What is Marbling?


With our cultural interest in good food from all walks of life, the term “marbling” may have crossed your consciousness. In fact, it’s entirely likely that you’ve encountered the term before, but have never really grasped what it meant. Let’s demystify what marbling is, why it’s important, and why you should love it in your own kitchen. We’ll talk about that and how you can learn to incorporate considerations of marbling into your own food shopping criteria.

Basic Definitions and Distinctions

Marbling is always a term used when talking about red meat. You won’t—and shouldn’t—hear it when talking about chicken or tuna or game pheasants. It denotes the distribution of intramuscular fat deposits within the muscle tissues, and a good marble in a cut of meat should resemble the striations of the polished stone. It does not pertain to the undifferentiated fat on the outer portion of a cut of meat or the layer of fat and connective tissue between two muscles, such as you might see on a beef chuck roast. The term is only ever applied to the white streaks and flecks within the muscle tissue.

Why Is Marbling a Good Thing?

While many of us elect to eat a much leaner diet these days, the fact that fat is flavour when it comes to meat is not up for debate. If you are concerned about fat content and keeping your consumption of richer cuts of meat low, experts recommend that you focus on quality, not quantity. Enjoy a high-quality, well-marbled portion of steak as a special treat and revel in the experience. It will always eclipse the quality of tough, extra-lean meat, even if you consumed the latter every day, and you’ll derive more benefit from “treating” yourself.

Marbling and How It Impacts Cooking

It’s important to understand why marbling is an important technique when it comes to tenderness and flavour of cooked meat. Generally speaking, steaks and cuts of meat with excellent marbling—pure white striations that are firm to the touch in the raw meat—are taken from the loin of the animal. This area is on the back of the bovine, and receives less of a workout from daily motion, even in free-range animals. Excess calories from the diet of an animal are stored here, not as large fat deposits, but as delicate intramuscular marbling.

Remember that statement about fat being flavoursome? It’s true, even from a chemistry standpoint. As you cook meat with marbling, that delicate fat, full of what we associate as beef flavour, melts into the surrounding meat. In cuts without marbling, the muscle fibres are far less flavourful, and its much easier to end up with something more like cardboard than steak. It’s why certain cuts are perfect for pot roasts or stews—they may be associated with large deposits of fat in conjunction with extremely lean meat—such as that chuck roast we were talking about earlier.

The Experts Like It Hot

Even with a beautifully marbled steak, you can still end up with shoe leather if you overcook it. As the tenderness and flavour are bound to the fat, you don’t want to cook it too long. That renders out the fat, and there goes your flavour! What the experts recommend is searing the outside of the meat in an extremely hot pan—many chefs have a fetish for cast iron for this reason. This actually damages the cell structure on the surface of the beef in a good way; formally known as the Maillard Process or Reaction, this imparts a special, sought-after flavour to the steak. Then, finish cooking the steak in a hot oven until it reaches the desired level of doneness. By doing this, you can cook it more fully, if desired, without sacrificing as much tenderness as you would on a grill. Then, allow it to rest for at least ten minutes, covered loosely in foil, which will give the meat time to reabsorb some of the moisture expressed during cooking.

Marbling is a sign of a well-fed bovine. While it’s important to choose meat with marbling for its tenderness, keep in mind also that it should be pure white and hard or firm, never spongy. This is a sign of dietary health in the beef while it was on the hoof. Cattle that are restrictively penned or fed a low-quality diet will still display marbling in these portions of the anatomy, but it will be a dingy, rather off-putting yellow-gray or orange-tinged. That’s not something anyone wants to eat.

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