I asked my husband what he wanted to know about steak, and he said, “Why does steak taste so good?”
Maybe you are asking the same question.
For years I didn’t like steak, but that’s because I had only eaten medium-well and well-done.
Since I started eating steak cooked medium, I changed my mind. Steak really tastes good.
Let’s find out.
Why Does Steak Taste So Good?
In reality, steak only tastes good if you like the way it’s cooked. So, keeping that in mind, there are five basic factors. The marbling or fat in the steak adds flavor that is pleasing to most. The aroma also plays into how good a steak tastes as well as the texture. When you put that first bite in your mouth, its feel will inform your taste buds. In addition, the Maillard Reaction adds a texture and flavor that is most agreeable. Fourth, the glutamate in the beef gives it an umami taste. And finally, how it looks. What you think the steak looks like is not a determining factor, but if your eyes like it, there’s a better chance your mouth will too.
The marbling in a steak is the small lines of fat running throughout the beef.
The USDA grades beef as Prime, Choice, and Select, and they give the highest grade (which is Prime) to the steaks with the most marbling.
But why does marbling make your steak taste so good?
Scientists have a couple of theories:
- Fat doesn’t conduct heat as well as lean muscle fibers, so the more marbling the steak has, the harder it will be to overcook it.
- Marbling makes it easier to chew, so the person eating the Prime piece of meat perceives it as more tender.
But you can put their theories to the test by making a well-marbled steak such as rib-eye and a more lean cut like top sirloin. Then, compare the two. Which one tastes better? Which one is juicier and more tender?
Flavor, juiciness, and tenderness are the three things that most people prize in their steak.
So, how does the smell of the steak factor into the taste?
If you have ever had a head cold and lost your sense of smell, you will better understand the connection our noses have to our ability to taste.
And if you plug your nose, it will diminish the flavor of your food.
Or, if you’ve ever sat next to someone at a restaurant whose perfume or cologne was overpowering, you may have noticed it was harder to taste your food.
In either case, food will not taste the same, and it has to do with the Olfactory System.
The Olfactory System is responsible for our sense of smell and connects to how we detect flavor.
The Olfactory Sense
The following quote is going to get pretty scientific.
The eGullet Culinary Institute, in Taste and Texture, Part One, says:
While we can only discern a handful of different tastes, our sense of smell is much more sensitive. the average person can identify thousands of different odors and discern about ten intensities of each of those. Roughly a thousand different types of olfactory receptors are located on a small patch in the upper part of the nasal cavity. We sense smells when odor molecules reach the receptors and dissolve. Because the receptors are located above the path that air follows when we breathe normally, we can smell odors better if we sniff, drawing the air up to the receptors. the odor molecules can reach the receptors either through the nose or up through the pharnyx, the passage connecting the mouth with the nose, which is why one of the best ways to detect the aromas of our food is to exhale with the mouth closed as we’re eating – it forces the air up through the pharnyx.
As you can see, there is a connection between our mouth and our nasal passage.
eGullet goes on to say this connection accounts for the fact that our taste and smell “combine so thoroughly to produce the phenomenon we think of as flavor.”
And Thought Co. says about the Olfactory Sense: “It is our sense of smell that allows us to detect the flavors in the foods we eat.”
Texture is a third factor that contributes to the great taste of steak.
By texture, I’m talking about the way the steak feels in your mouth.
You know, that moist, juicy, tender, melt in your mouth feel versus the chewy, tough, dry, and reminds you of leather steak.
Which do you prefer?
And just as taste and smell are linked, so are taste and texture.
Many people say, “This steak tastes so juicy,” or “I don’t like how chewy this meat tastes.”
People often confuse the two.
It’s because we use multiple senses when eating. And if we don’t consciously separate the flavor of the steak from the way it feels in our mouth, we will tend to call it all taste.
Often, the most variation in our food comes from the texture.
That’s because your sense of taste is limited. By that, I mean your tongue receptors detect mainly sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. A fifth taste is umami (pronounced “ooh Ma me,” often referred to as savory.
But your nose detects thousands of smells, and your mouth feels many more textures.
One such texture for steak is the brown crust you get from searing and is called the Maillard (pronounced “my YAR”) Reaction.
The Maillard Reaction
The Maillard Reaction happens when you sear a steak in a hot pan using oil or on a grill.
If you are searing your steak in a cast iron skillet, you will want the pan very hot before adding a high smoke point oil like Avacodo or Peanut and placing your steak in the skillet.
Immediately upon putting your seasoned steak into the pan, the Maillard Reaction begins. Generally, people just call it searing, but what is happening is, the surface of the meat is frying at a hot temperature to get a brown crust.
That’s the Maillard Reaction.
But inside, the steak is staying juicy and tender (depending on the amount of marbling there is).
Science has named “Umami” as the fifth basic taste along with sweet, sour, bitter, and salty.
Some people think that spicy is a taste, but it isn’t. Spicy is about temperature and pain.
But back to umami.
Umami is a Japanese word that you can translate to “pleasant savory taste.”
I’ve also heard “Essense of deliciousness.”
This fifth taste was discovered in 1908 by a Japanese scientist named Dr. Kikunae Ikeda.
As the story goes, he was eating a bowl of Kombu Dashi (kelp broth) when he noticed the flavor was so delicious but different from the four basic tastes. So he went to work and was able to extract an amino acid known as glutamate. And he called it umami.
And that’s where steak and the Maillard Reaction come in.
Umami is the taste of glutamate. Beef naturally contains about 10mg of glutamate, but the glutamate increases when combined with the Maillard Reaction.
When searing, a chemical reaction between the amino acids and sugars brings about the brown color of the steak and new chemical compounds that produce glutamate.
And when your tongues taste the glutamate, that is the umami taste.
Without searing your steak, the umami taste will be less noticeable.
If you are eating any food you find pleasant, savory, or delicious, but can’t identify it as sweet, sour, bitter, or salty, then it’s umami.
Although sight is not technically part of taste, we use our eyes to recognize and perceive something about our food.
If our steak looks dry or gray, we conclude the meat will taste bad.
We may even ask, “Why does my steak turn gray when I cook it?”
But if your steak looks juicy and you can see it has a nice brown color on the outside, you will look forward to cutting into it. Furthermore, if the inside is red and you wanted your steak rare, your eyes tell you that this steak is good.
Your mouth may even begin to water with anticipation.
All that to say, the way something looks does influence your sense of taste.
So, why does steak taste so good?
I’ve given you five factors to consider when answering that question.
If you like your steak tender and juicy, the amount of marbling in the meat will make a difference. Marbling adds to the flavor and tenderness of your steak.
Your nose also has a part to play. The smell of it cooking and the finished product will send messages to your brain about how this steak is going to taste.
Also, the way the meat feels in your mouth is a factor. Often people confuse texture and flavor and call them both taste.
Umami and the taste of glutamate on your tongue is another reason your steak tastes so good.
And finally, the way your steak looks will contribute to how you think it will taste.
Eating a steak or any food involves many senses, and it’s hard to say that only one of these factors is why your steak tastes so good.
If you have another reason to add, let me know in the comment section below.
And if your mouth is watering for a nice, juicy, seared steak in a cast iron skillet, but you don’t have one, check out my reviews: