Recipes engineered for perfection—what exactly does that mean? We take you inside Cook’s Illustrated’s science experiments.
In our grandparents’ era, meat was generally cooked on the bone. But as a result of today’s demand for convenience, boneless cuts have gradually replaced bone-in options in many markets. Sure, boneless cuts cook faster and are easier to carve and serve, but are we losing something in the process? To find out, we looked at the makeup of bones and set up an unusual test kitchen experiment.
Bones have the ability to make juicier, more flavorful roasts, chops, steaks, and ribs, as anyone who has experienced the pleasure of ending a meal by gnawing on a meat-stripped bone knows. This fact has everything to do with bones’ makeup.
There are many indisputable facts about bones’ components. They contain lots of connective tissue, which is comprised mainly of collagen. So, given enough cooking time, bones can be made to yield a significant amount of moisture-holding gelatin.
They’re also very porous, which makes them a relatively poor conductor of heat. This means that the meat located next to the bone doesn’t cook as quickly as the rest of the roast—a phenomenon that helps to prevent overcooking and moisture loss and contributes to a noticeably juicier end product.
At their center, bones also contain rich marrow. Some meat experts suggest that some of the flavor might migrate from the marrow through the porous bone itself and right into the meat. This piqued our curiosity, so we devised a test to see if this theory made any sense.
First, we fabricated a neutral-flavored pork substitute. To do this, we made the weirdest roast ever:
We made a big batch of mashed potatoes and seasoned it with 8 percent butter and 1 percent salt by weight, amounts that mimic the fat and salt found in our pork roast. Then we formed the potatoes into two equal-size, oblong shapes on a baking sheet.
We then scraped three pork rib bones clean of all fat and connective tissue, so that the only flavor would be from the marrow, and placed these bones over the top of one of the “roasts.” To create a control, we left the other mashed-potato “roast” alone. Then we cooked both of our imitation roasts in a 425-degree oven for 1½ hours. After a 20-minute rest, we compared the plain sample to the one with bones.
Sure enough, a majority of tasters found that the sample cooked with bones tasted noticeably meaty. It turns out that as bones are heated, they expel moisture, salt, amino acids, and nucleotides (the last two being responsible for the “meatiness” that tasters detected) from the richly flavored marrow. However, since those water-soluble flavor molecules must penetrate through a thick layer of bone to reach the meat, the diffusion process is slow and the amount of flavor contributed is not enormous. Nevertheless, when coupled with the considerable moisture- and flavor-enhancing benefits of the fat, and connective tissue around the bones, the process certainly provides another good reason to opt for bone-in.
MAKE IT NOW: Our recipe for Charcoal-Grill-Roasted Bone-In Pork Rib Roast is free through December 26, 2012.