Getting a Read on Great Beef Flavor
by John Lundeen, Senior Executive Director, Market Research, and Bridgett Wasser, Executive Director, Meat Science Technology, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff
Beef taste is primarily made up of three components – flavor, tenderness and juiciness. Since taste is the most important factor the consumer uses in choosing a dinner entrée (Source: Consumer Beef Index) improvements in any one of these three variables is critical to optimizing the value of beef, and in keeping beef competitive with other proteins.
The industry has made great strides in delivering more consistent levels of tenderness and continues to keep an eye on this important beef attribute. Now, it’s pertinent to focus the same attention on beef flavor, which is much less understood. Over the last two years, the checkoff’s product quality and market research teams have been looking at the attributes of taste, and what separates a great steak dinner from a merely average one. What follows is a summary of that journey and our current understanding of where the checkoff can focus attention to drive demand based on delivering great taste.
Can you describe the taste of a great steak? Consumers use words like mouth-watering, delicious or more savory. But how does the checkoff turn that into action and work to turn every steak experience into a great steak experience? And, how we do overcome a bad beef taste experience?
Discerning beef’s flavor makeup – or its flavor chemistry – is a complex science. Step one is exploring beef’s natural flavor chemistry and developing a library of descriptive terms (called a lexicon) that can be used to describe beef’s specific flavor notes. Step two is to document current flavor delivery and determine just how many steak experiences rate as an A or B, or fall short as a C, D or F. And, more importantly, we must determine if the consumer can tell us what happened during the beef selection or preparation process that might have caused a high or low grade.
Flavor is equally as important as tenderness to consumers when measuring beef eating satisfaction. However, beef flavor is not a single attribute as it has often been viewed and measured. To better understand beef’s complex flavor equation, the product quality program has initiated checkoff research projects to examine beef’s chemical makeup for flavor-inducing compounds. Simultaneously, trained sensory panels have been engaged to develop a consistent beef lexicon to document positive and negative flavor notes that differ in beef based on cut, fat level, cooking method, degree of doneness and individual consumer preferences. For example, the flavor of marbling in beef has been described as a buttery beef fat flavor, and that flavor contributes significantly to beef’s sensory or eating experience.
Following development of the beef lexicon, research continues to understand which compounds in beef are responsible for the specific flavor notes identified in this lexicon. This information can ultimately be used to enhance or reduce specific flavor compounds to optimize beef flavor. Additionally, work is ongoing to understand which of the flavor notes identified by trained sensory panelists in the beef lexicon are positive and negative to non-trained beef consumers. Consumer perceptions of flavor are variable – some prefer certain flavor notes more than others – which results in consumer population segments based on flavor preferences. For example, some consumers prefer the grilled or charred flavors of more well-done beef while others prefer the irony/serumy or metallic flavors of less well-done beef. And, beef flavor notes aren’t present individually; they are present in combinations that are specific to individual eating experiences based on the chemistry of the cut, how it was cooked, etc. The industry needs beef products that work for all consumers and that presents a moving target that this type of science can help us narrow in on.
Market research conducted an online survey of 1000 consumers in October 2014. Only those who noted having eaten a steak in their homes in the prior three days were qualified to participate. Each noted the process they followed in selecting the steak, preparing and then cooking. The consumer answered a battery of questions about their confidence in the cooking method they used, their preferred doneness for a steak (and actual doneness for the steak prepared), and cut purchased. A subset of consumers with the best or worst experiences were immediately routed into a dialogue with a live interviewer who captured further richness about their perceptions of that steak.
First, confidence in a cooking method really matters. In prior research, respondents noted how they had to “learn their grill” and just how to achieve a great steak outcome. Those who scored their steak an “A” were very likely to have a high level of confidence in their cooking method.
Hitting preferred doneness is critical, and the largest negative impact is related to overcooking a steak. Successful steak cookers also were more likely to understand the benefits of “resting” the steak before cutting into and eating it.
When asked to affix responsibility for a “C” to “F” outcome, 30 percent noted the cut itself. While this is a relatively small percentage, this was still the most likely answer given for the “what” behind a sub-satisfactory experience.
Is there room for improvement? Absolutely. In this first in-depth foray into measuring steak satisfaction, a very large majority noted a highly satisfactory “A” or “B” experience – backing up the discussions encountered in research where consumers rhapsodize about the taste of beef. But industries today are striving for zero tolerances and the beef industry has a ways to go to hit that standard.
Ongoing improvements in taste delivery are likely to require a process by which the industry finds out how to minimize the outliers – the steaks that deliver a gristly or flavorless experience. It will also require learning more about the subtle nuances of a great steak – with sensory panels and flavor chemistry leading the way in unraveling the combination of beef flavors that give a diverse group of consumers just what they are looking for.
Additionally, it will require communication programs that help the consumer understand the nuances of beef cookery – getting spice levels or marinating techniques right, cooking to a preferred doneness, and understanding how to let a steak “rest” after cooking. Luckily, today’s consumer takes joy in discovering the art of great cookery and is hungry for just this type of information. Bon appetite’.
Tags: Beef Issues Quarterly, Research Findings, Winter 2015
December 21, 2015