The Science of BBQ - Marbling
Many different factors go into making a meal delicious. Things like how a piece of meat is seasoned and cooked are very important. However, one of the most important things is the quality of meat and the marbling found within. In this article we will discuss what marbling is, where to find it, and why you want to have marbling in your meat, particularly beef.
What is Marbling?
What is marbling? Marbling puts the bling in your beef. It is streaks of unsaturated (healthy) fats within the lean muscle fibers of a cut of meat. The pattern created by this marbling resembles marble – like on your countertop. It is one of the main criteria of judging the quality of a cut of meat – so higher quality cuts will have more marbling and as a result, cost more. One exception to this rule would be beef tenderloin, which has very little in the way of marbling but is one of the most tender bites out there. It is, however, also a little on the unflavorful side, which is why you season well, wrap it in mushrooms druxels and prosciutto, or find other ways to add the big flavor.
How Does Marbling Provide Flavor?
Marbling is the source of the big flavors in a nice cut of beef. When you are selecting a marbled steak, look for fine streaks of white instead of thick chunks of fat. As discussed in our article The Science of Barbecue – Smoking Meat, when cooked correctly, the fat in meat will melt and will keep the meat moist, adding flavor, and leading to the feeling of tenderness when chewing. The melt in your mouth feeling comes from that marbling melting into the rest of the meat. The meal still needs to be prepared properly to ensure that the fat isn’t rendered out completely, which is why we suggest never cooking a steak past medium.
Wagyu is touted as the ideal when it comes to marbling. Visibly it is basically the epitome of a marbled cut of meat. It takes a special care to cultivate this breed and when cooked, the taste is considered second to none. Like most prime cuts, however, you will pay for this kind of quality meat.
Where Do You Find Marbling?
Excellent marbling is found on cuts that are from the loin areas of a cow; the muscles that get the least amount of exercise. You want to look for prime cuts of Prime rib, rib eyes – bone-in (cowboy) and boneless (Delmonico), are great examples of cuts that would feature excellent marbling, flavor, and tenderness. The animal’s diet and breed are integral to good marbling as well. Grain fed beef will have better marbling than exclusively grass fed. It also takes time to develop marbling in an animal, so it will be more prevalent in beef that has been given time to mature rather than pork or lamb, which are not.
When buying meat, especially beef, retail cuts – off the shelf – can be low or devoid of marbling, and while the meat will be leaner, it won’t cook up to a tasty and tender meal. So, inspect the beef you are purchasing for good marbling. If you are unsure, seek a butcher or to go to a meat counter at the supermarket, as they will be happy to help you find what you are looking for.
Beef is graded into the category of Prime - top, Choice – second best, and Select – least expensive, by inspecting the cut side of meat carved from between the 12th and 13th rib. The inspector is looking for marbling among other things and will grade the meat accordingly. However, there is no formula for grading and the final result is subjective so it can differ from inspector to inspector.
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