Short answer: Well, bones don’t make meat taste worse. And they can make some dishes better.
Do Bones Really Add Flavor to Meat?
There’s a popular notion that cooking a cut of meat that still has the bone in it allows flavorful material, such as minerals or perhaps marrow, to flow from the bone and throughout the meat.
In certain circumstances, bones will impart flavor to an entire dish. When braising bone-in short ribs, for instance, the conditions are right: The cooking is long and slow and takes place in liquid, and short ribs have already been cut by your butcher, exposing the marrow inside them.
This allows a couple of things to happen:
- Some of the marrow inside the bone—which is mostly composed of fat—melts, flows out of the cut bone, and combines with the braising liquid in a delicious, unctuous way.
- Collagen in the connective tissue surrounding the bone breaks down over the course of lengthy heating, forming gelatin that also dissolves into the cooking liquid.
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Bones Can Make the Dish—But Not the Meat—Taste Better
Note that a couple of things, meanwhile, do not happen. The bone itself, that hard white calcium-based item, doesn’t dissolve, because bone can’t dissolve. Only the connective tissue outside the bone, and the marrow inside the bone, can.
And, while those unctuous elements do make their way into the braising liquid, they do not permeate into the meat. As we know from when we brine meat, it takes several hours for even the tiniest and most mobile chemical compounds, like salt, to permeate muscle cells.
The Best BraisersThese wide, heavy pans, searing, simmering, roasting, and, yes, braising. Especially dishes with bone-in meat.
Bones Don’t Flavor Grilled Meat
And those braised cut ribs are the best-case scenario, in terms of bones adding flavor to meat.
In order for flavor to come from the marrow of the bone into the meat, it would have to first seep through the solid bone, which is impermeable, and then penetrate laterally through the entire muscle. Even the collagenous connective tissue on the outside of the bone can only moisten the part of the steak that’s in contact with it.
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Why, Then, Does It Seem That Bone-In Meat Is Juicier and More Savory?
One explanation is that it’s not so much about what the bone brings to the meat, but what deboning removes. Taking the bone out requires cutting the meat open, exposing a fresh array of tender muscle fibers that were hitherto shielded. During cooking, that surface can leak juice that otherwise would remain in the meat, potentially leading to a drier, overcooked chop.
And the primal appeal of a bone-in piece of meat to all the other senses should not be underrated.
Seeing the glistening, jutting bone, feeling its heft, grappling and gnawing it: These are also part of the pleasure of cooking and eating meat on the bone.