Muscle Fibers

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About
When we look at a piece of meat, most of what we see are bundles of muscle cells, the fibers that do the moving. A single fiber is very thin, around the thickness of a human hair (a tenth to a hundredth of a millimeter in diameter), but it can be as long as the whole muscle. The muscle fibers are organized in bundles, the larger fibers that we can easily see and tease apart in well-cooked meat.

The basic texture of meat, dense and firm, comes from the mass of muscle fibers, which cooking makes denser, dryer, and tougher. And their elongated arrangement accounts for the “grain” of meat. Cut parallel to the bundles and you see them from the side, lined up like the logs of a cabin wall; cut across the bundles and you see just their ends. It’s easier to push fiber bundles apart from each other than to break the bundles themselves, so it’s easier to chew along the direction of the fibers than across them. We usually carve meat across the grain, so that we can chew with the grain.