The Washington Post reports that most of what we perceive as the taste of meat is actually its aroma, and a combination of the smell of cooking meat, fat and umami is what makes meat so delicious.
The Maillard reaction occurs when carbohydrates and amino acids interact in a slightly moist, hot environment, like when meat sizzles on a hot grill. The reaction creates many chemical compounds, ranging in smell from fruity to musty, that together create the aroma of cooking meat. This reaction also occurs with other foods like baked goods and roasted coffee.
This explains why a recent taste-test with lab-grown beef smelled good as it cooked, even though it fell short in the flavor department. From an evolutionary standpoint, humans seek the aroma of the Mallaird reaction to signify that meat is safe to eat, according to one expert.
In combination with fat, which adds creamy texture and a desirable mouthfeel, and umami, a fifth taste that we naturally seek out, meat becomes a delicious and hard-to-resist food.
Image Credit: Richard Eskite Photography