Aesthetic Appreciation needs Education – or How to Eat Steak

I’ve been on vacation this week. I got thinking about two interesting and related things.

Firstly I was reading Mill’s Utilitarianism. I love Mill, and this book is no different. He deals in some depth with the obvious objection to Utilitarianism. How do we judge what constitutes a pleasure, and particularly a ‘higher’ pleasure. Part of this is the question of aesthetic education. Is Shakespeare’s “Tempest” really more aesthetically worthy than the movie “American Pie”. How can we tell?

I was mulling over this while eating a steak. In two neighboring tables folks also ordered steak. And they ordered it well done. It struck me that this was the same thing. Well done steak is the equivalent of a crappy rom-com, and rare steak the equivalent of Shakespeare. You see, most people who order their steaks medium or more, have suffered mis-education. They have been told that pink meat is unhealthy (it is not), or that it is raw (it is not), or that it is somehow icky (it is not). So instead they ask for meat that has lost most of its texture and flavor, meat who’s proteins have been changed to be less digestible and therefore less nutritious. I was such a person. That was my background. But then someone took me in hand and said, pretty blankly: “steaks are supposed to be cooked rare”. Sometimes you need someone to tell you in those bald terms.

A rare steak. The meat is warm in the middle, but the gel-like texture is still intact. It is not raw in the middle - the fats have started to break down, as have the cell walls (releasing the juices which carry 90% of the flavor), so the meat melts in the mouth.

This isn’t a matter of personal preference, but of chemistry. The taste, texture and color of steak are generated by a complex set of proteins. You can track the changes in these proteins during the cooking process. There is quantitatively less of the major flavor compounds in well-done steak than rare steak, and fewer flavor compounds generally. Overcooking steak causes the muscle fibers to denature and fuse, meaning it is much tougher and drier (some folks even use a steak hammer to tenderize their steak before overcooking it!). Overcooking also dramatically increases the concentration of heterocyclic amines (HCA) the major DNA-damaging (and therefore cancer-causing) agents in red-meat. Red meat is not a significant carcinogen if cooked properly. You may look at the rare steak and think “eww”, but that is because you have been told to think that. In fact, the rare steak is both tastier and better for you. And neither of those assertions are a matter of preference – they are falsifiable statements of fact.

Medium. This still has some of the juices present, but has now lost all vestiges of the gel-like texture of a good steak. The pink in the middle is what some folks mistake for being 'rare'. In my experience ordering rare, this is most often what I get.

Part of the problem, in steak and popular culture, is that the crappy version has become institutionalized in our culture. It is very difficult in the UK, and almost impossible in the US (in my experience) to order a ‘rare’ steak in a restaurant and get an actual rare steak (this doesn’t apply to all restaurants costing > $50 per entree, but even then you’re not guaranteed success)*.

Well done. At this point all the natural juices have been grilled off. The fused actin proteins (fused having lost their interleaving myosin) that are characteristic of over-cooking are now throughout the meat. The main flavor compounds are greatly diminished. The steak is dry and will require smothering in sauce to be palatable.

We have steak no more than once every few months at home, so I like to go for it on holiday. Of the three steaks I ordered this week, I got one medium, one medium-well and one medium-rare. 0/3 hit rate. That’s pretty sad. Last time I ordered a rare steak in the US I got this lecture about how “rare means red and bloody in the middle – is that okay?” (actually it isn’t bloody in the middle – that’s just rubbish, it is an aqueous solution of myoglobin that gives rare steak its characteristic red juice – and rare steak should be more than just red in the middle!). I said “yes, absolutely, the rarer the better”. And I got? A steak that was medium-well done. God help anyone who ordered it well done – probably better to serve it in an urn.

How do we raise the cultural sophistication of society? How do we tell people that eating well-done steak is consuming a bunch of BS and a substandard product? How do we encourage artistic effort and excellence, rather than another crappy movie? How do we educate the aesthetic sense of others in a culture where aesthetic sophistication is considered to be arrogance? Where can I find aesthetic education in those areas that I am still ignorant?

Photo credit: The Healthy Butcher

* I’ve heard a (possibly apocryphal) story that Gordon Ramsey would refuse to cook steaks more than medium in disdain for the uneducated palette of anyone who ordered it that way.


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10 responses to “Aesthetic Appreciation needs Education – or How to Eat Steak

  1. Robbi

    I like my steak well done. It is a matter of taste and preference not chemistry or education. Liking something different to what you like does not make me uncultured.

