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How To Cook Meat to Perfection: What Makes Meat Tough or Tender?

Updated: Aug 10, 2023

Cooking meat is about making it taste and feel right. Once you know how cooking changes meat's texture, you can cook it to be tender. Understanding the science behind meaty flavors is vital. Here we are giving a few simple steps to keep in mind for ensuring flavorful meats. But first, let's learn about meat's structure and composition before cooking.

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What Makes Meat Tough or Tender?

Muscle Fibers and Proteins: The Contractile Process

--> Myosin and Actin: These proteins form muscle fibers. They enable muscle contraction in living animals.

--> Muscle Fiber Contraction: Muscle fibers contract in response to chemical changes. This process is called Muscle Fiber Contraction.

--> Denaturation of Proteins: When you heat meat above 40°C, it causes irreversible changes in protein shape. It leads to muscle fiber contraction during cooking.

Toughness and Denaturation

--> Contraction and Toughness: Muscle fibers contract during cooking leading to tougher meat.

--> Progressive Toughness: Continued cooking causes more denaturation. Further contraction of muscles makes the meat tougher.

Connective Tissues and Collagen

--> Tough Connective Tissues: These are connective tissues. They join muscles to bones and wrap around. Muscle fiber bundles are tough and indigestible before cooking.

--> Collagen Transformation: Prolonged heating above 60°C converts tough collagen into soft gelatin. It affects the texture of the meat.

Role of Fats

--> Solid to Liquid: Animal fats in uncooked meat are solid. But they melt during cooking, contributing to flavor.

--> Fat as a Lubricant: Marbled fat distributed throughout the meat acts as a lubricant. It makes the meat appear less tough when consumed.

--> Importance of Marbling: For fats to act in this way they must be intimately mixed into the meat (i. e. marbled through the meat) and not well separated from the muscles as is often the case. This is why steaks "marbled" with fat are more prized than those with only a little fat on the outside. Of course, from a health viewpoint, the marbled steak may be less desirable as it will have a larger fat content.

The Role of Water

--> Water Content in Meat: Water forms about 60% of meat. It plays a significant role in determining taste and texture.

--> Bound Water: Most of the water in meat is bound to proteins. It remains locked in until denaturation during cooking.

--> Loss of Water: Cooking meat can release bound water. This leads to juiciness, but excessive loss can result in dryness.

--> Impact of Freezing: Freezing meat can release bound water from proteins. It may lead to potentially drier meat upon thawing. This freeing of bound water on freezing is why frozen meats often seem to be drier than fresh ones.

How to cook meat to perfection - The composition of different meats, How to cook meat to perfection - Beef, pork, lamb, turkey, chicken, Cook with Klynk App
The composition of different meats

The Rule of Cooking Meat to Perfection

When we cook meat and heat it, its proteins start changing at temperatures higher than 40°C. They become hard lumps at about 50°C. But it's only when the heat is even higher (over about 60°C) that the tough connective tissues, like collagen, start to become tender and turn into something gooey called gelatin. This makes the meat with chewy parts softer. So, cooking meat means finding a balance between keeping the muscle proteins tender and making the tough parts tenderer.

Here's a simple rule: Cook meat with less chewy stuff for a short time, and meat with lots of chewy stuff for a long time.

For example, in a turkey, there is more collagen in the wings and legs than in the breast. Thus to produce a uniformly cooked bird we should try to cook the breast less well than the other parts. This means that the temperature in the breast meat should be lower than that in the legs and wings. We can protect the breast from overcooking by partially insulating it from the heat of the oven. For example by covering it with some paper or foil.

How to cook meat to perfection - The effects of heat on meat, Cooking meat to perfection - temperature, color, muscle proteins, protein bound water, collagen, cooking meat
The effects of heat on meat

Role of Flavors in Cooking Meat Perfectly

The flavor is important when cooking meat. When we heat proteins and sugars together, special chemical changes happen. These changes make big protein molecules break into smaller ones that have smells and flavors. These yummy smells come out when we cook meat at high temperatures.

So, if we don't cook meat with high heat, it won't have those delicious flavors. To get the tasty meat flavors, some parts of the meat need to be hot (even hotter than boiling water) and stay that way for a while. This makes the meat turn brown and yummy.

Making meat that's tender and tasty is a bit tricky. We have to be careful not to cook the parts with less tough stuff too much (not hotter than 40°C). The parts with more tough stuff need to be hot (over 70°C). And we also need some parts to be super hot (over 130°C). It sounds complicated, but there are simple rules to follow for great results every time

Key Points to bear in mind when cooking meats:

• Start cooking at high temperatures until the meat becomes a dark brown color. It ensures the outside of the meat is cooked fully.

Cook meats with little connective tissue for only a short time. It ensures that the outside is browned, but the inside does not become tough. Grill, fry, or roast these meats.

Cook meats with lots of connective tissue for a very long time. It ensures that all the connective tissue denatures and the bundles of coagulated muscle proteins fall apart. It makes the meat tender again.

You can find more recipes on Klynk App. For more articles, check out our blog.

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