Melting the collagen

by Ari LeVaux

Photo of braised oxtail by Tom Moertel
Photo of braised oxtail by Tom Moertel

We like our meat tender, and we like our meat juicy. And we like it easy to prepare, too.
This, in a nutshell, explains the popularity of ground beef. As a bonus, the grinding of the beef helps get rid of some extra chewy meat parts that might otherwise be tough to deal with. Literally.
But there are other ways to achieve the elusive combination of tender and juicy. If you’ve got the money for steak, then just don’t overcook it, and you will have soft and juicy, with ease.
Yet, spooning one’s way through a buttery soft piece of rib-eye does have its disadvantages. The softest pieces are also the most expensive cuts of meat. But you might be surprised to learn that those prestigious pieces are among the least flavorful of cuts, well behind the ones that you can’t even chew.

The most flavor resides in the least expensive cuts like shank, chuck, shoulder, brisket, flank and, if you can get it, neck. These, the toughest and the cheapest, keep their flavor hidden in their collagen, the tough, fibrous, protein-rich gristle that crisscrosses the chewier cuts of meat, and holds all of the meaty fibers together.  

Most of the time, this prohibitively non-tender material will get ground into the aforementioned burger, or perhaps used in sausage. But while it makes the gristle soft, a trip through the grinder doesn’t make the collagen edible as much as make it disappear into small enough pieces that you can swallow it without chewing.

The only way to truly enjoy the pleasures of collagen is to melt it into a what is called gelatin. While uncooked collagen chews like a snow tire, gelatin is soft, with a creamy mouthfeel that adds fat-like lubricity as you chew.  Unlike the obstructionist nature of collagen, its smooth, melted counterpart facilitates the chewing. You would think someone slipped a pad of melted butter into your mouth as you chew.

Like collagen, gelatin is mostly protein, and there is strong evidence that both substances are especially good for skin, hair, nails, bones and the gut.  An industry has grown around supplying various forms of collagen and gelatin. Hydrolyzed collagen is a popular one. But it’s much easier, cheaper and yummier to get those material from tendons, ligaments, and other bits of connective tissue embedded in the meat.

The question is, how do we melt that gristle without letting the meat dry out? It’s a bit of a trick, but the methods are many.
Collagen will begin to melt in temperatures as low as 160 degrees, which is easy to achieve in the kitchen. But it’s the amount of time spent above this low threshold, rather than the temperature itself, that erodes the rigid collagen structure into its soupy alter-nutrient. As the collagen dissolves, the muscle fibers it once held tightly begin to burst from its grasp, as it achieves the famous falling-apart tender state. At this point the rich, gelatinous flesh is beyond the spoon stage, and could practically be sucked through a straw.  

Barbecuers conduct this culinary alchemy in smoky, low-heat conditions, inside welded contraptions that can be as big as train engines. Stew- and broth-makers do it in simmering kettles, while braisers melt their collagen in the oven, half submerged in pans with tight-fitting lids.
To a certain extent, acid helps break down collagen as well. Some vinegar in the stew pot, a long, tangy marinated for the flank steak, or some wine in the braise will all help speed the process.
All of these methods, in their own way, deal with the problem that collagen doesn’t melt below 160, but meat begins to dry out above 130. The barbecuers baste continuously with their vinegary sauce. Soup makers and braisers do their business underwater, where drying out is difficult.
I’ve been enjoying a technique by which I wrap my meat tightly in tinfoil, push it into the oven, and forget about it. This setup essentially steams the meat in its own juices, injecting the moisture right back into the meat as it tries to escape.
The ease with which this method can be employed is staggering. The other day I took a hunk of bone-in elk shank from the freezer, and immediately wrapped it in foil, still frozen solid. Into the oven it went, at 325. I proceeded to forget about it for the rest of the day. No salt, no herbs, no additions of any kind. It came out divine, but was not so much a finished product as a worthy ingredient. With added salt, raw onions and cilantro on tacos, it wore the salsa like a champ.

But this is just one of many ways to foil your meat to succulence. One can get quite creative about foiling meat in such a way that it comes out ready to eat, a flavorful, satisfying product that needs nothing but a glass of wine alongside it.
Brining the meat first in salt water will help it retain even more moisture. And if you put your hunk of collagen-reinforced meat under the broiler, a tasty, crispy brown skin will develop. This will help contain the juices to an extent, and will add a caramelized complexity that only browned proteins can muster.

Add other flavorings before you foil it. Lemon and dried apricots and harissa and olive oil, if you want a North African feel, or cumin and red chile if you liked the sound of those tacos, or rosemary, thyme and olive oil if you want something like an osso bucco.
I recently braised with garlic powder, herbs de Provence and white wine, with a few bay leaves. I’ve also added pomegranate juice to the foil, and seasoned with soy sauce instead of salt. It’s a forgiving technique. When you have your flavorings figured out, tightly foil your brined, browned meat. As it cooks, some juices will inevitably find their way out, but the fewer the better.

When that gelatin-rich liquid begins weeping from the foil, don’t let it go to waste. Without a response it will dry out and burn into a bitter, black crust on the pan. If there is a lot of this jus I will collect it and make it into a sauce down the road when the meat is ready. But another way to harvest those escaping juices is to pave the bottom of the baking pan with sliced roots and tubers, like potato, carrot, parsnip, celeriac, onion and garlic. They will put those juices to good use by soaking them up, as any Thanksgiving veteran will have observed.

Now that you have your creamy, tender and juicy meat, begin exploring the ways to use it. You’ll run out of meat long before you run out of options.