Cooking Fresh Meats - Tenderness, Flavor & Juiciness

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Oct 1, 2007
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Cooking Fresh Meats - Tenderness, Flavor & Juiciness
by @browningbbr

The purpose of this article is not to spell out a number of specific recipes for cooking of wild game. Instead, it’s to communicate some basic information about preparing and cooking fresh meat that can utilized with your favorite recipes to produce steaks, roasts and chops that are tender, juicy and flavorful.

No discussion of meat preparation can start without first noting the need for good food safety. Earlier posts Proper Meat Preparation - The First Hour & Aging Meat & Freezing Meat made careful note of the need to keep meat clean and to chill it promptly. This is because fresh meat is an excellent medium for bacterial growth. Meat is very high in moisture and nutrients. Given the opportunity, “bugs” (including pathogens) will readily grow on raw muscle tissue. If you are not confident that you have done an excellent job keeping contaminants off of the carcass or have not accomplished prompt chilling, you should cook meat to temperatures greater than 155° F. The same is true if you (or anyone you are serving) would be particularly at risk due to food-borne illnesses. It is interesting to note that the skeletal muscle tissue of animals is essentially sterile until we start whacking at it in the slaughtering and butchering process. That’s why proper care needs to be taken if you want to cook meats to “rare” or “medium rare” temperatures.

There are 4 major factors that determine the final tenderness of cooked fresh meats: The cut of meat, aging process, cooking time / temperature and how it was thawed (if starting with a cut taken from freezer storage). Controlling these elements will have a big impact on the eating qualities of the roast or steak.

Cut of Meat - It’s probably obvious to most people, but muscles of locomotion from the hind leg or fore leg are almost always the less tender cuts. Because of their function in the animal’s body, they develop more connective tissue and are therefore tougher. Conversely, the muscles of the loin are generally much more tender. The loin eye (Longisimus Dorsi) and the tenderloin (Psoas Major & Psoas Minor) cuts are the ones to choose for steaks, chops and roasts that will be cooked to “rare” or “medium rare” temperatures.

Aging of Meat - See the previous post covering Aging Meat for details. Aging actually allows the enzymes already present in animal muscle to partially break down the connective tissues present. Proper aging can significantly improve tenderness.

Cooking Temperature - To produce tender cuts of meat when cooking, there are really two choices of cooking times and finished temperatures: Low final internal temperatures (120-135° F) and relatively short cook times associated with rare or medium rare servings or higher temperatures (180-200° F) and long cook times like those used for roasting, braising or “crock pot” cookery.

The reason for two widely different time/temperature choices can be explained by looking at the reactions of the protein in the muscle. The contractile proteins in the lean tissue coagulate, denature and become firm beginning at 120° F. They become fully firmed up at about 145 degrees. (This is just like the white of an egg starting as a soft gel and then changing color and becoming firm as you heat the frying pan.) Keeping the final temperature low when cooking the loin or tenderloin will result in better tenderness than cooking to “medium” or “well done”. Yes, this is contrary to the food safety warning at the beginning of this post, but it does produce a more tender steak.

Cooking at higher temperatures for a long time will also produce tender meat. This is because the connective tissues will dissolve when exposed to 180° F in the presence of water. That’s why cooking a roast in a crock pot for 8-10 hours will produce a roast with meat “falling off the bone”. Choose this method when cooking roasts from the round, shank or shoulder.

Thawing of Meat - Unless you are an outfitter feeding a camp full of guests, you probably had to freeze most of the meat from the game that you harvested for consumption at a later date. That means you will need to thaw out your roasts and steaks before preparing them.

Proper thawing is nearly as important as proper freezing. The rate at which meat thaws has a big influence on how much moisture it will retain and “dry meat equals tough meat”. Slow thawing at refrigerator temperatures is the best. Ideally, fresh meat cuts should be thawed at 36-40° F over a 2-day period. This way, the moisture that is released due to cell disruption by ice crystals can be partially reabsorbed by the muscle proteins.

“Juiciness” of cooked fresh meats comes from two factors: Fat contained in the muscle and water retained during cooking. Because wild game meats are generally very lean, it is important to focus on water retention.

