The Science of Cooking Tough Cuts Part II

In my last blog, I identified why certain cuts of meat are tough.  This blog post explains the best way to cook the tough cuts – low and slow with moisture but for a more details keep reading. Toughness in meat is derived from several proteins, such as actin, myosin and collageen. These proteins form the structure of muscle tissue.  Collagen is the tough protein that you need to break down or ‘denature’ in order to make a tender cut of meat. You can do this using mechanical manipulation, heat and/or acid. These methods break down the proteins into other substances, which in turn changes the structure and texture of meat, usually reducing its toughness making it more tender

Breaking Collagen links using mechanical manipulation-

Tenderizing meat with the mallet softens the fibers, making the meat easier to chew, and easier to digest. This breaks the muscle fibers using sheer force- pretty simple.

Breakage of collagen covalent links using chemical manipulation-

Marinades– One marinade family relies on mildly acidic ingredients, like citrus juice, vinegar, or wine. Acidic marinades “denature” or breakdown proteins like collagen. In limited cases, mildly acidic marinades can add wonderful flavor to fish and meat, especially if you enhance the mixture with fresh herbs, spices, or perhaps another liquid like Worcestershire sauce. The key is to use the correct strength acid for the food you’re marinating. A fairly tight-textured cut of meat like pork chops can survive a more acidic marinade. Since the marinade only penetrates a fraction of an inch, it won’t toughen the meat.

If you are looking for a good marinade that you might not think of right away try dairy products. This practise is often used in Indian cuisine. Buttermilk and yogurt are only mildly acidic so they don’t toughen the way strongly acidic marinades do. It’s not quite clear how the tenderizing occurs, but it seems that calcium in dairy products activates enzymes in meat that break down proteins, a process similar to the way that aging tenderizes meat.

Brining  A mixture of salt and water or sugar and water makes cooked meat more moist by hydrating the cells of its muscle tissue before cooking via the process of osmosis, and by allowing the cells to hold on to the water while they are cooked. The proteins coagulate, forming a matrix that traps water molecules and holds them during cooking. This prevents the meat from dehydrating.

Enzymes– Another approach is to use enzymatic marinades, which work by breaking down muscle fiber and collagen (connective tissue). Raw pineapple, figs, papaya, honeydew melon, ginger, and kiwi all contain such enzymes, known collectively as proteases (protein enzymes- enzymes break down proteins). Unfortunately, these enzymes work almost too well, turning tough meat muscle into mush without passing through any intermediate stage of tenderness. The longer the meat marinates, the greater the breakdown of proteins and the mushier the texture. This method is not recommended.

Breaking collagen links using temperature-

Cooking meat for long periods of time breaks down the protein collagen and is probably the most important method of tenderization. However, cooking also dries out the muscle fibres so a balance needs to be made between gelatinising the collagen and preventing the muscles fibres from drying out too much. This is why it is important to cook tough cuts of meat low and slow with moisture. Moist cooking for around three hours is usually enough to break down the collagen but not long enough to dry out the cut.


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