat. Must I?

It’s so tasteless to do so. Consider the steaks on the East Coast of the United States. When compared with beef in the Midwest, where I lived until moving to Maryland in June, they taste like cardboard and have a similar texture. They’re so bad I’m considering becoming a vegetarian.

A couple of Midwest cattle farmers told me that the flat flavor is due to the distance the beef has traveled from the ranch. Old cooks know that the more beef is handled the less flavor it has. “I can’t eat that stuff,” said Ray Pleva, who won’t buy a steak on the East or West Coast. “But add sour cherries and you improve the flavor.” Who is Pleva? A Michigan butcher and one-time cherry farmer who sells lean ground beef patties with sour cherries mixed in (http://www.plevas.com).

Michigan State researchers confirmed that adding sour cherries to beef aids digestion and enhances flavor by reducing the formation of heterocyclic aromatic amines (HAAs), which are suspected carcinogens. Red tart cherries, they found, have 17 or more antioxidants in them. The studies showed that tart cherries slow the oxidative deterioration of meat lipids, which increased the shelf life of ground beef.

The researchers also found that they could increase the beef flavor in hamburger that is 15% fat by adding 11.5% tart cherry tissue. That reduced HAAs by as much as 78.5% Although it may sound revolting, it seems that cherries are as much at home in steak as they are on cheesecake. And when reheated, the mixed ground beef doesn’t have that warmed-over flavor, according to Pleva.

Beyond cherries, ask any butcher, beef researcher, or steak connoisseur what gives a steak flavor and this is what you’ll hear: Good taste is in the fat content.

Why fight good taste? I ask.

The craze for lean beef, fueled by un-Rubens-esque ideas of what constitutes a good figure and is also healthy, is causing tasteless beef to proliferate in parts of the United States. Although low fat is where it’s at here, Canadians are beginning to reject some steaks they say are too lean.

An “acceptable” steak to Canadians is one that is tender, flavorful, and juicy, said Jock Buchanan-Smith, professor of animal and poultry science at the University of Guelph, Ontario. That’s harder to get from an animal that is fed growth hormones, he said.

“If anything, [bovine growth hormones, or BGHs] don’t help quality. They delay fattening. Fat carries the flavor that makes beef taste like beef. If it doesn’t have an acceptable level of fat, it doesn’t carry enough flavor or tenderness to have a nice eating experience,” he said. Because of market demands for beef, cattle that are fed hormones often are slaughtered before they reach fat levels that make their meat flavorful and juicy.

Buchanan-Smith, a specialist in the effects of diet and slaughter on beef quality, said volatile aromatic compounds such as terpenoids and fatty acids give beef its flavor. In Canada there’s growing industry awareness about leanness caused by BGHs, which is one reason why more butchers there are “aging” their beef longer before making it into steaks and hamburger, he said.

Butchers, scientists, and ranchers agreed that even aging beef to make it more tender (storing beef for at least a week to let enzymes and bacteria break down muscle tissue) won’t increase the flavor if the animal isn’t full-bodied when slaughtered. To increase beef flavor, “the major thing you can do is change the fatty acid composition in the feed,” Buchanan-Smith said.

There are all kinds of new and old theories about what provides great steak flavor, and feed is mentioned frequently. In the end, however, the feed merely creates a different flavor and texture rather than one that is better or worse.

If you’re in a wild, liberating mood, go for the grass-fed steak. Grass feeding, or grazing, introduces many volatile fat-soluble compounds that give the meat a stronger, gamy flavor. But if you’re feeling cultivated, find a grain-fed steak. Grain gives the meat a more traditional taste and texture because it provides fewer plant compounds in the fat. Antibiotics, Buchanan-Smith said, have no effect on taste.

Chemically speaking, grass-fed cattle have more conjugated linoleic acid and W-3 fatty acids than grain-feed cattle, which provides more nutrition and makes a difference in tenderness, said Roger Rose, a Rochester, IN, farmer who raises cattle without hormones and other chemical additives.

For the eccentric, there’s “hydrodyned” beef. Touted as the latest, greatest, and wildest thing in tenderizing, beef encased in plastic is immersed in water, then explosions are set off in the water, pummeling the meat. It’s not economically profitable to hydrodyne beef on a mass-production scale Buchanan-Smith said, but added, “You get a major increase in tenderness.”

Now that’s fighting fat.

Debra A. Schwartz is a freelance writer in Hyattsville, MD, studying for her doctorate in journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park (debinmld@aol.com).


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