Muscle Fibers: The Flavor of Action

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

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Meaty flavor is a combination of mouth-filling taste sensations and a characteristic, rich aroma. Both arise from the proteins and energy-generating machinery of the muscle fibers—after they have been broken down into small pieces by the muscle’s enzymes and by the heat of cooking. Some of these pieces—single amino acids and short chains of them, sugars, fatty acids, nucleotides, and salts—are what stimulate the tongue with sweet, sour, salty, and savory sensations. And when they’re heated, they react with each other to form hundreds of aromatic compounds. In general, well-exercised muscle with a high proportion of red fibers (chicken leg, beef) makes more flavorful meat than less exercised, predominantly white-fibered muscle (chicken breast, veal). Red fibers contain more materials with the potential for generating flavor, in particular fat droplets and fat-like components of the membranes that house the cytochromes. They also have more substances that help break these flavor precursors down into flavorful pieces, including the iron atoms in myoglobin and cytochromes, the oxygen that those molecules hold, and the enzymes that convert fat into energy and recycle the cell’s proteins.