Cooking up a Better Steak

Researchers develop methods for producing more tender, tasty, and juicy beef

There's nothing quite like a thick, juicy, sizzlin' steak cooked to perfection. But just what is it that makes some steaks taste better than others? Daryl Tatum, a meat quality researcher for Colorado State University's Agricultural Experiment Station, knows a few tricks to make a steak dinner a true treat.

Tatum and two other Colorado State animal science professors, Keith Belk and Gary Smith, have improved the taste, shelf life, and integrity of meat through their research. They have focused on beef in an effort to help cattle ranchers regain part of the food market. Beef's share of the market has dropped drastically since the 1980s in favor of chicken and pork.

"We want to improve the quality of beef that's in the grocery stores and restaurants," says Tatum. "We focus on taste – how. tender, juicy, and full of flavor the meat is. Taste is a consumer's primary driver, and beef is relatively expensive compared to chicken and pork. For a consumer to pay extra money for beef, it has to perform up to their expectations. It's just like building a car – if it's not worth the money, no one's going to buy it. We want to help beef producers stay profitable and in business."

The team has discovered that there are several things that can impact the quality of a meal: the animal's breeding, what it eats, the amount of stress the animal experienced, and how the carcass is treated.

It begins with genetics: Some varieties of cattle taste better than others. Also, some cattle have calmer dispositions, and calmer animals produce more tender meat than wilder ones do.

Next, Tatum's group has identified quality control points to help cattle produce the best possible beef for their breed. "Small changes in management practices can make a difference in the quality of meat produced," says Tatum. "We recommend putting beef cattle on a high-grain diet about 100 days before harvest. You can really improve the taste and tenderness by boosting energy intake during this period."

The way preventative antibiotics or vaccines are administered can also make a difference. When cattle are given an injection in the muscle, the needle often causes a lesion and scar tissue-like toughness in a muscle. A producer can protect the quality of his product by injecting such medicine into areas such as the neck rather than the hip, where it would ruin the quality of a steak or roast. Lesions from needles can last up to 18 months – about the time a calf would be mature enough to be harvested. Overuse of growth-promotants also can cause beef to be tough.

Tatum also has found that certain practices after meat is harvested can make it more tender. For example, Tatum says muscles contract and shorten as rigor mortis sets in, making them more dense and tough. Electrical currents can be used to make muscle tissue relax after harvest, ensuring more tenderness.

Injection treatments are another way to improve quality. Injecting water, sodium lactate, or phosphorus into carcass muscle can help prevent overcooking, which can hamper the taste of beef. "Many consumers overcook beef," says Tatum, "either because they are concerned about food safety or they just don't know how to properly cook meat. These injection treatments also make the meat juicy and more flavorful, giving it a slightly salty, more beefy taste and help ensure that steak your mouth is watering for is cooked to perfection."