• Monday, November 15, 2021

    Restructuring meat: the McRib and friends

    For the most part, store-bought sandwiches don’t carry much meaning for me, except the McRib. I don’t really like it (the sauce is too sweet), but the McRib makes me think of my mother. She loved it, and when it would ‘come back’ we had to go to McDonalds and get one. Now, every time it resurfaces, I smile and think of my mom and the joy she got out of a sweet BBQ pork sandwich.
    Mom with Wyn at a
    Meat Conference
     in Nebraska

    The McRib is actually a fun, meat science success story. In the 1970’s, a meat scientist at the University of Nebraska named Dr. Roger Mandigo worked with the National Pork Board to develop a product that could be sold in McDonalds. He developed what we call a restructured product. It’s really a simple sausage made with pork, water, and salt, but rather than being shaped in a cylinder by a sausage casing, it’s formed into a shape that looks like ribs.

    Sausages are made by using salt to extract the proteins in the meat. Salt literally reshapes the proteins at a molecular level, turning them inside out, and causing them to stick together. When the sausages are cooked, the texture of the final product changes. Think about how the texture of a hamburger patty is different from a sausage or hotdog. How much the proteins are extracted affects the texture changes and that will differ based on how much salt or other ingredients are used and how much they are mixed.

    Dr. Mandigo is a giant in
    meat science. Working with
     him at Nebraska would be
    the equivalent to being
    coached by Lou Holtz or
    learning Physics from
    Dr. Sheldon Cooper.

    When salt is mixed with ground meat, the result is actually called a batter and can be poured or injected into trays or casings that will create any shape. It’s like the way cakes take the shape of the pan when you cook them.  It was actually the folks at McDonalds that settled on the rib shape.

    If you look at the ingredients of the McRib on McDonald’s website, you’ll see the ingredients are pork, water, salt, dextrose and rosemary extract. Pork is trimmings only from skeletal muscles, like the ones that move bones around. When salt is added to the pork, the extracted proteins will absorb water, making the patty juicier.  The dextrose is just sugar that’s added to counter-act the saltiness, and rosemary extract is an antioxidant that helps prevent rancidity and improve flavor.

    Slather the patty in sweet sauce, add onion, pickle and a sesame seed bun and… BOOM! Iconic Sandwich!

    Poultry scientists have used similar methods to develop chicken nuggets in all sorts of fun shapes. We had Dino-nuggets for lunch just the other day. The McChicken sandwich is another restructured product. So are chicken fries, fish sticks, Salisbury steak, and some chicken-fried steaks.

    Tuesday, May 11, 2021

    Chill... it's just freezing.


    It seems so simple to just freeze something. You get meat really cold, it lasts a long time. But, we all know it is not that simple. Lots of questions arise with freezing. Questions about packaging, timing, size of cuts, type of freezer, how to thaw it and what it does to quality, all come up when freezing meat. So, let’s talk about them.


    Air is the enemy when you are freezing foods. Air allows for oxidation and freezer burn. You want to keep air away from the surface of the cuts in any way you can. For meat, the best packaging method when freezing is vacuum. Some butchers use vacuum packaging, and you can buy vacuum packaged cuts in the store. At home, you can buy a small vacuum packager and package cuts yourself. If you freeze lots of meat cuts at home, that may be a good investment for you.

    Ground cuts that are packaged in chubs are essentially in vacuum, but you may get a little spoilage in the edges, near the opening, but most of the meat is protected from air.

    The wax paper wrap that butchers use also works well in the freezer. It keeps the air away from the cuts pretty well, but those packages don’t last as long as vacuum. If you are buying a whole or half beef, it will take a long time to go through it all. The packages will likely be in your freezer for several months.

    At home, you may want to try those freezer bags that zip closed. Make sure that you squeeze as much air out of those as you can before you close them. I try to fold them over and create a kind of seal around my cuts. Packaging like that won’t last as long as vacuum or wax paper.

    The worst way to package meat for the freezer is the foam tray and overwrap like you see in the grocery store. That wrap is designed to allow oxygen through (that’s what makes the meat red), so freezing meat in those packages is just asking for freezer burn. 


    The USDA guidelines state that you should consume frozen steaks, chops, and roasts within 4 to 12 months of freezing. After that, it’s not as much a safety issue, but eating quality. Juiciness, flavor, tenderness may suffer some if you wait longer than a year. In vacuum packaging in a chest or stand up freezer, whole muscle cuts last months and months.

