Collagen. Denaturation. Gelatin. And how to cook melt-in-mouth meat.
Tender. Juicy. Yummy. How did that piece of meat that looked so tough before, become so soft after braising that it melts in your mouth? Praise the power of braising, which transforms collagen into gelatin.Collagen is the primary protein in connective tissue. It is made up of three protein chains, known as polypeptides. These are twisted into a triple-helix structure (like three threads/fibres twisted together – see above left).
This makes it strong. It thus serves as a structural protein that gives support to different parts of the bodies of animals (and humans). It is what makes some cuts of meat (such as beef brisket) tough and in some cases, unchewable.
When we heat collagen beyond 60ºC/140°F, the heat breaks down the protein’s chemical bonds. The protein begins to denature (i.e. lose its structure), and the three strands of the triple-helix unravel into three individual strands (see above right). (Denaturation is also a process at work when steaks are cooked – read more in the 1-Minute NomNom “Raw, medium or well done?“!)
As we raise the temperature beyond 71ºC/160°F, the collagen turns into gelatin. Raise it further to 82ºC/180°F, and this transformation speed ups. Gelatin can retain several times its weight in water. This helps to give the meat its juiciness.Just as importantly, gelatin makes the meat tender. How does it do this? You might know that gelatin is also what is used to make jelly and gummy bears. Now imagine the same wobbly, gel-like tender texture in our meat. It’s not exactly the same of course since jelly and gummy bears have already cooled and set, but you get the idea.
The dissolving of collagen into gelatin takes several hours. That’s why we braise the meat for hours – some even do it overnight — to get the melt-in-the-mouth juiciness and tenderness.
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photos: in order – depositphotos/bhofack2; shawn_hempel; MSPhotographic; TesAnka; paulbrighton