Kitchen Chemistry 103: Cooking Meat: Murder and Destruction, Oh My!

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I was struck while reading Culinary Reactions (by Simon Quellen Field) and Kitchen Mysteries (by Herve This) just how much “cooking” is just a synonym for “ripping to shreds.”

For instance, when you are cooking meats (murdered animals) you are destroying the connecting tissue (known as collagen) between the muscles, melting the collagen into gelatin and softening the meat.  However, cook too long and the meat will become tough because the proteins which have been shredded during the cooking process will begin to cross-link to each other.  Of course, if you like your bacon crisp, this can be a good thing.

Besides cooking with heat, another way to rip apart proteins is to use acids.  Marinades are basically acidic liquids that cause the proteins in the flesh of the dead animals in your pan to open-up and receive the delish flavors of your favorite marinade.  Pulverizing the carcass first (aka, tenderizing) opens up more surface area for the marinade to divide and conquer the proteins.

Searing meat (cooking the outside rapidly) will help keep the nice fleshy juices (released during the demolition process known as cooking) from escaping from the meat– leaving the finished burger or steak nice and juicy.

Red meat turns brown when cooked due largely to the reaction of the meat’s myoglobin cells with oxygen from the air.

By the way, it does seem to be true that there is slight– very slight– increased risk of intestinal-ish cancers associated with cooking meats and starches at high temperatures.

Studies have shown that people who eat well-done foods increase their chances of getting such cancers by a little more than one percent of one percent, according to Field.  At temperatures of 400 degrees or more, phosphocreatine in meats will react with amino acids and form cancer-encouraging heterocyclic amines.  So if you want to avoid that slight increased risk, you can always stew meats instead of grill them.  Oh, and here’s a trick suggested by Field… apparently, microwaving meats before grilling them reduces the increased cancer risk to near negligible.

There’s also supposed to be increased cancer risk from eating deep fried high-carb foods such as french fries and potato chips.  According Fields, temps over just 250 degrees, sugars react with the amino acid asparagine and create not-so-good-for you acrylamides.

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