Even though tenderness is usually considered the most important element of the palatability trio — tenderness, juiciness and flavor — juiciness and flavor can’t be ignored.
Like tenderness, both juiciness and flavor are closely aligned with marbling. In fact, marbling scores alone explain 12 percent of the variation in beef palatability, according to the University of Illinois Extension Service.
For juiciness, which is defined as the amount of moisture retained in the meat after it has been cooked, the main determinant besides marbling is genetics.
Beef flavor is more complicated and hard to assess. Beef flavor is the result of a combined perception of tastes (sweet, sour, bitter, salt and umami). But it’s more than taste. Other sensations — juiciness among them — go into our perception of food, which determines what we experience as taste: aroma, texture, mouth feel and color. Aroma is an especially important flavor precursor; more than 1,000 compounds have been identified in the aroma of cooked meat.
That’s part of the reason cooking is essential to the experience of beef flavor. Raw meat has little aroma and a metallic taste; many of the compounds that researchers know function as aroma and flavor precursors are activated only during cooking.
Researchers also know that beef taste, before harvest, is influenced by marbling, breed, age, days on feed and feed composition. Beef fed on grass has a taste that is not the same as beef fed corn.
Older animals have a more intense flavor, and aging the carcass post-harvest has a strong effect on flavor. The ideal for aging is a matter of personal preference — indeed, both flavor and juiciness are more subjective and difficult to measure than tenderness. But it is usually agreed that unaged beef, when cooked, doesn’t have typical beef flavor. Beef aged for long periods has been described as tasting more like game than typical beef. True beef flavor is reached after about 11 days of aging, but the average carcass ages only seven days before being divided into retail cuts.
Checkoff-funded research has shown that the use of enhancement solutions is another way to directly affect consumers’ flavor experience. While aging had a similar effect on all muscles, some muscles benefited more than others from an enhancement solution, in terms of increased juiciness and beef flavor. The chuck-eye roll and boneless rib seemed to benefit most.
While the scientists do the research, what can producers do? They can produce well-marbled beef. Marbling affects flavor in two ways. Fatty acids (the building blocks of fat) undergo many chemical changes during cooking that produce flavor compounds. In addition, fat stores the aromatic compounds that are released during cooking, and those aromatic compounds are responsible for many beef flavor components.
Of course, consumers have a crucial role in making sure their beef eating experience is juicy and flavorful — no matter how many of the above ele-ments a steak has going for it, it still has to be cooked correctly. Research has also found that two more top factors influencing beef flavor are cooking method and degree of doneness — no amount of marbling can save the steak left too long on the grill.