The great steak debate has reared it’s ugly head yet again. This time Donald Trump is the catalyst — sending a million alt-righters on a path to burning their steaks and a million lefties in the other direction. Will this push liberals back to beef carpaccio? Raw or nothing? Debates rage! Jokes abound!
Here’s the thing: We actually know the perfect preparation for a steak based on science. Yet that preparation has been politicized because, 2017.
Gordon Ramsay once sagaciously pointed out “unfortunately you’re never going to identify the quality of the beef when the steak is ‘well’ cooked.” He’s 100% right. Overcook any protein and you’re going to lose flavor and form. Albeit, the nutrients will still largely be intact. But before we let the comments rage, let’s look back and figure how we got here in the first place.
A Handful Of History
Rare versus well-done goes back to the late 1970s/early 1980s, when food legends Julia Child and James Beard updated their recommendations for internal cooking temperatures of the various proteins in their respective cookbooks. It’s was less about safe and not safe — that was the USDA’s job — and more about the changing preferences of American palates. That being said, the USDA has also lowered its target temperatures for safe/edible meat.
Child and Beard effectively lowered the industry’s accepted definition of rare, medium rare, medium, medium well, and well-done. They dropped each recommendation down 15-20 degrees Fahrenheit. So a rare steak was no longer rare at 140F, but at 125F and so on. Remember, this was also Donald Trump’s heyday, so the idea that he got locked into his ways before this revolution seems quite likely.
At the time, New York Times’ food critic Florence Fabricant cited the influence of French Nouvelle cooking and Japanese styles of raw and rare beef preparations for helping us the rethink what properly cooked proteins ought to look like. She noted, “Food has become fresher tasting and more likely to retain its natural juices. Rosy slices of sautéed duck breast, delicately pink calf’s liver, vegetables that are brightly crisp-tender, and moist fillets of fish are setting the standards in restaurants and at dinner parties.”
Prior to that, the general public’s idea of cooking meat was ‘burnt crisp so it doesn’t kill me’ to a large extent — unless you were someone like Bill the Butcher and just wanted to burn the bacteria off the surface.
A Dash Of Data
The Gangs of New York scene is an important scene, culinarily-speaking. Bacteria cannot magically appear inside a solid piece of protein. Bacteria, even the pathogenic (harmful) kind, generally is only found in ground, minced, or tenderized meats when the surface is mixed into the whole in unsanitary conditions. This never happens with steaks (unless someone has literally stabbed it with a syringe and added bad bacteria in). So as long as the surface is clean, you’re pretty much good to go.
All bacteria is killed once you reach a temperature of 120F. That means that once your outer temperature on your steak reaches that heat point, all the bacteria on the surface — harmful or good — is dead. There are of course exceptions and poor handling that make for bad bacteria in your food. But worrying about bacteria in a steak is nonsensical.
To further understand this, let’s look at dry-aging. It’s become clear that some people who prefer well-done steaks are afraid of bacteria like e. coli or salmonella and have opted for the fire to burn away all that perceived “badness.” Meanwhile, dry-aging specifically uses bacteria found in molds to start breaking down the internal tissues of the muscle to tenderize it — this adds a nutty and moldy cheese quality to the cut. Logic would follow that if a pathology based in a fear of any bacteria was why you’re ordering your steak burnt in the first place, why would you ever order a tenderized-with-bacteria steak unless you were so woefully informed that it teetered on willful ignorance? Oh…welp.
Knowing this, a rare steak is cooked rare at 120F internally. This means that even if it was tenderized by bacteria (dry-aging), all the bacteria will have been killed by the heat. Medium comes in at 140F — which, until Child and Beard’s adjustment, meant rare. And well-done comes in at 160F.
“So what happens when a chef finds a tough, slightly skanky end-cut of sirloin, that’s been pushed repeatedly to the back of the pile? He can throw it out, but that’s a total loss…Or he can ‘save for well-done’ – serve it to some rube who prefers to eat his meat or fish incinerated into a flavorless, leathery hunk of carbon, who won’t be able to tell if what he’s eating is food or flotsam.” – Anthony Bourdain
So here’s what happens when you cook a steak. The tissue starts to break down as the heat permeates the muscle. This is called the denature and starts to happen to the myosin protein in the muscle tissue when the meat reaches temperatures of 120F. So the further you go past 120F, the more denaturation of the myosin proteins you’ll see — meaning a rare steak is cooked through, but all the components are still intact. The myosin is almost completely gone from the muscle tissue when it reaches the temperature of 150F, leaving behind the actin protein. This leads to a much drier, smaller steak because an entire component (the myosin) is gone or greatly depleted. These two components are what largely give steak their flavor. When the actin protein is left alone, you get a dry and sometimes rubbery muscle tissue. Meanwhile, the myosin protein is that savory, slightly sweet, and irony-umami flavor of flesh.
Now this is important to note: Some people prefer dry foods over moist ones. In steaks, this is largely attributed to a palate that favors actin over myosin. And that’s just the way it is — like some of us prefer savory over sweet or umami over bitter and so on. And that’s okay. We promise, we aren’t interested in judging your food preferences if they’re just that, preferences.
