Rules of the Pan |Muscle-Collagen|

In search of the perfect technique imagine when you bite into a cut of meat, you rupture the muscle tissue and your mouth fills with the juices, acidity swishes around on your palate and fat instantly gratifies. Its those fatty molecules that are enormously important sources of taste and aroma. The more marbling produces more fat, and that’s why Japanese gyu is so tasty. The fat helps in so many ways to enhance the first impression of how juicy a piece of meat is. Those very fats and salts trigger your salivary glands as it is chewed.


As well there are many different kinds of proteins in meat but when it comes to muscle its what’s called myosin and actin, these two actively contract and relax the muscles. Now consider that all cuts of meat contain a certain amount of collagen. The collagen is the muscles housing referred by cooks as the silver skin. Collagen is basically is throughout all areas of the muscles large or small and slowly softens with cooking.

But there are differences between the collagen found in tender and tough cuts of meat and it depends on what work a muscle performs. The more a muscle is working the tougher it will be when cooked. Depending on how you cook meat various enzymes in the meat will dissolve, or degrade proteins in muscle fibers and collagen in connective tissue. That one of the reason why meats have juices, those famous resting techniques used to help prevent the juices from gushing out of the meat.

When a cow is alive there is an enzyme called calpastatin which is the regulatory protein that controls the actions of calpains. The reason that meat aging takes multiple days, usually from 10+ days, is that calpastatin initially keeps calpains, mainly ucalpain, from acting freely. However, as calpastatin inhibits the action of calpains, they autolyse, or destroy themselves.

Therefore with time calpastatin levels decrease and allow calpains to work. The higher the level of calpastatin, the less protein clipping the calpains do. The conditions of slaughter also influence the calpasatatin including the age of the animal, its breed and or genetics all affect the level. Japanese Wagyu cattle for example, have less than one-third the amount of calpastatin that American cattle have, and this is one reason that Wagyu beef is the more tender.

But the “sirloin steak” is a primal cut and most of the connective tissues are trimmed and the cooking process doesn’t involve the same degree of complexity given you cook the steak in the right way.

The key is no pan cooking from start to finish, or harsh grilling because you basically dry out the meat, (dry bulb) stretch the muscle and risk too making it too chewy. That doesn’t mean that there are very good steaks grilled but direct grilling is often too risky (unless the meat is fatty) and damaging the muscular structure happens frequently-hence a chewier piece of meat.


Having said that, many BBQ specialists with good technical have the experience to deploy methods of cooking and achieve mouth watering aromas and tastes. But fundamentally BBQ is not as easy as it looks unless you have the right cut, the right brine and the right timing.


I always recommend the use of sous vides to have even cooking throughout the steak and especially of the steak is thick. If you cook the meat at lower temperatures, fewer of the collagen fibers shorten, so the temperature constricts the meat less. This is why meats retain more of their juices when cooked sous vide or by other slow-cooking processes.


But in some cases to make those muscles more tender, you must cook the meat at temperatures that are sufficiently higher for longer period of time in order to break some of the collagen’s cross links and unravel molecules. In this case you can braise or stew.

As you might expect, the greater the temperature the faster and more completely the tough collagen fibrils separate. At these higher temperatures, the woven mesh of collagen shrinks to a greater extent before it dissolves. That shrinkage forcefully squeezes the leaking juices out of the meat and, at the same time, makes it denser. The meat then becomes harder to chew unless enough collagen dissolves and the meat begins to flake apart. The best strategy for cooking meat to release the strong cross-linked collagen is to cook it slowly at the lowest practical temperature.

Once you’ve achieved the desired cooking temperature under sous vides and in the water bath, avoid exposing the steak’s surface too long to the pans heat or you risk causing grey edges. The coloration is made in less than one minute on each side. The resulting pigments paint a dark golden color across the crust of the meat and these chemical changes happen quickly at temperatures above 130°C.

Secondly the pan must be well seasoned with oil, and the oil “piping hot” so the coloration happens instantly, or if you prefer I sometimes use a medium heat to control the surface coloration. But beware of the meats surface temperature.

If it’s too cold the meat can contract in a way that doesn’t really give you the texture you wish. If it’s too warm you are better off but remember these are muscles and they develop tension when exposed to temperature. However the crust is all about tension and the maillard reaction and you want good coloration.

Most importantly if you use sous vides it loosens the meats web of fibers and collagen. If you take a steak from the sous vides bag it is floppy and that’s becasue the muscles have been tenderized. This is one of the significant advantages to using sous vides.

Do not flip the steak more than once to color the other side. In some cases when working with Japanese beef surface temperature is adjusted much lower to avoid the scalding of fat at the surface due to the high fat content found in Japanese beef.

Searing the steak can be tricky unless you respect the process. If your pan is black it absorbs more heat and can cause your steak to get more cooked than you expect or desire. The shinny silver stainless steel reflects more and colors better. But if you have a well oiled pan and you simply sear the meat both can work. But be cautious of black cast iron pans as they can cause the steak to get charred if you season the steak in advance. The reason is the pepper or spices get charred due to their darker mass absorbs more light. But no undoubtedly the Maillard reactions generates a complex aromatic set of chemical reactions, those irreplaceable flavors meat lovers adore so its a must.


I always de-glaze to add some shine and shimmer to the steaks surface. Once you coat it you can season it with salt and whatever you feel suits your palate. I almost always add the spice after deglazing unless I use a single spice. If you have various types you lose control as each spice reacts differently. This is the final step unless you are looking to get a crusty finish by adding spice and glaze combination.


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