    Sausage, ground beef, and cooked meats don’t fare as well. Grinding, cooking, and adding ingredients like salt are all things that make meat oxidize more quickly and that can even happen in the freezer. USDA suggests ground beef only be stored frozen for 4 months. Cooked meats, even less than that (2-3 months).


    When you are putting fresh meats in the freezer for the first time, you want them to freeze as quickly as possible. So, smaller cuts and packages work better than large ones. If you like to buy things in bulk, its best to repackage meats into portion-sized packages and freeze it in smaller packages. Then, you can just take them out as you need them, rather than having everything frozen together. I like to flatten ground beef packages out so they will stack, and they will freeze faster.


    Keeping with the concept of freezing meat as quickly as possible, you want to make sure that you spread non-frozen things out in the freezer when you first put them in there. Don’t put it all together in one place. It will take a long time to freeze, and I’ve even seen things spoil in the middle when they don’t get frozen completely.

    Hopefully if you buy a large quantity of meat, it will come frozen and you can put it all in the freezer at the same time, but if you need to freeze a large quantity all at once, you may consider freezing it over several days.  Put some cuts in the freezer and spread them out, let them freeze, and put in a few more cuts the next day. Whole muscle cuts are ok for a few weeks in the fridge, so just be aware of how long they’ve been stored. If you have to freeze cuts over a few days like this, freeze the ground cuts first.

    Which freezer is best?

    If you are planning to store frozen meat for several months, its best to do so in a chest freezer or an upright freezer that is only a freezer. The freezer in your fridge is ok for short term freezer storage, but think about how often it is opened and every time the door opens, it loses cold air. It’s best to have your meat stored in a specified freezer, even if it’s a small one.


    A few years ago, I wrote a whole post about thawing frozen meat, and in short, it’s best to thaw meat in cold water or in the refrigerator. Cold running water works best. The microwave is ok, too. You shouldn’t set meat on the counter to thaw. You don’t want it to spend too much time in the danger zone of temperature where pathogens have a chance to grow.  Also, you can always just cook your meat from frozen.

    Can I thaw and refreeze?

    Yes. Some people are concerned about meat that has been frozen, thawed and refrozen. As long as it stayed below 40°F when it was thawed, food-safety wise, it should be fine. It may lose some juiciness or have flavor issues from being thawed and refrozen, but chances are, you won’t even be able to tell.

    Whole muscle cuts like steaks, chops and roasts take this treatment better than ground and processed cuts. Also, you don’t want to thaw ground beef and leave it thawed for very long at all if you decide to refreeze. At refrigerated temperatures, oxidation happens and it will be accelerated in meat that has been previously frozen.

    *If for some reason, your freezer loses power, don’t open it. That will just cause you to lose the cold air that’s in there. The meat will stay frozen for a while without power. When you get power back or get a new freezer, check the temperature of the meat. Is it still frozen? Is it thawed, but still cold (below 40°F)? If these are true, its probably ok to just refreeze. If the meat is at room temperature or its been over 40°F for 4-6 hours or more, you need to discard it.

    What does freezing do to quality?

    The answer to this question is complicated. It depends. Some aspects of quality may actually be improved with freezing. Researchers at South Dakota State found that freezing beef actually improved the tenderness of beef steaks compared to non-frozen. The ice crystals in the beef acted like tiny little tenderizers.

    For the most part, in whole muscle cuts under ideal conditions, freezing doesn’t have much effect on other aspects of quality like flavor and juiciness. Leaving something in the freezer for long periods or poor packaging may result in flavor issues and loss of juiciness, though. Ground beef and processed meats are more prone to flavor problems when they have been frozen, but under good conditions (packaging and fast freezing), the benefits of storing meat in the freezer out-weighs the problems.


    I hope my post is helpful in answering your freezing questions. Like always, please reach out if you have any questions or concerns.

    Monday, July 20, 2020

    Dates on Foods

    Dates on food packaging are often used by consumers to determine if food should be eaten or not. 

    Actually, there is no requirement to put sell-by or use-by dates on foods (except baby formula). Those dates are provided for convenience to allow the stores and companies to know when the food will start to lose eating quality. It helps them know when to take foods off the shelves of stores.

    These dates are NOT indicators of food safety.

