The words taste and flavor are commonly used interchangeably to describe eating sensation but in reality they are very different. Appearance, smell, and personal judgment can also affect our beef experience. (Pictured right: Creekstone Farms Filet.)
Triggers & Sensations
If you were in grade school before the late 1990’s, you learned about the basic taste receptors on your tongue for sweet, salty, sour and bitter. In the late 1990’s a fifth taste receptor was confirmed as umami which is the way our body interprets and senses protein or savory taste.
Receptors on our tongue send signals to our brains when we experience certain tastes. The ability to detect these five tastes is instrumental to our decision making. We may decide something is too bitter, or nicely sweet, and then decide to keep eating it or to avoid it in the future.
How our innate survival instinct relates to our taste sensors directing us towards certain foods and away from others is further important. For example, sweet indicates energy-giving carbohydrates; sour indicates potential danger from spoilage; bitter indicates potential toxins.
Flavor is the quality of something you can taste. It is the combination of the taste, plus the other sensations that influence our perception of food, such as aroma, texture, juiciness, color and feel in your mouth.
People sometimes use words such as, rich, buttery, silky, pungent and earthy, when describing something they eat or drink. When doing so, they are actually speaking of flavor. You may have used the term “off-flavor” when something didn’t taste quite right. That’s because the combination of taste and the other influences were not what you expected or experienced before.
Beef + Fat = Flavor
Beef without fat lacks flavor. Fat imparts juiciness and flavor in beef but all fat with meat is not equal. There are three types of fat in meat:
- Subcutaneous or External fat that covers the outside of a carcass
- Seam or Intermuscular fat that runs between muscles
- Marbling or Intramuscular fat that is found within muscles
Marbling is the visible flecks of fat within muscles that are directly related to the flavor and juiciness of cooked beef. Marbling affects flavor in two ways. First, fatty acids (the building blocks of fat) experience chemical changes during cooking and produce potent flavor compounds. Second, fat acts as a container for aromatic compounds that are released during cooking. Many beef flavor components are found in these aromatic compounds.
There are ten degrees of marbling USDA graders use for evaluation, from Very Abundant to Practically Devoid. The marbling score is a large factor in determining the beef quality grade. USDA Prime has the most abundant marbling, USDA Select has the least marbling and USDA Choice is right in the middle.
Part 1 Wrap Up
Our eating and flavor preferences can be altered by the ways we see, smell, taste and even think about foods. In a study conducted by the University of Nebraska, consumer opinion was put to the test with steak:
70% of respondents visually preferred low marbled steaks, but high marbled steaks were rated juicier, more flavorful and taste acceptable.
What’s most interesting about this result is the inertia between a visual and actual taste. By sight, lower marbled steaks may have been perceived as the better alternative, but it was the flavor profile of higher marbled steak that won out.
From a market perspective, grain fed beef tends to have more marbling whereas grass fed beef tends to have less marbling. Consequently the flavor of the beef is quite different.