Beef Flavor Factors  

Beef Production

Grain-finished versus grass-finished—yes, what cattle are fed does affect beef flavor. Most cattle eat a diet of hay and grass. But during the last 90 to 120 days before harvesting, the majority of cattle in the United States go on a high-energy “finishing diet” that influences flavor considerably. Usually these finishing diets consist of high energy feed that produces increased levels of weight gain, which means more marbling and ultimate flavor. In general scientific research has shown that consumers prefer the flavor of grain-finished beef.

Grading

The meat grading program is administered by the USDA. Quality grades indicate palatability—tenderness, juiciness and flavor of the cooked beef. Yield grades are used at the wholesale level to indicate which carcasses will provide the most edible beef. Both quality and yield grades are determined by measuring and assessing carcass characteristics.

There are eight USDA quality grades – Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter, Canner. The factors used to determine quality grades are maturity, marbling and muscle firmness, color and texture.

Marbling

Fat—we have a love-hate relationship with it. We crave its flavor yet are told to keep our intake to a minimum. This dichotomy was illustrated in a Beef Checkoff-funded study conducted on behalf of the Cattlemen’s Beef Board by the University of Nebraska.

The study revealed that over 70% of consumers visually preferred low marbled steaks. However, high marbled steaks were rated more juicy, flavorful and acceptable by a taste panel than low marbled ones.

Clearly the flavor and juiciness fat imparts is one of the major reasons why we enjoy – and crave – beef.

Aging

There are two commercial methods for aging beef: wet and dry. Wet aging is far more common and occurs in vacuum bags under refrigerated temperatures of 32ºF to 34ºF. Most beef is vacuum packaged at the processing plant. In dry aging, a significant amount of dehydration occurs because the subprimal or wholesale cut is not packaged during aging. Dry aging is not widespread because it is a more complex method and results in yield losses due to dehydration. It is done primarily by upscale and specialty beef purveyors. Dry aged beef produces distinct flavors and aromas perceived as too intense by some consumers but highly desirable by others.

Marinades & Rubs

Commonly used with thin beef cuts, such as steaks, a marinade is a seasoned liquid that adds flavor and in some cases increases tenderness. Successful marinating matches the marinade type and marinating time to the beef cut.

Tender beef cuts are marinated only to add flavor therefore need short marinade times—15 minutes to 2 hours. Less acidic marinade ingredients are used since their tenderizing effects are not required. A highly acidic marinade can actually toughen meat fibers similar to overcooking.

Less tender beef cuts, such as several from the chuck, round, flank and skirt, benefit from a marinade with tenderizing ingredients (food acids or enzymes) and a longer marinating time of 6 to 24 hours.

  •  Acidic marinade ingredients include citrus juices, vinegar, vinaigrettes, salsa, yogurt and wine.
  • Fresh ginger, pineapple, papaya, kiwi and figs contain natural tenderizing enzymes.
  • Tenderizing marinades penetrate about 1/4 inch into the surface of the beef.
  • Beef marinated for longer than 24 hours may develop a mushy texture.
  • Use a food-safe plastic bag or nonreactive glass or stainless steel container for marinating.
  • Always marinate in the refrigerator, never at room temperature. 
  •  Turn steaks or stir beef strips occasionally to allow even exposure to the marinade.
  • Never save and reuse a marinade.
  • Reserve some marinade before adding it to raw beef and use as a baste or sauce.
  • Bring marinade that has been in contact with raw beef to a full rolling boil and boil for at least 1 minute before using as a sauce.
  • Unlike marinades, rubs are dry or paste-type seasoning mixtures that are used for flavoring.
  • Usually applied to the surfaces of roasts, steaks and ground beef patties just prior to cooking, they often form a delicious crust during cooking.

Dry rubs consist of herbs, spices and other dry seasonings that are pressed onto the beef’s surface. Paste-type rubs are spread over the beef and use small amounts of wet ingredients, such as oil, crushed garlic, mustard, soy sauce, and Worcestershire sauce, to bind the dry seasonings.

Commercial Marinating

Marination technology involves four basic elements: 1) beef; 2) marinade; 3) a treatment process and 4) packaging. The food industry defines a marinade as “...a mixture in which a food is either soaked, massaged, tumbled or injected to improve taste, tenderness or other sensory attributes, such as color or juiciness.” All branded products sold at retail must disclose on the label the amount of marinade and the ingredients. This is a regulation that may not be applicable to product prepared on-site.

The key differences between various marination processes are the degree of penetration and dispersion of the marinade, the amount of marinade absorbed and the extent of tenderizing.

The ingredients in commercial marinating solutions perform specific functions. Primary ingredients—water, salt, starch and phosphates—affect texture and water-holding capacity. Secondary ingredients—seasonings, acids and sweeteners—add flavor. A marinade can be as simple as water, salt and phosphates with a typical formula being 92% water, 7% salt and 1% phosphate.

Benefits of Commercially Marinated Beef

  • Enhances juiciness and minimizes consequences of overcooking
  • Enhances flavor and tenderness
  • Improves consistency
  • Provides a vehicle for incorporation of flavors and seasonings
  • Can be used to incorporate ingredients that increase shelf life

Freeze Fast, Thaw Slow

When freezing beef, remember to freeze it fast. Beef has a lower freezing point (28°F) than water (32°F). Rapid freezing creates smaller ice crystals that cause less damage to cell membranes thus preventing moisture loss during thawing. To ensure fast freezing, make sure freezers are kept at 0°F or lower. (Optimal freezer temperatures are -10°F to -40°F.) Most beef sold to foodservice outlets has been commercially frozen at the plant. Rapid commercial freezing methods usually yield a higher quality end product than fresh beef frozen conventionally.
Sixty percent of consumers purchase enough beef to freeze for later use.* When frozen beef is improperly wrapped or partially thawed and refrozen it loses surface moisture. This dehydration by sublimation causes freezer burn. Appearing as a discolored, dry-looking surface, freezer burn is an irreversible condition. While it doesn’t make beef unsafe to eat, it does produce a tough texture and bland or rancid flavor in cooked beef.
Slow thawing prevents small ice crystals from thawing and refreezing into large crystals that cause further cell damage and moisture loss. In fact, thawing beef too rapidly at higher temperatures can actually undo the benefits of quick freezing.

Thaw Laws

 

  • Thaw beef slowly in the refrigerator (35°F to 40°F); not at room temperature.
  • Thaw beef in its packaging to prevent dehydration.
  • Use thawed beef promptly.

*Source: The Praxi Group: Beef Flavor Preference Study, October 2005, Beef Checkoff funded research conducted for NCBA on behalf of the Cattlemen’s Beef Board.

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