Meat Science and Nutrition

Composition of Meat

Meat muscle, which is what we eat, is made of fibres, bound together with connective tissue, that are mainly linked to other groups of muscles or directly to the animal’s bone structure. Muscle contains 60% to 70% moisture, 10% to 20% protein, 2% to 22% fat, and 1% ash, depending on type and species.

On larger bones (such as the shanks of larger animals), it is easy to see the muscle groups in bundles (if cut on the cross-section) surrounded by collagen fibres and a much heavier connective tissue (elastin) that forms a thin covering (called silverskin) separating muscle groups or a tendon at the ends of the muscle group (Figure 1). The tendon is attached to the bone at or near a bone joint (Figure 2).

Figure 1 Crosscut of beef shank showing muscle fibres. Photo by Jakes and Associates shared under CC-BY-NC 4.0
Figure 1. Crosscut of beef shank showing muscle fibres.
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Figure 2. Bone with tendon attached (left) and muscle removed (right).

The muscle fibres are known as myofibrils, which are composed of thick and thin filaments arranged in a repeating pattern alongside the other myofibrils (Figure 3). One unit of a bundle is called a sarcomere, or little muscle. The thick filaments are the contractile protein myosin. The thin filaments, known as actin, contain two other proteins called troponin and tropomyosin that help regulate muscle contraction.

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Figure 3. 1007 Muscle Fibres (large) by OpenStax College – Anatomy & Physiology, Connexions Website. June 19, 2013. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The amount of connective tissue in meats and its solubility (the degree to which it is dissolved during the cooking process) can directly influence the tenderness of meat muscle. For example, as an animal ages, it has more connective tissue and therefore experiences cross-linking, an increase in connective tissue that becomes highly insoluble. This is why older animals are usually tougher and younger animals are more tender.

The most tender cuts from a beef animal, such as tenderloin, strip loin, and top sirloin from the beef hind quarter, can be prepared using a dry heat cooking method. In contrast, tougher cuts from the front quarter of beef that have more collagen connective tissue, such as the blade, shoulder, and shank, require a moist heat or combination cooking method, which breaks down collagen into a gelatin form when cooked in water at temperatures of over 80°C (176°F). The collagen dissolves in the water, which is why stocks made from animal bones and connective tissue have body and thicken when cooled. (We discuss cooking potential and tenderness in more detail later in the book.)

Heavy collagen, such as tendons at the ends of muscle groups and the protein elastin, does not break down under this cooking process and is therefore insoluble in water. In addition to silverskin and tendons, there is a specific piece of heavy collagen (also known as the backstrap) that is yellow in colour and located along the upper backbone from the base of the skull to the end of the rib cage in all meat animals (Figure 4).

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Figure 4. Backstrap location on lamb rack.

Fats are deposited all over certain parts of the animal and contribute to the shelf life, flavour, and colour of dry aged meats. Fat in beef meat muscle is called intramuscular fat and appears as a pattern of wavy lines, commonly known as marbling (Figure 5).

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Figure 5. Poster indicating marbling in USDA Beef grades. [image description]

Well-marbled meat usually indicates that the cooked meat will be juicy and tender, and the amount of marbling is a factor that is used to determine the grade of beef, specifically for the A grades. Beef grading is discussed in detail later in the book.

Image descriptions

Figure 5. Poster indicating marbling in USDA Beef grades.

A guide to understanding the fat content of USDA grades of beef.

  • USDA Prime: More marbling—or fine threads of fat—in USDA Prime beef result in more flavor, moisture and tenderness. Marbling also helps keep beef moist during cooking, making USDA Prime ideal for broiling, roasting, grilling and other high-heat methods. Some cuts. like tenderloin (filet) crd top uade (flat iron). cre often tender regardless of how much marbling they have.
  • USDA Choice: USDA Choice beef has less marbling than Prime, but still retains enough fat to stay moist through most high-heat cooking methods like braising, roasting or grilling.
  • USDA Select: Beef with less marbling, like USDA Select, should be cooked slowly. Using marinades or moist heat methods like steaming or stewing will help ensure flavor & tenderness.

Return to Figure 5

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