    My experience in restaurants is the opposite of yours. Most often the steak that appears on the plate is medium, not well done. I have walked out of restaurants that have refused to cook it well done. My reading of the chef situation is that it takes too long to cook a steak well done and they don’t want to be bothered.

  2. Ian

    Hi Robbi, thanks for posting and welcome to the blog.

    Of course, some folks will swear that Jackie Collins should be preferred over Dickens, or that Brittney Spears wins over Mozart. It is fine to say that you prefer one thing over another. Someone might prefer Brittney Spears over Mozart. That’s fine. I think that says more about them than it does about the music. It is quite another to say that Brittney’s music is better than Mozart’s.

    If you prefer overcooked steak, that’s fine. But the fact that rare steak is better is not a matter of preference, it is a matter of chemistry. You can say, for example, that you like overcooked steak better because you don’t like the characteristic flavor compounds of the meat, and you want it cooked until those compounds have been broken down. You can say that you don’t like the juices released from the cell-breakdown of the meat, and you want it cooked until these juices have drained away. Both these things are fine, and a matter of preference. But you are effectively saying that you only like a small portion of the meat, and you want it cooked until the rest of the flavors and compounds have been disposed of. I think it is justified to say that you don’t really like steak qua steak. You like the sensation of eating denatured muscle fibre.

    Here’s an example from me. I don’t like Opera. I’ve tried, and I don’t like it. I know, and can appreciate that Opera relies on far more elevated musicality, performance, a much longer proving time, and is far more sophisticated in plot, characterization and realization. But I don’t really like it. That is a matter of my personal preference. Where culture descends to the lowest common denominator is when we go further and say, because of my personal preference, Opera is no better or worse than High School Musical – it is *only* a matter of preference. No, rare steak is better than overcooked steak in exactly the same way that a $5m production of Aida is better than the $5m original High School Musical.

  3. Ian

    My experience in restaurants is the opposite of yours. Most often the steak that appears on the plate is medium, not well done.

    Interesting observation. I think that is probably consistent with my observation if Chefs basically only cook everything medium, and they vary by maybe 30 seconds each way, so the ‘rare’ is basically medium, maybe medium-rare, and the ‘well done’ is basically medium, possibly medium well. Add to that a massive inconsistency of talent, and you get the fact that many of them can’t cook steak to order so I get my medium-well. Makes sense to me.

  4. Excellent.
    I love rare steak — for all the reasons you stated. Odd how it took time to undo the cultural teachings before I learned to enjoy. Heck, same with warm beer — my preference now!

  5. Kay

    Mmmm. Rare steak.

    Heck – not just steak. I like my salmon rare and my tuna rare. In fact I even like them raw.

    Mmmm. Sushi.


  6. Hey Ian,

    Looking again through your back pages. Wanted to say thanks for this post. This is an excellent example of the ‘new emotional-aesthetic commitment’ I’ve been thinking about lately.

    Your intro with Mill is excellent. This example isn’t religious, per se, but it does show the new ‘should’, in a sense, grounding the reasons in a combination of new information, science, and still maximizing personal gain.

    I’ve always like medium-rare to rare myself, but it started with taste for me. Education came later.

  7. And how do you treat someone who is bound and determined to have their steak well done and will send it back again and again, because I have done that more than once. On one occasion, when I was a child, I sent it back SIX TIMES before my father was asked to go back and cook it for me.

    Even today, when I have experienced steak from blue to burnt, I honestly prefer well-done. It’s not a matter of chemistry or Britney Spears over Mozart, IT IS HOW I LIKE IT!

    (And FYI, I can’t stand Mozart, but I adore Handel and Beethoven)

  8. Ian


    And all power to you, I hope you get it exactly as you like. My point was not that you’re wrong or you shouldn’t prefer it the way you prefer it.

    Just that there are objective criteria on which we can talk about what is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ examples of something. If someone loves the worse stuff with a passion, that’s up to them. But the rest of us shouldn’t fall into the trap of pretending that taste, aesthetics, art and culture is nothing but subjective judgement.

  9. That’s just it: EVERYTHING IS SUBJECTIVE. From art to politics to food. There is no such thing as objectivity. What one person calls art another will call vandalism.

  10. Ian

    I think you’re wrong, but if you think that way, my opinion doesn’t count for anything, presumably. Why bother discussing anything at all, if you’re able to entirely construct your own reality? The idea of world where beauty and truth are merely whatever one wants them to be, sounds utterly depressing and horribly narcissistic. My condolences if you find yourself there.

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