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Mostly Concerning Food

Grooving on Maillard Reactions 

So how do you cook the perfect steak? I’ve cooked a few in my time (steaks that is…not necessarily perfect ones!) but thought I’d go back to school this week and see what advice top cooks have to give. As ever cooks talk a good game. They give the impression that if you were as good as them the recipe will turn out perfectly. If you look more closely there is a tendency among recipe writers  to obscure their recipes in either mystery or ignorance (either their own or their reader’s). So I’ve gone one stage further and dusted off my white lab coat to find out what scientists have to add to the debate.

To begin with the mystery and/or ignorance. There is something of a debate as to whether Nigella Lawson is a chef or not. She herself claims to be an ordinary family cook. You can take either claim with a pinch of Pink Himalayan Salt. She’s written many best selling recipe books. We have one on our shelf and from it we get the following words of specialist wisdom on the subject of cooking steak.

“Fry or griddle the steaks. It’s difficult to be helpful about timings as it so depends on how well done you like your meat and, of course, how thick the steaks are.”

Well there you go. What more could you possibly need to know? No need to mention what type of fry pan or griddle you should use when Le Creuset comes as standard. No mention of heat. A grammatical error (or, perhaps, deliberate fashionable usage); the word ‘so’ used adjectively if not adverbially and a double entendre. And not a hint of useful advice.

This isn’t intended to condemn Nigella. I like Nigella but what she is selling in her cookbooks and her television programmes isn’t an understanding of food but an enviable Kensington lifestyle and an enthusiasm for eating well. As such it is excellent. Few food books are written to widen our understanding of food. Many are written to increase a sense of mystery and to deepen our sense of ignorance. Few recipe books are written with the intention that many people will actually follow the recipes. A recent Food Programme (BBC Radio 4) suggested that the average is just 2 dishes made from each recipe book bought. And this survey was carried out by people who write recipe books.

Gordon Ramsay has discovered (correctly) that turning the steak often will get the heat through to the centre of the steak more quickly and will distribute the heat more evenly. Laboratory tests based on computer predictions show that turning the steak every fifteen seconds will give you a more perfectly cooked viand. He’s so carried away with this idea that he overlooks the importance of searing the steak in the pan first. He makes up for this by telling you the type of pan to use (non-stick), that you add oil to the pan first (debatable) and then add more as it cooks along with a pat of butter, and that you can add flavour by adding some slightly crushed garlic cloves and a sprig of thyme to the pan during cooking.

DSC_0007Now searing the meat is the contentious bit. Until the 1970s this was essential and we all knew why. It was to seal the steak and prevent juices from escaping thereby guaranteeing a juicy steak. This was about the only bit of culinary science my mother passed on apart from knowing that liver and watercress both contained lots of iron and bananas were good for you because they contain potassium and we all know how and why potassium is so important for us. Don’t we?

Then a scientist started writing about food and being a scientist he had objectively tried out the science. Harold McGee is an excellent read and, when you hear him on the radio, a quietly spoken and most amiable man. He had collected a degree in Science from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) before pursuing his love of literature to the extent not only of gaining a Phd on the poetry of John Keats but also  a job at Harvard teaching it. Eventually he combined his two great loves of science and writing and chose to write about food simply because it was a subject that wasn’t much written about. (Despite bookshops full of new volumes and thousands upon thousands of blogs you could contend that it is still a subject with little written about it.)

His 1984 book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen has become one of the most influential books on food of recent times. Heston Blumenthal cites it as the turning point in turning him into a cook and the main reason he became the sort of cook he turned into; an inventive one who is as mindful of the science as of the supposed art of the kitchen.

Steaks are the point where many of us started to take an interest in what McGee has to say. First the myth. Searing seals in the juices. False. Searing dries out the meat. What it does do though is to add a great deal of flavour to the meat. A balance needs to be struck between getting the maximum amount of flavour and minimising the drying out. The answer (and I’ve gone out of my way to conduct experiment after experiment…and be humble enough to eat the results) is to get the pan hot, leave the meat to brown the outer layer to form a thin crust and then to turn often to make sure the heat is distributed quickly and evenly. The rule of oiling the steak and not the pan is a good one. The old debate as to whether you should season the steak before it goes into the pan, during the cooking or wait until it is on the plate is taken up by French Physical Chemist and gastronome; Hervé This. His institute devoted a great deal of time to this problem and concluded that it makes not a blind bit of difference; just so long as you do season the steak. (Salt does enhance the  flavours of meat to the taste buds. Fears that it draws out the fluids from the meat are largely unfounded on the grounds that it draws out so little as to make no difference. A steak isn’t a cucumber!)

