Sunday, April 21, 2024

Scientists in search of the ideal steak

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The only thing worse than cooking a steak badly at home is paying $40 for someone to do the same for you in a restaurant. Thanks to a liaison between AgResearch scientists and chefs, the likelihood of that is being reduced, as understanding grows in what constitutes well cooked steak. Richard Rennie reports.
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The compelling aroma of a cooking steak has been clinically broken down into its base volatile components of “nutty”, “fruity”, “meaty” and “floral”, with scientists now understanding it is the ratio of these to one another that play a big part in determining how that steak will taste.

Santanu Deb-Choudhury of AgResearch says the CRI’s scientists have been working closely with innovative development chef Dale Bowie to take their work on red meat out of the lab and into the dining room, to better understand what chefs are looking for and how they approach red meat dishes.

Bowie comes with a world-class resume, having worked with award-winning chef Heston Blumenthal, renowned for his own near-scientific approach to food combinations and cooking.

“When cooked, red meat emits aromas or gases, known as volatiles, which can be captured and analysed. Along with factors including texture, taste and colour, they help determine what the entire eating experience is likely to be,” Bowie said.

Analysing these volatiles has helped not only define a steak’s volatile compounds, but also define the optimal range to achieve the magic ratio of volatiles that makes steak smell as good as it will ultimately taste.

He says chefs generally have a good knowledge about the best temperature regime for determining a steak’s “doneness”. 

Recommendations are typically that a medium steak should be cooked at 63degC, but the internal temperature during cooking can range drastically from 45degC (rare) to 80degC (well done), in turn significantly affecting final flavour.

“We were trying to establish the optimal core temperature to optimise flavour. Monitoring the core in real-time, 58-62degC stood out clearly from the other temperature profiles,” he said.

The volatiles were measured through Direct Analysis in Real-Time Mass Spectrometry (DART-MS), a portable piece of kit that could be taken into the restaurant kitchen to record the volatiles as they were released during the cooking process.

“So using this we determined what is best called the ‘sweet spot’ of temperature for optimal flavour. Chefs knew it was around here, but we now know why,” he said.

The science behind the optimal ratio of volatiles and their resulting scent at this range also extends to the taste.

“At this temperature range, muscle fibres in meat begin to become ‘fork tender’, also the collagen begins to weaken, providing the meat with its succulence. The entire eating experience goes up a notch,” he said.

Bowie says the science is invaluable to chefs and the food industry.

“Understanding the science of flavour and protein reactions at a molecular level allows chefs to showcase meat’s full potential,” he said. 

Deb-Choudhury says if chefs understand the process, they can start thinking outside the square, considering other flavour inputs to add to meat dishes. This is where the other part  of the team’s research comes into play.

Scientists have started incorporating Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology to develop flavour combinations humans may not typically consider.

“This involved collecting an enormous number of recipes and ingredients and looking at what the composition of those ingredients are, what the main compounds were within them,” Deb-Choudhury said.

“The AI initially paired the usual ingredients and once we have done that it goes and looks beyond that at other ingredients you would not normally consider that may contain the same compounds contained in familiar combinations.”

One memorable combination the AI came up with was a chicken and chocolate dish, with the tech platform suggesting the chicken be best served steamed or boiled.

“This had our consumer group thinking it was fish, but overall they enjoyed the dish,” he said. 

“We are really just scratching the surface here to validate the work. We are constantly augmenting the AI’s database and as that database grows larger, the potential combination of ingredients will too.”

The scientists are also working to bring indigenous ingredients into the AI database, providing opportunities for chefs to explore the likes of kawakawa, lemonwood berries, coastal spinach and horopito as dish ingredients.

He says the scientists hope to transfer their learnings back to chefs, providing easy access to the platform so it grows and expands food offerings.

“We also hope to use the AI work to look at how lower value meat cuts could be better utilised, including offal. The Wellington chefs we have worked with are very excited about the opportunities it offers,” he said.

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