3.25.2014

Delicious, delicious lamb legs

Okay, to be fair this post doesn't have a LOT to do with environmental health topics. I just came across it while doing some research, and thought it was interesting. And, if I stretch it, I can say that meat processing has to ensure not only food safety aspects, but also food quality: no matter how safe a product is, if it's not delicious, people won't want to eat it. I should also clarify that I really don't know a lot about meat curing techniques, so I won't have a lot of insight or personal opinions on the topic.

The main premise of the study is that if you "tumble" your lamb leg while you're salting it, there's a natural breakdown of the connective tissues that will lead to a change in texture/taste/quality of the product. Further, you'll get a more complete coverage of the salt through tumbling, so you should have a fully cured product in less time. The researchers wanted to take this existing knowledge, and determine what changes ("physiochemical, microbial and sensory") occurred.

To get the most important aspect of the study out of the way, the researchers noted that "hardness and chewiness decreased during ripening", which is a good thing (unless you like hard, chewy lamb leg). There was no significant change in flavour between the different treatment methods, although "pastiness" did increase with tumbling (where "pastiness" is described as "the feeling of paste detected in mouth during mastication). To be fair, the researchers noted that the tumbled legs were only a BIT more pasty, so it shouldn't be seen as an impediment to deliciousness.

From a food safety perspective (see, I can bring this back to relevance), they found that there was no significant difference in aw (water activity)  between the different treatment methods, and the tumbled meat still was capable of an aw as low as 0.6, allowing for room temperature shelf stability. NaCl content was also statistically equal between the treatment methods, and there was no effect on pH noted from tumbling.

Besides the pastiness, one of the only other differences the researchers found between tumbling and "normal" curing was the presence of 3-methylbutanal, which they note "could have an impact on leg flavour". They hypothesize that the 3-methylbutanal appears because of the structural damage that occurs to the meat when it's being tumbled around, and the associated degradation of amino acid leucine. Now, since I'm not a food scientist, it was unclear to me whether the presence of 3-methylbutanal (which is a "major contributor of dry-cured ham flavour") was a good thing or a bad thing. However, when talking about cured meats, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that a "dry-cured ham flavour" isn't necessarily a bad thing. So that's a win for the tumbled meat!

So while the tumbling of the meat had no apparent effect on the shelf stability of the product vis-à-vis non-tumbled curing, it did have some quality effects: more pasty, but also more flavourful. Which means when you're curing your Mediterranean lamb leg, you might as well tumble it!

Source: Villalobos-Delgado, L.H., Caro, I., Blanco, C., Morán, L., Prieto, N., Bodas, R., Giráldez, F.J., & Mateo, J. (2014). Quality characteristics of a dry-cured lamb leg as affected by tumbling after dry-salting and processing time. Meat Science, 97, 115-122.
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