But here’s the rub, if you’re ordering a steak burnt and then slathering it in ketchup à la Trump. You’re doing so to mask the taste or lack thereof. You’re literally adding sweet, savory, and umami flavors back in artificially (stewed tomato is a huge umami bomb). This leads many to posit that a burnt steak is less about palate and more about pathology and especially the fear or mistrust of food and germs and thereby other people’s ability to prepare them, even in a professional setting.
Once the steak reaches 140F myoglobin starts to oxidize and turn the internal meat brown. Myoglobin is an oxygen-binding protein pigment that makes muscle tissue red. The redder the meat, the more myoglobin you’ve got. Basically myoglobin gives mammals the ability to hold their breath and still function. The more myoglobin in your muscle tissue the longer you can hold your breath — hence whales and other deep sea mammals have deeply dark red muscle tissue.
So a steak is never ‘bloody,’ since there is no blood or even hemoglobin (what makes up red blood cells) in steaks. Ordering a steak, or any red meat ‘bloody as hell’ is nothing more than a euphemism. What you’re really saying is I want my steak pigment-y as hell. But that doesn’t sound anywhere near as baller.
Imagine a Pulp Fiction where Vincent Vega orders his steak ‘pigment-y as hell.’
Another Sprinkle Of Science
The sear, or Maillard Reaction/Effect is crucial to flavor because it emulsifies carbonyl sugars and amino acids to create a brown crust that amps up all the savory, sweet, and umami flavors that red meats have. The effect can create up to 4,000 new chemical compounds. This is not caramelization, by the way. That is a different chemical process where sugars are basically just burnt via pyrolysis.
This is where the real danger of overcooking your meat comes into play. Scientific studies from the 90s and aughts were trying to pinpoint the negative effects of animal protein fats and muscle tissue consumption and getting varying results in the effects on humans. Some found that red meats lead straight to cancer town, other found that they don’t. That is, we believe red meat is bad for us based on studies finding this to be the case … some of the time.
So new research was conducted to find out why the results of studies were so varied and inconclusive.
The study found — and was later reviewed and upheld — that the manner of cooking red (or processed) meats was the main culprit in whether or not you got cancer. In the case of processed meats, the heavier amounts of salt and smoke were found to be the main culprits behind those products’ fallibility.
Most notably, the study found that “over-cooking, burning, and smoking” caused the the chemical compounds created by the browning Maillard Effect to pyrolysis. This means those wonderful brown crunchy compounds created were turned into black char, or mutagenic compounds that are carcinogens called Heterocyclic amines. HCAs are a gateway to several cancers, or at the very least increase the risk. And where do you find high amounts of HCAs? They’re “found in cooked meats, particularly in well-done meats.”
At the same time, scientist also found a little tidbit about cooking over an open flame that would make Hank Hill sad. When cooking with a combustable material polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are formed. More specifically “PAHs are formed when fat and juices from meat grilled directly over an open fire drip onto the fire, causing flames.” The nitrogen in the meat binds with the PAHs and become another cancer inducing carcinogen but, again, only when you let the meat overcook. The longer your meat sits on that wood or coal grill the more nPAHs are going to form on your steak.
At the end of the day, all that smokey flavor from burning fat you get from a well done steak is creating nPAHs which can mutate your genes and swing open the door for several types of cancer. So ol’ Hank was right, take those steaks off early.
There’s more to this than just a cancer risk. Glycotoxins may be the biggest component from overcooked steak to worry about. Overcooked meat is high in Advanced Glycation End products (AGEs), which can be neurotoxic. A build up AGEs from overcooked meat specifically have been observed in mice and later replicated in a human study to lead to amyloid beta proteins building up. In layperson terms that’s brain plaque that leads to Alzheimer’s and Dementia. Increasing AGE intake is heavily associated with loss of cognitive ability and most Alzheimer’s sites and doctors recommend reducing them as much as possible.
The less you cook your protein (within reasonable guidelines of safety) the less chance you have of creating carciongenic compounds that cause cancer and neurotoxins that may lead to you losing your fucking mind.
Let’s take a breath.
It’s important to remember that long-term studies are currently underway focusing on all of this. But the consensus is starting to point in the direction that overcooking food is significantly detrimental, scientifically speaking.
Eating your steak medium rare might save your life. Modernist Kitchen recommends to Sous Vide your meat precisely to avoid over exposure to heat and pyrolysis, then creating the Maillard Reaction with extremely short exposure to a heat (sometimes even by deep frying for 30 seconds). Since we’re talking about harmful chemical compounds and neurotoxins forming and expanding the longer we cook, the shorter the meat is exposed to heat sources the better.
Another tactic is using a cast iron skillet. This eliminates all the carcinogens that could be transferred to the meat from the fire. Plus, it’s arguable that a skillet-cooked steak is tastier to begin with since you’re not letting all those amazing fatty juices escape through the grates into the fire where they’re only going to turn into carcinogens.
So, ordering a steak rare or medium rare isn’t pretentious. It isn’t something hipsters do — Julia Child was not a hipster. You’re not going to be overrun with pathogenic bacteria eating a rare steak. If you’re cooking your own, buy grass fed, non-industrial meat. Make sure to salt your steak generously. Avoid combustable heat sources. Sear it off until it’s brown NOT black. And cook it to an internal temperature around 120F-140F, depending on your love of myosin, actin, and myoglobin. Allow it to rest for one-half the time you cooked it.
As you do so, you can offer any objectors this rundown. Or you can just say, “Because I have tastebuds you f*cking philistine.” Totally up to you.