Chateaubriand and the chemistry of deliciousness

A well-cooked piece of meat is a marvellous thing. Quite delicious. And it’s all about chemistry – the chemistry of deliciousness.

By Jeremy Ryland


On 4 September 1768 - 250 years ago - Francois Auguste Rene Vicomte de Chateaubriand was born. Chateaubriand was a French writer and politician. Legend has it that, about 200 years ago, his chef, Montmireil, created the famous recipe consisting of a centre cut from the beef tenderloin, grilled and served with béarnaise sauce and chateau potatoes. He named the dish Chateaubriand.


Chateaubriand is a recipe, not a cut of meat. It is thought that it was originally cut from the thickest part of the beef tenderloin, and that the fillet was cooked between two inferior steaks to enhance its flavour and juiciness. The inferior steaks were cooked until well charred and then discarded. 


Today, a chateaubriand is generally agreed-upon to be a large centre cut filet mignon, roasted and served with potatoes and a sauce usually made with shallots, veal stock, white wine, tarragon, and butter.


A well-cooked piece of meat is a marvellous thing. Quite delicious. And it’s all about chemistry – the chemistry of deliciousness.


The food we eat is a mix of many chemicals and biological compounds… including water, carbohydrate (starch, sugars), lipids (oils and fats), proteins, enzymes, vitamins, minerals, colours and flavours.


Our bodies are chemical factories – we take in the food we eat and convert it to basic sugars for energy and use the proteins and other nutrients for building, repair and maintenance. And in order to make us eat and get the best nutrition we can, nature has developed our senses to discern delicious vs detestable!


Flavour is important and is a blend of smell and taste. Flavour plays an important role in the power of pleasure. Flavoursome foods that we like cause a greater flow of saliva, gastric and pancreatic juices than do bland or unpleasant flavours – making our mouths water and our stomachs register as being hungry. Good tasting food is actually easier to digest due to this reaction and can, therefore, be more nutritious than poor tasting food.


Raw foods can taste great – fresh strawberries, tomatoes and peaches for example. But many of the foods we crave, taste better cooked… and it’s all due to the chemical reactions we initiate.


Roasting meat is a complex chemical reaction. Meat is the muscle tissue of an animal, some 75 per cent water, 20 per cent protein and five per cent fat and carbohydrates. The proteins in the raw meat are coiled and held together by bonds. On heating, the bonds break and the proteins unravel in a process known as denaturation. This makes the meat tender.


People often disagree on the best way to cook a steak. Some say to put the steak down on a hot grill and turn only once when the juices begin to flow. Others say to turn regularly. One misconception is that you can “seal” a steak to keep the juices in. A steak is like a sponge and any crust that forms is not waterproof. If you cook a steak for too long it will dry out and become tough.


At higher temperatures, or longer cooking times, more and more water is lost, and the meat becomes overcooked, dry and tough. Basting replaces lost fluids, helping to keep a roast juicy and add to the flavours.


But why does roasted meat taste so good? The answer is the Maillard Reaction. Discovered in 1912 by Frenchman Louis Camille Maillard, the reaction occurs when sugar molecules (carbohydrates) are heated with amino acids (proteins). Hundreds of different flavour compounds are formed during the reaction, which can then go on to form other flavours.


The Maillard reaction only occurs above 154 °C, so always starts at the surface of the meat. The chemical reactions result in a complex mixture of volatile compounds which give the meat it’s characteristic aroma and flavour together with brown compounds called melanoidins which give the golden brown colouring.


The important aroma compounds formed by the Maillard reaction include thiophenes, pyrroles, thiazoles, pyridines and pyrazines. Some of these compounds give a ‘nutty’ taste, some a ‘roasted’ smell, and others a hint of chocolate or green vegetables.


This explains why boiling a turkey or beef in water (100 °C) produces pale and plain meat - the Maillard reaction never kicks in. Microwaving meat has the same bland effect – as microwaves simply boil water. And sous vide cooking also results in a bland meat unless it is grilled just before serving.


Food is a fascinating subject – we eat three or more meals a day without a thought about the complex chemical reactions that take place. Food is necessary for life and should be a pleasure, not a diet problem. Good health requires indulgence, not denial. But indulgence is not greed. Too much food, unbalanced diets and too little activity is an issue. Research tells us that we eat too much. We do not exercise enough. We are tense and anxious. We eat too fast – gulping our food down whilst on the run. And we snack.


Food should be savoured, relished, enjoyed and eaten at leisure. Take time. Sit down somewhere comfortable. Eat slowly. Eat mindfully. See and taste what you are eating! And enjoy. Now that’s food for pleasure.