Dem Bones

by Bill St. John

Louis Prima, the Italian-American singer and trumpeter, had an untold influence on stateside barbecue when he sang (in the 1950s song similarly titled): “Closest to the bone, sweeter is the meat.” For decades, grill masters — and chow-downers of their fare — swore that steaks taste better bone-in than bone-out.

The claims were various: that some of the inner marrow seeps through the bone into the meat, rendering it more succulent (or “sweeter,” to reprise Prima); and that the collagen wrapping the bone breaks down into its gelatinous form, also sweetening the nearby meat. Scrutiny by food scientists busted those myths, beginning with the commonsensical observation that bone itself is so dense that, in the short time given over to grilling, no marrow has either the chance to melt nor the wherewithal to migrate to the meat, nor can any collagen break down sufficiently (as it would, say, in a long-braised pork shoulder). The cold scientific upshot (aren't they all?) was that bones make no difference to the taste of a steak.

But — a-ha! — dem bones do do other things that matter to meat and that may be why grilling a steak, particularly a large steak, with a bone in or along it will make a big difference in taste.

First, though, a minor difference to consider between bone-in and bone-out steaks is that those with their bones intact hold their shape better on the intense heat of a grill. This may play a role in the esthetics of your steaks, so mind that if you so prefer.

But, given that same heat intensity, bones are key because they are heat regulators. Any meat closest to the bone will register 5-10 degrees cooler than elsewhere in the steak. That means that medium-rare steak will have rare-level meat at the bone, or medium level steak will have medium-rare at the bone, and so on.

This is significant to note especially with larger bone-in steaks, such as tomahawks or cowboy ribeyes, that each often serve more than one person. If two or three chow-downers prefer different levels of preparedness, a bone in is, as Prima noted, the sweetest choice.

Also, bones allow for one thing that, in their absence, cannot occur: the gnaw. Some chow-downers believe that the wee bits gnawed off the bone during the final minutes of the plate are the best bits of all.

Can’t get ‘em without dem bones.