Meat on the Bone, a Primitive Delight, by John Willoughby and Chris Schlesinger, April 8, 1998

“In this age of shrink-wrapped this and preboned that, there is something especially satisfying about gnawing at meat on the bone.

The added bonus, as any red-meat fan can tell you, is that this is the best tasting meat of all.

Many Americans are reacquainting themselves with this carnivorous truism at steak houses, which have become so popular across the country.

But the pure pleasure of meat on the bone was brought home most tastefully a few weeks ago on a beach in Tamarindo, a surfing town on the Pacific coast of northern Costa Rica.

Having been advised that good meat was as scarce as fine French wines in Tamarindo, we hid in our luggage two porterhouse steaks.

And not just any old porterhouses. These were the Fred Flintstone variety, a full three-inches thick and weighing around two pounds each. Although there were five in our party, we had no fears that these hunks of meat could provide an ample meal for everyone.

At sundown on our first night of vacation, we dug a pit on the white sand beach, constructed a driftwood fire and heaved those mighty steaks onto a grill. About half an hour later, we were sitting on our beach-side porch, knives in hand and steaks on the platter.

Every bite was a sensual delight. Since there were only two bones, we began passing them around the table as if they were edible peace pipes. Aside from the sheer tactile pleasure of gnawing, everyone agreed that the meat that sat next to the bone was the sweetest, the most succulent part.

After we had stripped them, we tossed the bones to a neighbor’s dog and watched enviously as he devoured them.

When we returned home, we took an informal poll of dozens of scientists, butchers and plain old meat eaters. Their opinions were unanimous: meat on the bone tastes best. As befits the primitive nature of the bone-gnawing experience, however, the reasons for this phenomenon remain a bit murky. Contributing factors seem to include the internal composition of bones, their effect on how meat reacts to heat, and their position in the midst of a web of cartilage and capillaries.

Roberta Harper, a spokeswoman for the National Cattleman’s Beef Association, said that both the association’s culinary experts and the scientists in their Meat Science Laboratory concur that bone-in meat is more flavorful. ‘The bone has marrow, and marrow has highly concentrated flavor,’ she said. ‘So some of the marrow may seep from the bones into the surrounding meat during cooking.’

Evan Lobel, an owner of the venerable Upper East Side butcher shop M. Lobel & Sons, also supports the marrow theory but adds that even thinner, non-marrow bones, like those in a rib or a porterhouse steak, sweeten the flavor of meat. ‘There’s no question about it, they bring out the flavor of the meat more,’ Mr. Lobel said.

William Mikel, a professor of meat science at the University of Kentucky, had a possible scientific explanation. ‘We could guess that the differing rate of heat transfer around the bone would have an influence, improving the juiciness and therefore the flavor of this part of the meat,’ he said.

In other words, since bone does not heat up as quickly as the meat itself, it may provide the juices with a place to concentrate during the most intense heat of cooking.

The bone is also surrounded with more capillaries than other parts of the meat, which makes it inherently juicier. And the gristle that surrounds the bone and attaches it to the muscles provides a pleasing textural contrast for the diner.

But as is usual with food, all explanations pale beside the pleasures of cooking and eating. In this department there are three general approaches, each appropriate for a different cut of meat on the bone.

Relatively small, tender cuts, like T-bone and porterhouse steaks, are best cooked quickly at high heat. That way they acquire a flavorful brown crust on the exterior but still stay juicy and tender in the center. Grilling and its indoor substitute, broiling, are the cooking methods of choice here.

For large but still tender cuts, including pork loin roast or leg of lamb, it is best to start high, then lower the temperature. An initial blast of high-heat roasting gives these cuts a flavorful sear, while the prolonged stay in an oven at moderate temperatures cooks them through to the bone.

Finally, there are the tough, stringy cuts of meat on the bone, like spareribs. These require long and slow cooking at very low heat to transform the collagen that makes them tough into tender gelatin. At the end of this cooking marathon, a blast of heat from the grill or the broiler adds the sear.

So the next time you feel that modern life has become too sterile, here is an easy antidote: get ready to gnaw.”

-Excerpt and image courtesy of The New York Times, Times Machine, “Meat on the Bone, a Primitive Delight,” by John Willoughby and Chris Schlesinger, April 8, 1998

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