As noted in the posts on sausage making, common table salt dissolved in water will extract the contractile proteins. It also has the beneficial effect of making meat proteins “swell up” and hold more water. The ideal ratio of salt to water is a 3% weight/weigh solution: one ounce of salt in one quart of water (30 grams of salt in one liter of water).

Called “brining” by chefs, this simple solution works wonders for improving the juiciness of wild game meats. For steaks and chops, soak in the brine for 2-3 hours. For roasts, soak for 4-6 hours. If using a marinade, just be sure that the ratio of salt to the water in the marinade is 3%. Be careful not to double-up on the salt if already in the marinade recipe.

When speaking strictly about fresh meat cookery, the two largest factors affecting the meat flavor itself are “searing” and the use of “flavor enhancers”. Spices and seasonings also have a lot of impact on the flavor of a meat dish, but are not the focus of this post.

Searing of Meat - Searing is the rapid heating of the exterior surface of a meat cut with dry, intense heat. It is often advocated for fresh meat cooking because it “seals” the exterior of the cut by coagulating the protein. While this is true, it is even more important to flavor development. Over 100 flavor compounds are created when meats are seared by grilling or broiling. Whether using low or high temperature cooking methods previously cited, always sear the meat surface to obtain maximum flavor. Because liquids are a better conductor of heat than solids or air, more effective searing will result if the surface of the meat cut is dried with a towel and then coated with a thin layer of cooking oil.

Flavor Enhancers - Flavor enhancers do not impart flavor to meat. They act by making the tongue more sensitive to “savory” flavors. Consider using them in all cooking methods for steaks, chops and roasts. The most common and effective flavor enhancers are:
Salt - yes, salt is a flavor enhancer at levels near 0.5% of the meat weight. Use the 3% salt solution described for juiciness to also improve the flavor of meat.
Garlic - not everyone prefers garlic in meat dishes, but at very low levels (too low to actually taste the garlic) it also works as a very effective flavor enhancer.
MSG and MSG-containing - MSG (monosodium glutamate) is a salt of an amino acid found in protein. It is the most effective flavor enhancer yet found. While it has gotten a bad rap for unwanted reactions (“Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” & asthmatic reactions) there is ZERO scientific proof of this. MSG can be purchased in pure form (brand name “ACCENT”) or as beef or pork flavorings. Worth noting is the fact that any time proteins are heated in the presence of salt and water, some MSG is always formed.

OK, here is one recipe that pretty much brings all of the factors together. It can be modified to suit your taste, but it was developed to maximize tenderness, flavor and juiciness.

• 2oz pickling salt
• 2qts water
• 2 cloves fresh garlic
• 2lb cut of whole venison loin (stripped of exterior connective tissue)
• 1oz Extra virgin olive oil
• Coarse sea salt
• Freshly ground, coarse black pepper

• Meat thermometer
• Tongs

• Completely dissolve pickling salt in water
• Crush garlic and add to water, mix well
• Soak venison in the salt-garlic solution for 4 hours (refrigerate)
• Remove venison from salt solution and pat COMPLETELY dry
• Coat dried venison with a thin layer of olive oil
• Cover oiled venison with thick coating of sea salt and pepper
• Prepare charcoal grill with all coals on one side
• Sear venison over coals until well browned - turn frequently
• Move venison away from the coals and cover grill
• Cook indirectly until the center of the loin reaches 120° F
• Remove loin from the grill and cover with foil for 10 minutes
• Slice 1/2” thick and serve immediately

The author, browningbbr, has a degree in Animal Science from Iowa State University (specialized in meat processing) with minors in Food Science and Food Technology. He has an M.S. in Food Science from Oklahoma State University through the Department of Animal Science, again specialized in meat processing.

For the last 30 years, he also experimented on the best ways to handle the processing of wild game to get the best quality meat for the table. When in South Africa, he asked a LOT of questions about how meats are processed, handled and prepared there. The hunting outfitter and chef gave him many insights into their procedures. Not suprisingly, the most effective ones matched basic principles of good meat science.
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