The meat of the matter: Why you should always choose 'with bone' over 'boneless'

Have you ever wondered why biryani cooked with boneless pieces of chicken or mutton tastes so vapid in comparison to one cooked with bony pieces?
Image used for representative purposes (Photo | T P Sooraj, EPS)
Image used for representative purposes (Photo | T P Sooraj, EPS)

With bone or without bone is the question. At restaurants, a common question customers are asked when ordering a meat dish is do you want it 'with bone' or 'boneless'. The query sounds innocuous and matter of fact. The menu at some places clearly specifies “boneless cubes of meat” and at others there is no option at all as they serve only deboned meats.

I always go for meat with bone whenever available. One may ask what is the fuss about? It is primarily for a practical consideration. Restaurants find frozen and packed boneless or dressed pieces of poultry and meats both economical and convenient to use. These can be stocked in large quantities for long periods in the freezer. The frozen meats have to be thawed before cooking. So to save time cooks sometimes pre-boil or part cook the meats for a quicker turnaround of orders. Often the unused portions go back into the refrigerator for use on the next day or later. Unfortunately, not all eateries have high quality freezers or follow proper hygiene standards for refrigeration. The enzymes in meats undergo chemical reactions at different levels of temperature. Even if it does not get decomposed or outright spoilt outright, there is a perceptible difference in taste and palpable change in texture.

In comparison, I have noticed, cuts with bones are not popular with restaurants. Unlike the boneless varieties that are procured from commercial suppliers in frozen state, these are usually sourced locally in small lots. As they are not pre-frozen, they are not stored in the fridge for long periods and have to be necessarily used up within a couple of days. Hence, in my reckoning, they taste better. But there is more to the matter than meat alone.

Meat is not just about muscles, tissue, fat and fibre. If that was so, it could be easily replaced by rubber or paper - which, if you ask me, is the case of mock meats. It is not without reason that meat sticks to the bone. Hence, separated it cannot taste the same. The composition of the muscles and shape of the bones vary as per the anatomy of the creature. So does the taste. Bones also impart a taste to the cooking and that is not the contribution of the marrow alone. The adhesions and fat that makes the meat stick to the bones to a large extent determines taste and indeed does the composition of the bone itself. Once separated, the taste changes. Nothing can demonstrate this better than the knuckles, trotters, hooves and shank of a sheep or goat. The marrow itself can be the hero of the dish. A classic example of this is the Muslim dish of Nihari which is cooked overnight over slow fire to absorb the taste of the marrow into the curry. The Paya is its close cousin. The more adventurous enjoy curries made with the skull of a goat - called Tauko in Nepal and Thala Kari down South.

A good roast of lamb or a Sikandari Raan is always done with bone even if the meat is carved out later. A T-Bone Steak will not be what it is unless served on the bone. Nor will pork chops or lamb ribs. In the case of all such items, it is not just the presentation but also the taste that comes only when cooked on the bone. This is clearly discernible in the case of roasts and barbeques because the light charring of the bone adds a flavour to the meat apart from imparting its juices. That will also explain why a Chicken Tandoori or Mutton Burra made in the same tandoor oven has such different characters than a Chicken Tikka or Mutton Boti grilled in it.

Have you ever wondered why biryani cooked with boneless pieces of chicken or mutton tastes so vapid in comparison to one cooked with bony pieces? The cut of the mutton is also important for biryani - which is usually taken from the shoulder and loin both for the tenderness of the mutton, the fat content and type of bones that infuse certain juices into the cooking. Similarly, only a lean cut from the thigh is used to make the authentic Pasanda kebab. That might make me stray into the area of cuts about which many of us meat eaters in India are either indifferent or blissfully unaware. There are, of course, cuts of meat that are cooked without the bone such as tenderloin or the under-cut. But that’s a different story for another day. But next time, cook curry with the same recipe in two ways. One using deboned meat and the other with bones. The difference will be clear - especially if the deboned meat was frozen. However, I would like to go back to the days - when as kids - we would fight for the “wishbone” while eating chicken curry.

As winter approaches, many stalls will pop up in old Delhi selling Nihari cooked overnight early in the morning. Some of the outlets in the Daryaganj and Jama Masjid area – such as Haji Shabrati and Kallu Nihari - are legendary. But going there at the crack of dawn is not for me. The best Nihari I have had is at Oudhiyana at Taj Lucknow. The chef was honest to admit that at a five-star restaurant he doesn’t have the luxury of slow cooking it for many hours as classic Nihari is supposed to be made. So, he does use a few short-cuts. However, when I asked him for the recipe – he diplomatically asked me to use the Shaan readymade Nihari spice mix imported from Pakistan via Dubai. Believe me it makes a great Nihari by amateur standards. Try it this winter and surprise some of your friends.

Read all food columns by Sandip Ghose here

(Sandip Ghose is an author and current affairs commentator. He tweets @SandipGhose.)

Related Stories

No stories found.

The New Indian Express