The phrase "meat glue" tends to attract a strong reaction on one end of the spectrum or the other — fascination or revulsion. While some imagine mad scientist chefs secretly gluing together ugly scraps of meat to create fake filets, others see the possibility for creativity and utility, an opportunity to take a meat that is not the most presentable and form it into a shape that is more attractive and easier to stick on the grill, for example.
Meat glue, technically called transglutaminase, is simply an enzyme that makes it easier for a certain reaction to occur between two amino acids (glutamine and lysine) that are found in many proteins. That reaction results in a strong covalent bond.
Samuel Monsour and Mark O'Leary, creators of recurring pop-up The Future of Junk Food, played around a bit with meat glue for a recent event, creating boneless Buffalo tenders out of duck confit. For The Five Days of Meat, Monsour chats with Eater about meat glue, helping the average "Joe Schmo" understand that science and cooking do not make a scary combination, and more.
You've been playing around with meat glue, most recently in a dish for one of your The Future of Junk Food dinners. What was that dish like?
Mark O'Leary and I used meat glue to make boneless Buffalo tenders out of duck confit. What we do with our junk food dinners is we make processed food with better ingredients. The whole idea was, "Hey, all of these ingredients in the modern kitchen are the same ingredients that are on the back of processed foods; it's all science. Wouldn't it be cool if instead of going, like, uber modern, we just made junk food?" That's where the birth of this whole thing was.
We just started using meat glue really recently because I had the honor to go to the Beard House with Michael Scelfo, and he had this amazing braised lamb neck that he bound together with meat glue, so the technique that Mark and I used is actually the one that Michael taught me. I've never seen it before, because a lot of chefs use it on raw protein, but we actually used it on already-cooked protein — pulled meat. We did it a couple times with braised meats, like Michael did, and then this last time, we tried it with the duck confit, and it worked out. We pulled it, we weighed it, and then we used 2% of the weight in powdered meat glue to bind it together.
You have to also add moisture to it so that it's not just bound together, but it's also hot and juicy after you fry it or sear it. In this case, we used hot water because the duck confit had so much flavor already; adding stock or anything else flavorful to it seemed like it would be too much flavor. It's already very salty and fatty and rich.[Photos: Tara Morris]
Was this your first meat glue experience?
Yeah, I'd never used it before Scelfo explained it to me. He's one of the few chefs I'll never question, 'cause he knows his shit. I never really saw a purpose in meat glue before then. Never was against it, but then I saw something really cool where I was like, "Hey, I can take braised, pulled meat and form it into a shape, and then it's all ready to go. I sear it off." It seems like a lot of these things we end up gravitating toward with the modern ingredients have more to do with simplicity and "Hey, this is going to help us out in service" rather than trying to do something that's going to blow somebody's mind.
It seems that some people see stuff like meat glue and get weirded out by it because, ooooh, science.
And cooking at its most fundamental level is science! It's chemical and physical changes based on heat, salt, water, etc. You know what? I've figured out a super-approachable way to get the Joe Schmo to be a little bit more accepting. Bring up things like pectin and gelatin and explain that those are hydrocolloids, but you've heard of them. You've heard of gelatin; you know where it's from. You've heard of pectin; maybe you know where it's from. So those are safe in your head. But then if I say that guar, xanthan, and agar are also hydrocolloids, but they come from sea vegetables, not animals or orchard fruits, now you don't know that and you're freaked out by it. But they're in the same family, so how can you be comfortable with one and not the other? It's really just because you're not familiar with what they are, where they're coming from, how they're extracted.
There's a lot of complicated science involved in meat glue. I know it's just an enzyme that basically helps create bonds between proteins, and it's found in blood, and I'm not exactly sure how they extract it for the stuff that we use, but I'm pretty confident there isn't any science out there proving it to be harmful for consumption. It's actually what they use to make imitation crab — it's just pollock that's flavored and bound together with meat glue.
Any other meat glue dishes planned or ideas about using it in the future?
One thing that I saw somewhere that I thought was awesome involved a really nice piece of meat — but the type of piece of meat that doesn't have a very presentable look to it. Might have even been fish. They bound it together with the glue and molded it so that they could sear it as basically a perfect filet, a gorgeous rectangular filet of something that you would never really be able to offer like that otherwise. I've wanted to try that with halibut cheeks. The tendency would be maybe to smoke it and make a croquette or a rillette because it's not a very presentable cut, but it's got a delicious flavor. If you could kind of bind that together into a filet and sear it off and offer somebody a nice medium halibut cheek filet, that would be cool.
Gluing ugly things together to make a pretty thing is a neat use, although I think the idea of that is what freaks some people out — they think they'll get tricked into paying more for scraps of an inferior product masquerading as a fancy filet.
It's interesting because on the level of a chef who's using products like that, they probably know a little bit more than the average chef, and those tend to be the people that I would trust. I would want to eat their food, and I would pay good money for a cut of meat that didn't cost that much if they were thoughtful and creative enough and they put the time and labor into making it a little bit more special.
What's the plan for your junk food dinners going forward?
Our next one's in August, and then after that we want to start spreading to other cities. Eventually the idea is to have these events happening with or without us. We have this little mission statement behind it, and we're still trying to figure out how to market it. We had somebody buy tickets and dine with us the whole night, and then say, "So, can you explain to us what's the underlying theme with this and why you guys are doing it?" That really said something to me, like, fuck, even people who are coming to these dinners and experiencing them don't necessarily know the underlying theme besides the fact that it's awesome. We're not making it simple enough, but once we can simplify that, it would be cool to have chefs in other cities doing their own takes on it.
Any other meaty things you'd like tell people?
Take the time, please, and find out where the meat you eat comes from. If you don't know, look at it as a challenge and a learning experience and a journey. I'm not saying that you have to source from farms every time you eat meat, but most Americans don't realize that what they eat on a daily basis is what's referred to as commodity meat, and commodity is everything that's wrong with our food system. The only way to shy away from that is for average folks to start, even if it's once a week, saying, "Hey, I'm going to get a chicken from a local farm for my Sunday chicken dinner."
If you've still gotta stock your freezer with commodity chicken when it's on sale to feed your kids, I get it, but you buying that bird once a month from a local farm has a ripple effect, and it's huge, and it's important, and it's needed. Then those small farms can become medium farms and eventually large farms.
We saw that with Niman Ranch, and now they're in Whole Foods with processed meats like bacon and sausages and hot dogs, but they still raise the same as they did when they started out, and even their processed foods are great — they're minimally treated and they don't have any fillers or additives. That's the proof that we can restructure agriculture and get away from the misuse of things like antibiotics every day that's probably going to breed a fucking super disease that wipes us all out all because you wouldn't get a fucking local chicken!
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