What Causes Meat To Be Tough?

When heating food, many chemical reactions take place, things in it break down and change. Proteins coagulate or denature, carbohydrates gelatinize or caramelize. These processes always take place, regardless of whether the food is cooking in a slow cooker or whether a steak is sizzling in a pan. That makes the food tasty and edible.

Cooking makes food tasty and digestible

Cooking food can be done in many ways. Boiling, frying, baking, stewing, simmering. In all these processes, ingredients are changed and various chemical reactions take place, which makes many foods digestible for us.

In its raw state, some foods are tough and not very tasty. Some are not digestible, and a few are even toxic and must be boiled before consumption. After cooking, nutrients can be better and more effectively absorbed by the body.

The taste changes too when cooking. Flavors are very “delicate”, they can be destroyed when heated or unfold to the fullest. The right temperatures can be crucial for the success of a dish.

Cooking Meat

Meat can be cooked in different ways. The cooking method should depend on:

  • the type of meat, its structure, the proportion of muscle tissue, fat and connective tissue (collagen), and from which part of the animal the cut originated
  • personal taste preferences

Short fibers – short cooking time

  • Delicate, tender, short-fibred meat cuts, containing little connective tissue and no tendons, are best suited for short cooking times at high temperature like frying or grilling

Long fibers – long cooking time

  • Long-fiber meat, rich in connective tissue and tendons requires longer cooking times and methods that maintain a low consistent heat such as slow cooking, stewing or braising

What happens when cooking meat?

Meat consists essentially of water, fat, and various proteins. Proteins are large organic molecules made up of smaller molecules, amino acids, the basic building blocks of living organisms. Some proteins in the meat are organized as muscle fibers other are organized in connective tissue. The major component of connective tissue is a protein called Collagen, strong stuff that holds everything together, that’s how it got its name.

When the meat is heated, several chemical processes take place that changes its structure. Beginning at about 100 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius) Proteins begin to break apart, they denature. Muscle fibers begin to contract, connective tissue shrinks, cells break open and release water and a cocktail of organic compounds that in their mixture create flavor.

Collagen, the connective tissue protein, breaks down when heated. The meat becomes soft. At higher temperatures, however, the collagen fibers recombine and the meat becomes dry and tough. The more collagen the meat contains, the tougher it becomes at high temperatures.

Meat pieces with a high content of connective tissue must be cooked for a long time at low temperatures with damp heat, eg. in the slow cooker. Cuts of meat with a high content of connective tissue usually have an excellent taste when done right.

How to Cook meat

Whether meat becomes chewy and tough, or juicy and tender, depends on the type of meat cut and on the method of cooking.

What causes meat to be tough?

When lean meat is heated, the proteins that make it up, begin to denature, the fibers contract, cells break. Water, which is bound to the proteins and contained inside the cells is released and, if the meat is cooked too long it simply evaporates.  Losing too much water lets the meat “shrivel up” and causes meat to be tough and dry. Lean meat with little fat and little connective tissue such as fillet, hip or back should therefore only be cooked as long as absolutely necessary. The shorter the better.

How Meat Becomes Tender And Juicy

If it is a lean cut, cook it briefly as explained above, to retain as much water a possible. However, meat with a lot of connective tissue e.g. cuts from the neck, shoulder, brisket, should be cooked as long as possible at low moist heat. Slow cooking or stewing is ideal. The connective tissue is made of tough collagen. At temperatures greater than 175 ° F, it slowly denatures to soft gelatin. The meat, which was tough at first, becomes a juicy delicate pleasure.

Searing Meat – Creates Flavors and Scent

The Maillard reaction, named after the French naturalist Louis Camille Maillard, is responsible for the delicious crust and the wonderful scent of roasted or fried meat.

Searing meat at high temperatures (300 to 360 degrees Fahrenheit, 150 to 180 degrees Celsius) combines natural sugar contained in the cells with amino acids (organic molecules that make up proteins). Searing meat gives the crust its color, creates tasty flavors and delicious scents.

Searing meat at high temperatures can also be harmful. Sugars and amino acids react and form so-called heterocyclic aromatic amines that can increase the risk of cell changes. Do not char meat.

The myth of the sealing juices in

By searing meat, you can not “close pores” to seal meat juices in. Meat does not have pores, therefore there is nothing to seal. Only skin has pores. Searing the meat breaks cells, water evaporates, drying out the surface of the meat cut.

The searing of a piece of meat does not seal juices in it only produces crust and flavors. The crust is dried out meat with a glazed layer of caramelized sugars.

Meat Cooking Tips

  • Meat cuts with a high content of connective tissue should be simmered with little liquid at low temperatures, use a slow cooker. If you want a crust briefly raise the temperature at the end of cooking
  • For quick frying and sauteing, it is best to use pieces of meat that contain little connective tissue, such as fillet, rump steak or meat from the hips or loins
  • Place superficial cuts into the outer fat edge of the steak so the meat does not bulge up when frying
  • Thaw the meat completely before you cook it. Remove meat from the fridge in time for frying so warm to room temperature. Dab off moisture with a kitchen paper cloth
  • Salt meat at the end of cooking as salt draws water


Sources and more to read:

Kitchen and Chemistry

Water content in Meat

How Slow Cooking Softens Meat

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