Simple Steak Science: Tenderness

With the school year starting, both in person and virtually, your kids may be looking for a science fair project.  Rather than focusing on a solar system or volcano, here is a simple project that can open up your kids to the world that is meat science!

All that is required for this project is canned and fresh pineapple and a box of jello. Making jello with canned pineapple works great! The jello will set up as expected and even makes a great treat.

Making jello with fresh pineapple, on the other hand, does not work. The jello will not set up and will remain a liquid even if cooled for longer than the recommended time period.  This is due to an enzyme found in pineapple called bromelain. Bromelain breaks down protein, which makes it a great ingredient in meat tenderizers.  It is also what causes some people to say that their mouth becomes sore if they eat a lot of fresh pineapple. During the cooking process while canning, bromelain is broken down and is no longer functional. This is why canned pineapple works to make jello, but not fresh pineapple.

Now what does this have to do with meat science? Store bought meat tenderizers often contain bromelain or papain, which is a similar enzyme found in papaya.  Similarly, meat naturally contains an enzyme called calpain. Calpains are activated by calcium and work to break down protein. They are responsible for the tenderness improvement that occurs when meat is aged.  Aging meat, or holding it in a refrigerated environment or a period of time, allows more time for the calpains to be active and to break down more protein.  This improvement in tenderness makes for a better tasting steak.

This experiment would also make a great 4-H project.  Students could pair the jello and pineapple with the science of aging and tenderness or use it as an introduction into talking about marinades and dry rubs when cooking meat.  Either way, it is a simple project that contains a lot of science!  It may just be the opportunity your kid needs to spark their interest in a future in meat science!

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