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What Gives Steak its Flavor?

Raw meat as we see it has no flavor, it just smells like blood. It has no good appeal to the eye. If two chunks of steak, raw and cooked are placed in front of you, the cooked chunk will make your mouth water. The cooked chunk, unlike the raw one, has a good color and smell. So you ask yourself, what gives the cooked steak its flavor? The answer lies in the many compounds found in meat that are also responsible for making it palatable. When these compounds are heated, they produce different reactions that give the steak different flavors. They are also said to change during storage, the reason why fresh meat is better than the one that has been refrigerated for a while.

Maillard Reaction

Meat is composed of lipids, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and water. These elements change to give different results, responsible for distinct flavors, when put under heat. The flavor produced depends on the extent to which the compound is burnt, and at what temperatures. This explains the difference in flavor, between roasted beef and boiled beef. This is because temperatures for roasting are different from those of boiling.

Maillard reaction occurs when amino acids, water and carbohydrates are heated at certain temperatures to produce different tastes and smells of a cooked steak. The inner side of the steak heats at lower temperatures than on the outer part, hence making the surface of the steak more delicious than the inside part. This does not only give steak its flavor, but also tells us that the steak is cooked and safe to eat.


Meat also contains fats in the muscles, which have more energy than sugars. Therefore, when meat is cooked, the fats start to manifest, giving the meat an appealing color and taste. This is the reason for different flavors in meat from different parts of an animal. Steak from parts that have more muscles contain less fats, reason being, more fats are broken down to energy in muscle-rich parts of an animal.

Meat from the legs of a goat is less lean than that the one in the neck. Fat content also varies from one animal to the next. Pork is leaner than beef. This is because pigs are fed with more energy forage than cows. This fat content variation in different animals explains the reason behind different flavors of steak from distinct animals. Pork steak tastes different from beefsteak.

The age of an animal also plays an important role in determining how much fat its meat has. An older animal has more fat since it has had more time to convert fodder to fat. A younger animal has had little time for amassing fat, meaning less fat.


Umami is a Japanese word meaning delicious. Meat is said to contain glutamate, inosinate, and guanylate. When heat is applied, these compounds combine to give the steak a sour, sweet, and salty taste. Research indicates that Umami helps us tell of the presence of proteins in foods. Therefore, we choose the ones that have more of this nutrient. Just like the Maillard reaction, Umami also signals to us that the meat is ready and safe for consumption.

Brining and Marinating

Marinades are acidic liquids in which chunks of meat are dipped in for purposes of making it softer before it is cooked. Marinades contain spices, herbs and oils. This liquid finds its way into the inner parts of the steak through osmosis. The acid in the marinade breaks down meat tissues making it softer and the end result when cooked is a juicer and softer meat.

Some marinades contain traces of wine, lemon and vinegar, all which give steak its different flavor when cooked. Marinating should be done just for a few minutes because if done for a long time, the acids could end up destroying the meat by breaking down the tissues completely.

Brining is very similar to marinating only that the meat is immersed in liquid called brine, which is simply a salt solution. The steak absorbs water and salt, making it even more juicer and softer. This is mainly used for the type of meat that gets so dry after cooking.

To enjoy more flavors found in steak, it is advisable to cook it when it is fresh from slaughter. The important compounds responsible for flavoring will not have changed and you will not be required to marinate or brine it since storage eliminates some of the properties that make meat tender.

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