A dynamite meat recipe

Research: Morse B. Solomon is using explosives in a meat tenderizing and sanitizing process.

July 16, 2002|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Morse B. Solomon thinks he's found a great steak recipe: several pounds of tough, low-grade meat, several gallons of water, the equivalent of a quarter-stick of dynamite.

Mix carefully and explode.

"Not exactly something you'd try at home," said Solomon, a scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Beltsville Research facility who has spent the past decade working on his special dish.

Solomon, a devoted carnivore, isn't trying to destroy the meat. Instead, he's tenderizing and sanitizing it. Early test results show that when the meat and charge are submerged, sound waves produced by the explosives rip through the meat, leaving it unchanged to the naked eye but making the cut more tender as well as killing much of its bacteria, such as E. coli.

Tenderness has been a challenge for the meat industry almost since its inception. Inventors have spent years trying to create softer meat, and there are a myriad of tenderizing products on the market, ranging from an old-fashioned hammer to modern enzymes, all of which work to varying degrees.

But many beef industry experts are keeping a close and hopeful eye on Solomon's work, hoping that it can consistently make tough, cheap round-eye cuts as tender as choice, costly New York strip.

"If it's successful, this is going to give customers more options and a more desirable eating experience," said James "Bo" Reagan, executive director for research and technology services for the National Cattleman Beef Association in Denver, Co.

It's been a long road for Solomon's meat tenderization process, officially known as hydrodynamic pressure processing. The idea originated in the 1960's, but nobody tried to move the process toward commercialization until 1992, when Solomon began his experiments as a side project. The research gained momentum in 1997, when Solomon began to receive federal funds for his research.

The theory is simple. Shock waves from an explosion travel through water to the meat, then tear microscopic muscle fibers and tendons, making the meat more tender. The shock waves also reduce the amount of bacteria in the meat by as much as a thousand-fold.

The system would work best with lower-end cuts, which generally have less fat and more muscle, making them cheaper but tougher.

After going through the process, a cheap top-round cut would have the texture of a high-quality T-bone or strip steak. And a strip steak would have the texture of a premium filet mignon, according to Solomon.

But the theory has been difficult to carry out.

Explode and cook

Recently, at the Beltsville laboratory, Solomon and his team huddled around a large stainless-steel container that looks like a deep-sea exploration unit but only holds 54 liters of water.

They sealed meat in plastic, put it underwater and submerged a plastic bag filled with an explosive mix of fertilizer and fuel. The lid to the container was screwed on, a thick door to the tank room was closed, and the group quickly retreated. Solomon then hit a button, and the charge detonated with a stomach-rattling boom.

After a blower cleared the fumes, Solomon fished the meat out of the water and the group analyzed it for bacteria and cooked it. Tenderness was measured using a machine that calculated the force needed to bite through the steak.

The lab is full of cookware and seasonings and some of the experiment is often eaten. "Haven't had many vegetarians on the team," Solomon said.

Playing with explosives hasn't always been fun for the Beltsville researchers, who are more comfortable around microscopes.

Solomon took courses to learn about dynamite and other explosives, but some early experiments were nerve-wracking.

Occasionally, Solomon and his partners would place the meat into the container, lower the explosive charge, back away, hit the detonating device - and nothing would happen.

Someone, generally Solomon, would gingerly open the container and cut the fuse wire while the others held their breath. "No, I wasn't nervous," said Anisha M. Williams, a scientist who works with Solomon. "But I wasn't the one going in there [to defuse it]."

Field studies

The group would occasionally take the experiments into the field, putting the meat in standard garbage cans in an abandoned building on the Beltsville campus. In the first test, the quarter-stick of dynamite blew the water and meat nearly 100 feet in the air, straight through the building's roof.

"After a while, we had to have [somebody] come in and take the roof completely off," Solomon said as he walked around the battered red-brick building, littered with garbage can shells.

Solomon estimated it took him nearly two years to figure out how much explosive was needed to get the process right. Now, he rarely sets off outdoor explosives - in part because it disrupts sensitive lasers in nearby lab buildings.

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