I want to know how to cook meat without removing the bones. Does the added flavor that everyone talks about comes from the bone marrow? Is it more flavorful to keep the entire incision? Is the area closest to the bone the only benefit? Or is this one of the cooking rules that are not entirely correct?
You always hear it. Grill steak on the bone. Buy a barbecue with bones. Both chefs and cookbook authors say so, claiming that the bones will add flavor to your meat. I'm skeptical (as I often do), so a few years ago I conducted a series of tests to determine if there were any problems with the flavor statement and whether there might be other non-flavor-related cooking advantages. We will get the results later, but first, let's talk about what the bones are made of and where the potential taste might come from.
The bones themselves (think: Halloween skeletons) are largely tasteless things that take a long time to dissolve in water or fat, and therefore don't contribute much to the taste of your meat. The bone marrow is locked deep in the bone and cannot be extracted effectively unless the bone is split or sawed in half. Since you are not serving broken bones in grilled meats or large steaks, this should not be a contributor either.
Have you ever tried making a stock with whole, uncracked beef bones with no connective tissue? It doesn't work. You get a few dissolved minerals but not much aroma. To get flavor and body, you have to break the bones down and make sure that they host some connective tissue on their surfaces.
Finally, there's the connective tissue and surface fat. Here's where we might be able to make a case. Everybody knows that the tastiest bites of a prime rib are the sinewy, fatty bits you gnaw off with your teeth from the bone, right? So some of this great flavor surely must be making its way into the meat, right?
How Does Your Water Flow?
Well not so fast. Despite the fun mental image, a piece of meat is not a sponge. Liquid does not flow freely in and out or within it. Don't believe me? Try this test. Dry the surface of a steak thoroughly with paper towels, then squeeze that steak as hard as you can. Go ahead, squeeze. Have your buddy the gorilla lend you a hand if he's free. Try and squeeze some liquid out of there. That steak you're holding is around 70 percent water. Surely you can get a few drops out of it? No?
Unless you've got superhuman strength, you won't see much liquid coming out, and that's because the liquid inside a steak is securely compartmentalized. It's for this reason that most marinades are largely ineffective at delivering much more than a surface treatment to meats. Even marinating overnight will only get you a couple millimeters of penetration. What chance do any flavorful compounds from the bone have in entering your meat during the mere hours it spends in the oven?
Bone on its own is actually a superior conductor of heat than meat. However, bone is not solid—it has a honeycomb structure that includes many air spaces. Just like air spaces in home insulation guard against temperature fluctuations, so too does the bone protect the meat closest to it. This is where the expression "tender at the bone" comes from (meat near the bone is less cooked, thus more tender), and why it's important to insert your thermometer away from the bone when testing temperature; Testing close to bone will give you an artificially low reading.
And of course, the other advantage to cooking with the bone on is that it gives you all that wonderful gristle and fat to chew on.
Bottom line: The best way to cook your beef is to detach the bone and tie it back on. You get the same cooking quality of a completely intact roast with the added advantage that once it's cooked, carving is as simple as cutting the string, removing the bones, and slicing.