    Best by/ Best if used by dates: Tell when a product will be best flavor or quality. These are not a purchase-by date.

    Sell by dates: Tell the store how long to display the food.

    Use by dates: Last date to use the food while at peak quality. These requirements are different for baby formula.

    Freeze by dates: Last date to freeze food to maintain the best quality. 


    Tuesday, May 26, 2020

    Cuts to try

    I've been sharing posts on Facebook with new cuts to try and I wanted to put them all in one place to make them easier to find.

    Wednesday, May 6, 2020

    Clean and Safe during COVID-19

    Some folks are very worried about taking trips to the grocery store. 

    Please know that the USDA does not know of any cases of  COVID-19 being spread through food or food packaging, but the virus may be found on lots of surfaces. So, some extra precautions after you visit the grocery store may help keep your family safe.

    WASH YOUR HANDS - Washing your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water is one of the best ways to keep yourself safe from all germs you may encounter. Its especially smart to wash up when you get home every day, before you cook, after you handle raw meat, and before you eat.

    Disinfect your phone. Your phone goes everywhere you do. Some experts suggest leaving your phone in the car when you go in public places, but that's hard. Its smart to disinfect your phone at least once a day.

    Wipe off some groceries. When you get home, you may choose to wipe off boxes, cans, bags, and unopened, vacuum-packed meats like hotdogs or deli meats. Germs may be transferred from person to person on lots of different surfaces, so this step can help keep the virus out of your home.

    Do wipe off fresh meat packages. Soap or disinfectants like bleach or ammonia may be transferred through the packaging and contaminate the meat. You don't want to consume those.

    Do not wash your meat. Washing fresh meat in the sink can splash germs all over your kitchen. 

    Do not worry about bacteria and viruses on fresh meat. When you cook meat to a safe temperature, any bacteria or viruses will be killed.

    Friday, April 24, 2020

    The Meat Industry in the midst of COVID-19

    This is a scary time. Our entire society is fighting an enemy we can't see and have never fought before. 

    Everyone is worried and stressed.

    There have been news reports this week about the virus spreading in meat packing plants and those plants shutting down or significantly slowing production.

    What does that mean for our food supply?

    First, we are not going to run out of food. Yes, a slow down in production may affect the variety of protein available in some parts of our country, but we are not going to run out. We may have to get more creative or open minded about what we cook and serve our families. We may have to try new things or not have our favorite cuts for a little while. 
    But, this too shall pass. We will not run out of food.

    Packing plants

    Workers in packing plants work in very close quarters. They have to stand near each other. Social distancing is not possible. There are lots of shared spaces like break rooms, changing rooms, and work areas. It’s not surprising that the virus spread in the plants because people are so close to each other.

    That doesn't mean that COVID-19 is being passed on to consumers. The USDA does not have any reports of people becoming infected with COVID-19 from food or food packaging. This virus mainly spreads from person to person and is a respiratory virus meaning that you become infected when it enters your nose, eyes, or mouth. Viruses do not grow in food and when foods are cooked, viruses are killed. Follow the four steps of food safety to keep your family safe from all illness; wash your hands, be sure to cook your food to safe temperatures, keep cooked foods away from uncooked foods, and be sure to chill your leftovers in a timely manner.

    Companies are doing what they can to keep their doors open and keep their people safe. Many are taking temperatures of employees, testing employees for the disease, and when people are infected, they stay home from work.  There is lots of extra cleaning and sanitation. Workers are wearing masks (most already wear gloves and wash their hands frequently). Some companies are providing partitions to keep people apart from each other.

    These plants are in the middle of the food chain, so shutting down can have devastating consequences up and down the food supply.


    This disease has been dreadful for farmers. Some dairy farmers are dumping milk and egg farmers breaking eggs. We’ve heard about potatoes and other produce going to waste because no one can come pick it. Farmers all over this country have millions of animals ready to go to harvest in our food supply. Packing plants not purchasing them is a devastating condition for those farmers. The supply chain for beef animals goes back over two years to when the cow was bred. Pork and poultry are not quite as long, but still several months.

    Grocery stores

    People are buying more food in grocery stores than we’ve ever seen. Those stores have to have employees there to keep the food on the shelves. Then there are the truck drivers and supply chain workers that are also still hard at work in this mess. Those folks are putting themselves at risk every day because they have to be interact with people. They wear masks and try to social distance, but it must be so stressful.

