AgResearch scientists have taken their skills into the kitchen to identify the ideal cooking conditions for the "perfect steak"; while also harnessing the power of artificial intelligence (AI) to create new food combinations and recipes.
The scientists used a unique approach of analysing biochemical changes in beef steak during the cooking process.
They worked with world-class development chef Dale Bowie, whose career included working at Heston Blumenthal's Michelin three-star restaurant The Fat Duck in the UK.
When being cooked, steak releases compounds emitted as gases called volatiles, which can be captured and analysed.
These volatiles, among other factors such as texture and colour, help determine the
eating quality of the steak.
Scientists Santanu Deb-Choudhury and Arvind Subbaraj studied the volatiles produced at a range of different core temperatures from cooking steak, using technology called Direct analysis in real time mass spectrometry (DART-MS).
Listen to Jamie Mackay interview Santanu Deb-Choudhury on The Country below:
"The results look promising, and there is a clear difference in the volatile profile at
different temperatures. This information can help pick the temperature 'sweet spot',
thus providing a better eating experience," Deb-Choudhury said.
While the United States Department of Agriculture recommends steaks be cooked at 63C for a medium (degree of doneness), internal temperature during cooking could range from 45C (rare) to 80C (very well done), depending on preference.
"Of seven temperature regimes between 0C and 72C, cooking in the range of 58C
to 62C released flavour compounds that differed in their intensity compared to the
other temperature regimes."
At this temperature range, the muscle fibres in the meat began to become "fork
tender" and yet did not release their juices completely, Deb-Choudhury said.
Also, the tough connective tissue collagen began to weaken, providing succulence to the cooked meat, Deb-Choudhury said.
"We identified the balanced formation of flavour chemicals such as esters, providing fruity notes, and other reactive compounds that result in nutty and roasty odour notes. Flavour generation is complex and many factors are at play."
"Chefs have told us the ideal temperature range we identified has been noted before as producing the best quality steak, but now we can actually prove it scientifically using this form of biochemical analysis.
The study provided a pathway to understand how aroma flavours were generated and the factors that may affect their formation, while providing an optimal balance in the final flavour characteristics of cooked meat, Deb-Choudhury said.
This kind of science was invaluable to chefs and the food industry, Bowie said.
"Understanding the science of flavour and protein reactions at a molecular level allows chefs to showcase the full potential of meat."
Artificial intelligence to guide new recipes and food combinations
Beyond the quest to cook the perfect steak, AgResearch scientists have also spent time studying flavour compounds from various foods to identify unique flavours and combinations, including foods indigenous to New Zealand.
With a database of compounds identified and extracted from various foods, this was where the AI came in, AgResearch senior data scientist Dr Munir Shah said.
"We've used the AI to compare the chemical makeup of various foods in our database to identify similarities with other foods, as well as where there are differences in the chemical makeup in foods already established as going well together."
Using all of this information, scientists were now able to identify potential new food pairings and recipes with unique flavours, Shah said.
"We'll be getting the input of chefs such as Dale, and diners to test how these new combinations stack up and the potential for further development."