The English language doesn’t offer a specific vocabulary for describing food aromas. Despite the fact that smell is the dominant force in flavour perception, English speakers refer to aromas by the names of the foods they are most commonly associated with. Aniseed, citrus or nutty, for instance.
When it comes to talking about meaty flavours, dodgy adjectives such as chickeny, lamby and porky often come into play, and if we elaborate, we focus on the tastes that the tongue detects, and the textural qualities. “Sweet and tender,” we might say, or “sinewy but well-seasoned”.
What, then, are these good meaty flavours that we can’t quite put our fingers on, that make meat (if you love it) irreplaceably delicious?
“The Maillard reaction” is the reason the waft of a barbecue is so appealing, why browned crusts on foods from bread to biscuits to a T-bone steak are the best bits, and why, when no one’s looking, I frenziedly scrape up every last trace of caramelised meat juices from the dish as though I were raised by wolves.
The intensity goes beyond mere caramelisation, which happens when sugars are heated (this goes for meat, too). The Maillard reaction was first identified by the French scientist Louis-Camille Maillard, a little over a century ago, and it occurs between amino acids and sugars at high temperatures.
It unleashes a flavour bomb of about 1,000 volatile compounds, and it is why we brown meat, even if it’s not being roasted or grilled. We probably evolved to adore this aroma so that we preferred safely cooked meat to raw.
Fat. The taste, cooking aromas and mouth-feel of fats are crucial to the lure of carnivorousness. In addition, the fats are what help us tell, say, lamb from beef. There are two main kinds of fat in meat. Triglycerides make up, “the white stuff you can see – the strip around your beef steak or the little white flakes within it,” and they are higher in saturated fats. Phospholipids, on the other hand, you can’t see because they live in cell membranes and contain the healthier, unsaturated fat varieties.
If you extract the triglycerides from meat, you still get the flavour difference between the species, but if you take the phospholipids out, you start losing the species difference. Lamb, for instance, has a more complex flavour than beef because its fatty acid mix is different.
Fat is also responsible for grass-fed animals tasting stronger than grain fed. Grass-fed animals produce omega-3 fatty acids, which produce a denser flavour. In beef there’s a subtler difference between grass- and grain-fed but in lamb the contrast is more marked. Everyone agrees that grass-fed lamb is more flavoursome, although in countries where grain-fed lamb is more common, such as Spain and North America, the muted flavour is preferred.
Umami is as moreish a taste as salt and sweet, and cooked meat delivers its satisfying savouriness by the vat-load. The chemicals that give us umami are products of proteins breaking down and our preference for it is thought, evolutionarily speaking, to help us choose safely cooked or preserved, protein-rich foods.
Where all this leaves completely raw steak – widely appreciated in the form of steak tartare – is another matter. It is about recapturing the visceral primeval thrill of devouring flesh fresh from a kill? And the tangy accompaniments take the edge off it, for senses that are more attuned to the flavour of cooked animals?
What defines the appeal of meat to you? Taste, aroma, texture, or is it all about the seasoning and marinades?
(courtesy of Amy Fleming – The Guardian Newspaper)