    In the US, we have the safest, least expensive food supply in the world. But that takes millions of people working every day. I love to think about the scope of our industry. That industry that feeds 300 million people.

    Please continue to ask me about the meat industry. Hit me up with questions about new cuts that you are trying or new ways of cooking. Let me know about your successes and failures. Send me concerns about food safety. I’m happy to answer any question you may have.

    Friday, March 20, 2020

    Lab grown meat is not Impossible

    Meat alternatives have been in the news a lot lately. A certain Royal burger chain has recently launched a burger that was once considered Impossible, and I can’t open my inbox or walk through a crowd at a conference without hearing something about lab-grown meat. So, it’s about time that I write something about it.

    First. Is it Impossible?
    We are really talking about two completely different products here.
           1.      Plant based meats – Products made to taste and feel like meat, but made from plants.
           2.      Lab-grown meats – Meat grown in a petri dish from cells and media. Not from plants, but not really from animals either.
    One is out in the market, the other is still in the development stages.

    Plant based meats
    Some plant-based meats I found at a grocery
    store in Texas.
    The science behind the Impossible burger is actually pretty cool. They looked at meat and asked themselves, “What makes meat so tasty?” They felt like the answer was heme, a source of iron found in muscle and blood. Heme can also be found in soy and some other plants. So they isolated the heme producing DNA out of the soy plants and inserted it into yeast. Now the yeast can grow the heme through fermentation. They combine that with soy and potato proteins, coconut and sunflower oils, salt and some other ingredients. From there, they make burgers or sausage or whatever they want. If you look at the nutrition information (calories, fat, etc…) of the Impossible burger, you’ll see that it’s pretty similar to a beef burger.
    There is another plant-based meat product called Beyond Meat that uses peas, mung beans, fava beans, and brown rice as their protein sources. They also use coconut and sunflower oils as well as cocoa butter and canola oil. Coconut oil is more saturated than other oils and likely gives these products a mouthfeel that is more similar to meats. Beyond Meat prides itself on not using GMOs and instead using beet juice extract, apple extract, and other ‘natural flavors’ to produce the meaty flavor. From what I can tell, the nutrition information on this one is also similar to a beef patty.

    Lab grown meats
    Meat products made from cells grown in a lab are being developed by over 40 different start-up companies. The most popular and well-funded of those is probably Memphis Meats, out of Berkley, CA. Others include Blue Nalu, Future Meat Technology, Finless Foods, Wild Type, and Aleph Farms.
    I’m sure all these companies have their own spin on the process, but in a very basic way, they are using cells isolated from animals, either satellite cells or embryonic stem cells to grow more cells in a lab rather than growing them in an animal.
    The cells are grown in what’s called a Bio reactor. Rather than feed and water, the cells need media, which is a combination of salts, sugars, and amino acids. Just like feeds change as animals grow, the needs of the cells change as they grow and differentiate. The scientists control the growth of the cells with hormones and provide them with scaffolding, which is a structure for them to grow on.
    This technology is quite expensive. The first cell-based hamburger that was prepared in 2013 cost approximately $278,000, but today that cost is down to about $100. A company called Eat Just, Inc. has chicken nuggets that only costs $50 a piece.
    A few of these companies are moving from lab-scale up to pilot plants, but the most ambitious timeline has products available for consumers no earlier than 2022. Most are after 2025.
    Certain cell-based products will be easier to develop than others. Comminuted products like ground beef, hot dogs and chicken nuggets will be quicker to develop than those that are trying to produce whole-muscle cuts like a steak, a chicken breast, or a pork chop. The correct texture of a marbled steak will take a little longer to develop than a ground beef burger.
    Another hurdle for these products will be regulations. In the US, meat products are regulated by USDA and call-based and plant products are regulated by FDA. The two agencies have agreed to work together to develop food safety regulations and labeling standards for cell-based meats.
    One big question is what will it be called? The USDA has standards of identity for labels like ground beef, ham, and chicken nuggets. Currently, it is not clear if beef grown in a lab outside of a cow meets those standards. (I don’t think so, but no one has asked me.) Regardless, cell-based meat or lab-grown meat doesn’t have a very good ring to it.
    So, lab-grown meats are still a long way from our dinner plates. As a rancher, a meat scientist, and as a mom, I’m not really worried about feeding them to my family any time soon.