Professor This also explains how the way meat cooks is dependent on the constituent elements of meat. Your steak consists of various  parts that all react to heat in different ways and at differing temperatures. I hand over to the Frenchman. “In thinking about…our meal it will help to keep in mind some of the basic scientific facts about the transformations undergone by heated meat. At 40c (104F) proteins unfold, becoming denatured, and the meat loses its transparency; at 50c (122f) collagen fibers, (sic) the chief structural components of muscle cells, contract; at 55c (131F) myosin, one of the principle proteins of the muscle cells, coagulates and the collagen begins to dissolve; at 66c (151F) the sarcoplasmic proteins that make up the collagen coagulate; and at 79C (174F) actin, another important muscle protein, coagulates.”

Until ten years ago many cooks would have found a reason to switch off after a single sentence. How could someone using words like sarcoplasmic and structural components have anything to add to the mysterious art of cooking? The next thing you know they’ll be trying to explain colour in paintings and pointing out the links between music and mathematics!

Hervé This is also very good at explaining why the searing of the meat adds so much to the final flavour of the steak. I’m not a scientist but I am a huge fan of science in the same way as some very fine scientists of my own personal acquaintance can, and do, have an impressive appreciation of music and literature. The science informs my cooking and adds to the pleasure in both the process and the product. I’ll hand over to the scientist again to give a potted explanation of what scientists refer to as a Maillard Reaction

“A transformation that begins with the reaction of a sugar and an amino acid. What follows is very complicated, however, and a complete description would fill several volumes. It suffices for our purposes here simply to say that once an Amadori or a Heyns rearrangement has taken place (depending on the nature of the reactive sugar), several parallel paths lead to the formation of brown compounds, notably the ones found on the surface of meats that are cooked at high temperature.”

Maillard reactions are what is happening to the surface of the meat as it is seared, it explains both the delightful smell of cooking steak and the fabulous final taste. It doesn’t stop there. But that will do for now.

I’ve read a lot of books about food and I’ve read (for someone who has made a living out of his knowledge of poetry and drama) a lot of science books. Recently I’ve read McGee’s On Food and Cooking and This’s Molecular Gastronomy. I may have to read them a little more slowly than a practicing scientist and I certainly have to re-read them more than I need to re-read most novels (though not most poetry which also, like the science, comes to life in terms of giving up its meaning through careful re-reading). These are superb books that will have a lasting influence on the way I cook and my understanding of what is happening when I do.

To celebrate I declared this to be steak week and I spent an hour every evening in practical investigations of Maillard Reactions. On Monday we had Ostrich steaks, on Tuesday Breast of Muscovy Duck and on Wednesday we had Rib eye steaks from a supermarket. The work will continue. In the fridge as I write are two very large T-Bone (Porterhouse) steaks from the Welbeck Estate.

It has been a wonderful week.

Oh, and there were a few non steak meals.DSC_0003As I was at the Welbeck shop it seemed a pity not to get a wood pigeon and give it a quick roast. It went down rather well with the leftover baked potato and cauliflower cheese from the day before. The bird cost less than a Starbucks coffee and cooked in 20 minutes.

Cumbrian air dried ham from the Chatsworth farm shop. with a light salad.

Cling peaches and vanilla ice-cream. The ice cream was from Chatsworth. It was very light, very white and rather free from taste. Cling peaches are always lovely.

I’ve tried this before. I didn’t like it at all. This time I didn’t dislike it as much. Maybe I’d like it more if I spent a good part of the previous evening drinking port and malt whisky. It’s a rather unappetising green grey colour. The appearance and the taste go well together.

Supermarket ham for a quick snack.

DSC_0014To balance out the meat eating of the evenings, breakfasts have been very frugal. This one was a pot of coffee by candlelight.


Not all breakfasts were quite as frugal. This one consisted of fried potatoes, egg and left over bits of steak and duck. I always fancied nineteenth century coaching inns would be a bit like this.

Close readers may have noticed a lack of useful practical advice in this, but then, I’m with Nigella. We’d both happily admit to there being many, many people who know more about food than we do. But we’re right there, in the middle of the front row, when it comes to enjoying it.

Have a good week.