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If you were looking forward to the plump rosy red-colored cut of steak you bought but find when you pop it into the pan, it transforms to become a whiter shade of pale, don’t worry. This happens frequently and results from changes within the meat when it is heated.
White steak can result when myoglobin molecules in red meat are lost, broken down, or change shape. This process can occur during storage, freezing, or cooking. Myoglobin is a protein in steak that must interact with oxygen for the meat to maintain its distinctive red color.
But it is not just cooking that can make your steak look white. The type of packaging that your meat was sealed in may also contribute to your steak’s pale color. Once you understand the reasons for its color, you will know how to store steak to retain more color, change your cooking method or simply add your favorite steak sauce and take no notice!
Why Is My Steak White?
White or gray colored steak is all about how much oxygen has interacted with your delicious thick steak on its journey to your plate. And while it can be pretty disappointing to find that the red cut that you had expected has lost some of its rosy appeal, you needn’t worry, the meat is still fine to eat.
Steak has a rich, dark color because of a protein called myoglobin—this richly pigmented substance stores oxygen molecules in the muscle cells of the animal. The oxygen is used for bursts of activity like running. So the more myoglobin there is in your steak, the deeper the color will be.
But if you wonder why your steak cut has little or no color at all, five factors could be at play. There are:
- The age of the steer
- The cut of the steak
- How it was stored
- How it is prepared
- How it is cooked
So the color of your steak is all about the presence or lack of a protein called myoglobin. If the meat was a deep red, to begin with, it might be able to retain its color more to the final product, but there is a long journey from living steer to cooked steak.
Myoglobin can be lost at each point of the process.
The Effect of the Age of the Steer on the Color of Steak
The color of red meat is actually affected long before it reaches the neatly packaged meat trays in the grocery store. The age of the steer that will become your steak also has a significant effect on the final outcome.
Anyone who has ever eaten veal knows that the meat does not have the same redness as more mature animals. During an animal’s life, the amount of myoglobin builds up in the muscles.
So steak that begins with a deep red color was probably from an older steer because the muscles had time to store more myoglobin.
The amount of exercise the animal received during its lifetime may also be evident in a color variation between grass-fed and grain-fed beef. The more the muscles were used, the redder the steak will be
The Effect of the Cut on the Color of Steak
Cuts of meat like skirt and flank steak may also show more color because those muscles would have been more exercised and therefore developed more myoglobin during the animal’s life. So you may find that a strip steak is a much paler color than a flank steak cut from the same batch.
The Effect of Meat Storage on the Color of Steak
For steak to retain a bright red color, it needs to continue to be exposed to oxygen. You might find that if you purchase vacuum-sealed steak, it may appear to become a darker red or even purple-blue color before you open it.
Most steak purchased from grocery stores has been covered in a special type of plastic that permits oxygen to reach the surface of the meat. If they used regular plastic wrap, the lack of oxygen would quickly cause the meat to be unappetizing looking.
The redder the meat, the more appealing it appears to consumers, so don’t be concerned if you spot a thick piece of steak that is either a darker or lighter shade of red than you expected. It is, in all likelihood, still good to eat.
The myoglobin in the meat has been altered due to its exposure, or lack of exposure, to oxygen. The color may therefore have become whiter than you might have come to expect.
The Effect of Preparation on the Color of Steak
Your steak may look whiter than you expect because a lot of the myoglobin that was present in the meat has drained out. When you defrost steak or even mince, you may notice that a pink liquid drains off.
Steak consists of 75% water, so when it is frozen, ice crystals form, which rupture muscle cells with their jagged edges. Thawing the meat later allows myoglobin to escape – you may notice it as pink-colored fluid on the bottom of your meat tray.
If you have marinated your steak in something that contains a lot of water or the meat has been frozen, you can expect that it may appear to be whiter in color than when you first purchased it.
Why Is My Cooked Steak White?
Red meats contain myoglobin which gives it its red color. When steak is heated, the proteins in the meat begin to break down or change form. Think about how an egg white is clear, but once it is cooked, it becomes white—the process when cooking red meat is similar.
If red meat didn’t contain myoglobin molecules, it would be white. When a steak is cooked, myoglobin’s red color breaks down and reforms into hemichrome, which is a tan or brownish color.
So rare steak may retain more of its reddish hue because it is usually only cooked to around 140F. However, anything hotter than that causes the myoglobin to break down, and the meat will appear whiter.
When buying steak, there are more important factors, like cut and quality, than the color. Often paler color meat is an indication that myoglobin has been lost during the production process or the meat has been heated to a point where this protein has transformed and lost its distinctive red color.
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