From M., 21 February 2010, “Meat jelly” – what is it?
Q: Can you tell me what the delicious black jelly like substance is that settles to the bottom of beef lard that gets re-used for roasting purposes?
A: Thanks for your question! I see you’ve come across one of my favorite things. I’ve always called it meat jelly, and, in his cookbook Momofuku, David Chang calls it the same thing. I mean, what else would you call it? It’s a simple but accurate description – texture of jelly, byproduct of cooking meat.
To understand the nature of meat jelly, let’s chat a little about the science of cooking meat. What we consider “meat” is the muscle, and to a lesser degree the fat and sometimes the connective tissue, of the animal. When meat is heated, it undergoes a number of changes.
* First, muscle fibers contract, and the water between the fibers is squeezed out as they contract. So when you press a raw piece of meat, you’ll find it soft enough that, once removed, your finger leaves an indentation in the meat’s surface. As the meat cooks, however, its resistance increases – a medium-rare steak, for example, feels firmer, and a steak cooked all the way through is hard like a hockey puck, having lost about 40 percent of its weight in water. And that fully-cooked steak will be dry, because the contracting muscle fibers will have squeezed out all that moisture. Remember this the next time someone tells you to sear a piece of meat to “seal in the juices,” because that’s wrong. Searing meat will not “lock in” the juices. In fact, meat loses moisture when seared. Even so, searing is valuable because…
* Meat browns when exposed to high heat. The complex Maillard reaction involving the amino acids in meat protein and sugars (whether from more complex carbohydrates like starch, or simple sugars like glucose) supplies that rich, “browned meat” flavor. (It also yields the characteristic “toasted” flavor in browned starches.) Because the Maillard reaction only can take place in the absence of water, it requires a surface environment somewhat above the boiling point – about 230F/110C at a minimum. So to produce this delicious browning effect, you need to sear, pan-fry, roast, or deep-fry the meat; poaching won’t work, and neither will braising except to the extent some of the meat is above the surface of the braising liquid in a hot oven.
* In addition, fat melts, at least somewhat. In a piece of meat that is well-marbled – that is, where the fat is dispersed throughout the meat’s interior, as opposed to solely on the outside – melting fat yields tender and delicious meat in several ways – by opening up pockets where the fat has melted between the meat’s fibers; by lubricating the fibers in melted fat; and by providing a vehicle for fat-soluble flavor compounds, some of which dissolve better in fat than in water. Needless to say, lean meat, like chicken or turkey breast, and pork or beef tenderloin, does not undergo this transformation. Chicken and duck thighs contain more fat; pork shoulder and belly, and pork and beef ribs contain the most.
* And finally, collagen in the meat’s connective tissue breaks down under prolonged exposure to heat and becomes gelatin. This process begins around 140F/60C, and the rate of breakdown increases the higher the cooking temperature. Gelatin provides excellent mouthfeel – it melts to a slightly viscous liquid at about 95F/35C, so it literally “melts in your mouth,” providing a thickened, rich sensation. Little-exercised muscles from the meat’s interior, like the tenderloin, and the breasts of commercially raised poultry, contain very little connective tissue, which is associated with the animal’s active muscles. Tougher cuts like poultry legs contain a great deal of collagen, as do pork and beef ribs and shoulders.
Why am I telling you all this? So you can cook a better piece of meat, and so you can figure out how to get more meat jelly, if you like. You referred to it as a “delicious black jelly.” So let’s break that down. “Jelly” means collagen breakdown to gelatin. Gelatin thickens a liquid, so you know that the meat must be cooked past the blue-rare stage so the meat fibers contract enough to expel some moisture. “Delicious” and “black” (probably not truly black) means the Maillard reaction. Initially, the moisture that emerges from the meat will brown as it contacts the surface of the hot and dry roasting pan. More moisture and protective melting fat keep the liquid from evaporating and the browned drippings from burning, and so does using the smallest possible roasting pan.
Now that you know where the meat jelly comes from, how will you use it? Simple – think of it as concentrated meaty goodness and a quick way to add body to a sauce; fortify a stock or broth; tossed with pasta; stirred into a less-than-impressive soup.
Despite all the talk about the Maillard reaction above, I don’t think browned drippings are necessary to a good meat jelly. You can produce delicious meat jelly by roasting any tough cut of meat that contains both fat and a lot of collagen in the smallest possible pan, in an oven hot enough to break down the collagen and melt the fat, which protects the drippings from evaporating in the hot oven. You also can produce jelly by confiting meat in oil or melted fat – since all meats lose some moisture as they cook, you can find a layer of meat jelly under the oil or fat you use for confit.
Duck confit, with jelly
four duck legs, cleaned and trimmed of excess fat (reserve to render)
about 1/2 c kosher salt
1/4 c parsley leaves
2 bay leaves
2 tbsp coriander seed
1 tbsp white peppercorns
rendered duck fat (see recipe if you don’t have it to hand)
mild olive oil or grapeseed oil
Process herbs, salt, and spices in spice mill.
Weigh the duck legs. You will need about 1 1/2 tbsp of the seasoning salt per pound of duck; store the excess, tightly sealed, in the refrigerator. Cover all surfaces of the duck in the seasoning salt. Cure wrapped, and under refrigeration, for 12-24 hours. Rinse thoroughly and pat dry.
While the duck is curing, render the excess skin for fat by pricking it thoroughly, placing in a heavy pan, and heating slowly until the fat renders from the crackling. Drain.
Place duck legs in cast iron or other oven safe pot with lid, no more than 2 layers deep. Add duck fat and, if necessary, additional oil to cover. Bring just to 180F/82C on stovetop and then place in 190F/88C oven for 10-12 hours until tender all the way to the bone. Remove from the fat carefully to avoid collapsing the meat.
Separate fat from jelly and store in separate containers. Cool the legs quickly and vacuum pack, or store in the separated fat.
The duck Jelly may be used to fortify pan sauces, broths, or anything else that could use a hit of savory duck flavor.
*Note: If you have the means to cook sous vide, vacuum pack the legs with about 1/2 c fat/leg (solid fat is fine – you do not have to pre-melt) and slow cook for 12 hours at 170F/77C. Cool in the bag in an ice bath before chilling.