Flavor RX -- 10 "Flavor Factors" Affect The Taste of Meat

What’s the flavor rx for a tasty entrée? Become a flavor chemist and discover 10 "flavor factors" that make some meat dishes memorable and others end up in the flavor graveyard.

1. Genetics. Each person’s fingerprint, iris, voice, and breath is unique. It’s similar with animals. Is it too difficult to imagine that each animal we eat has a slightly different taste? Angus cattle breeders have done a good job marketing their brand, claiming a standardized taste and tenderness for Angus cattle that differs from all other beef cattle. The same holds for Berkshire hogs. Further, within a certain breed each animal has a slightly differing taste.

2. Soil nutrients and minerals. Wine connoisseurs can tell what region, perhaps even from which vineyard a bottle of wine originated. Soil nutrients subtly flavor the meat, particularly for grassfed animals.

3. The manner of handling prior to slaughter. The long haul in a crowded cattle trailer stuffed with unfamiliar animals or the wait in a stockyard causes the release of "fight or flight" hormones that affect taste on the plate. A processing plant in France requires that all animals processed in that facility must be led in with a halter. Why? They know that calm animals taste better.

4. The food an animal eats affects taste on the plate. We all seem to know stories about the goat that ate tin cans--her milk tasted like tuna! Diet does affect taste. Sweet grass helps produce sweet meat. Molasses can affect a certain taste in the meat.

5. Spices and meat marinades influence taste buds. To some extent each cook becomes a flavor doctor and prescribes her own flavor Rx to each entrée she prepares.

6. The way meat is cooked affects flavor as well as tenderness. Fat acts as an insulator; since grassfed meat has less fat, it requires a longer cooking time. Lean grass-fed meat tastes best cooked low and slow. Anything called "fast food" typically has a lot of fat. Grain fattened cows, especially prime grade, have excess marbling in the meat. Cooking time and temperature need to be determined, at least in part, by the amount of fat in the meat.

7. Rare, medium, or well-done? What's your preference? Rare preserves the unique taste, the subtle flavor, as well as the nutritional value of the meat. (This is especially true if the animal is grass-finished.) Well-done may lend more of the charcoal flavor of the grill than the unique flavor of the meat.

8. How much fat is in the meat? Some like the fatty taste, others prefer lean. Either way, fat affects flavor.

9. The cut of meat. What gives stronger flavor, the lamb shank (foreleg) or the lamb chop? Shanks have greater flavor because the leg muscle got far more exercise. The chop rests in the loin section which gets little exercise.

10. The age of the animal. Lamb is any ovine that doesn't have its second set of teeth yet. (This happens at about 14-16 months.) Mutton is sheep meat over 14-16 months. Which has more flavor? Mutton, of course. Greeks prefer young lambs, even as young as 8 weeks, for their soft texture and tender taste. Many sheep raising cultures (e.g.,Turks, some Iranians) prefer the stronger taste of mutton. The correct flavor Rx is is the mouth of the taster.

A study by the Food Marketing Institute found that 91% of supermarket shoppers ranked taste as an important factor in food selection, more important than nutrition, price and product safety. In other words, we care more about the flavor of our food than anything else. Quality chefs need to know every factor that influences taste. You're the flavor doctor--prescribe your own flavor Rx for tasty meat.

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