KANSAS CITY, Mo. – There’s no denying that meat and poultry cooked and eaten in the great outdoors always seems to taste better vs. being cooked indoors in one’s kitchen or even in a restaurant.
This point didn’t really hit home until I took a once-in-a lifetime Alaskan Inland waterways cruise one late August decades ago on a small, seagoing catamaran that slept only 40 people. We stopped at some out-of-the-way places along the cruise, such as Juneau and Skagway. While in Juneau, we were surrounded by rapidly swirling rivers and streams and the salmon were running. The local townsfolk were jumping into the cold, rushing, white-capped waters with big, rubber garbage cans and scooping up more than their fair share of huge salmon. Up until that time, I wasn’t a big fan of salmon as my salmon experience was primarily with canned product.
During the tour, our small vessel sailed to some historic old towns and we were always on the move — never staying in one town for very long. Late one morning after returning to Juneau, everyone was tired and famished and the tour guide boasted we were in for a surprise lunch: we were going to be served local salmon. At that point, a hamburger sounded much better to me — I wasn’t really looking forward to eating salmon.
I was amazed at how the fish was being caught and prepared. Just yards away was the rushing stream and young high-school kids manned with the pre-mentioned garbage cans scooped out the salmon while maintaining their balance in the knee-high to waist-high rapids. Next, the salmon was cleaned and prepared on a split log near a wooden tub filled with water where the meat of this noble fish was washed and then thrown over an open fire. The source of the fire was a huge, black metal garbage can with heavy crisscross wire simply resting on top of the smoldering can; the fire was being fueled by local hardwood. Someone slathered each filet with a paste consisting of butter and brown sugar. Although a number of Golden Eagles perched on telephone poles and trees nearby and stared our way toward the fish, none were bold enough to swoop down and try to steal the caught salmon.
In the end, I was surprised. Not only was this the best salmon I ever ate, it was one of the best meals I ever ate.
Several other times on our trip during lunch, beef and pork dishes were prepared outdoors and again….they were among the best-tasting dishes I ever had. Looking back, I can remember the chicken, hamburgers, hotdogs, steaks and pork chops I enjoyed during family outings in the great outdoors long before the days of retail, marinated cuts. The meat remained juicy despite not being marinated. My favorites were Country Pork Chops glazed with a sweet mustard sauce and barbecue chicken.
Why is it that proteins prepared, cooked and served outdoors always seem to taste so extraordinary? In hopes of getting an answer to this question, I contacted an expert I have communicated with over the years….Chef Alan Lazar, CCE, ACE, associate instructor, ACF Student Advisor Chair, Johnson & Wales Univ., North Miami, Fla., to get his insights. These were his theories after working 40-plus years in the industry.
For one thing, proteins taste better with less handling, he reminded me. “Many things affect the taste of proteins,” he added. The natural enzymes break down in the meat, temperature variations and time can also cause significant problems.
“Where an animal lives and what it eats determines its taste,” Lazar continued. “On your adventure in Alaska, you had fish that was caught and cooked within a few minutes. The muscles were still full of the ‘flavor of the sea’ and what the animal consumed. The cooking methods with wood, temperatures, humidity and degree of heat all affect the outcomes.”
On large animals such as cattle, bison and elk, the muscles have lactic-acid buildup that will make the meat taste different, gamey, Lazar explained. “That is why you hang large animals before you cook them,” he added.
“There is a big movement to know your supplier, humanely treating animals and processing with least amount of stress to the animal. I applaud this movement,” he added.
Lazar said he has worked in many food properties that use imported lamb from Australia and New Zealand. “It’s a nice product, but I grew up on fresh American lamb,” he added. “The imported lamb is grass-fed and with very little finish.
“Many things can happen in the transport of meat products, “he continued. “[Sometimes] seals are broken so air can get into the package, refrigeration is sometimes too warm or cold and product can go bad. The time of travel and holding it in a freezer affects product quality. Even though it’s frozen, meat continues to break down,” he added.
The smell of hanging beef in a cooler amazes Chef Lazar. “Good butchers can just smell and look at a piece of meat and tell if it’s going to be good,” he said. “In beef and other animals, we also get dark cutters, which do not metabolize the proteins correctly and have less moisture in the muscles. They say there is no difference [from non-dark cutters], but they are sold to foodservice properties.”
Lazar recently returned from a four-week tour of China, a land of many steps and one time zone, he joked. One excursion he was on involved a boat that toured the Yangtze River. “If you ordered fish for lunch, a fisherman would bring the live fish to the boat and the chef would buy it,” he said. “They would gut it and cook it whole on the boat for you. Can't get any fresher than that! In many restaurants, they have tanks and take fish out when ordered. They would cook it right away when you order it. The taste of fresh fish as opposed to fish in ice held for several days is entirely different. This is a great movement.”
In beef, especially aged beef, the property has to be careful and know what they are doing. Lazar warns while turning his thoughts back to the States. “Many people think aging is easy and simple, it’s not,” he added. “The consumer has to have prior knowledge of aged beef or else they will not enjoy it. Time, temperature and humidity in addition to air flow will affect the taste of the product.”
So, if you find yourself in the great outdoors and your hosts plan to serve something you normally don’t care for — be bold and try it… you might actually end up liking it.