By Ashley Yeager

This is the third post in a four-part, monthly series that gives readers recipes to try in their kitchens and learn a little chemistry and physics along the way. Read the first post here and the second one here.

fish checkerboard

Students grab chunks of a fish “checkerboard” made from salmon and flounder cubes. Credit: Ashley Yeager, Duke.

Braided steak and checkerboard fish may sound exotic. But, freshmen in the Chemistry and Physics of Cooking had no fear fingering the meaty masterpieces into their mouths.

The students made this food art – one literally a braid of three steak strips and the other a combination of salmon and flounder cubes – using a molecule called transglutaminase, also known as meat glue.

In 2012, the media roasted meat glue’s reputation, branding it a dirty little secret meat vendors use to stick together cheap cuts of beef, lamb, chicken or fish and then sell as premium cuts.

“In this class, we’re not using the molecule to be dishonest. We’re using it to be creative,” said physical chemist Patrick Charbonneau, who leads the freshman seminar along with chef Justine de Valicourt and teaching fellows Mary Jane Simpson and Keely Glass.

During a lecture, Glass explained how meat glue — an enzyme that speeds chemical reactions — forms covalent bonds between some of the amino acids that make up the proteins in meat and meat substitutes. With just a sprinkle of the enzyme, which comes in a powder form, chefs can then weave together beef cuts, form game-piece patterns from fish or even bind beans, seeds and other ingredients into a veggie burger that doesn’t crumble after the first bite.

“Meat glue is like a lot of modern ingredients. It comes from industry, and you can use it to make industrial food,” like chicken nuggets, de Valicourt said. “But when you master it, you can use it in a very creative and delicious way.”

Chefs often use the fundamentals of chemistry and physics to shape other foods, such as chocolate. “We’re doing the same to shape meat,” Charbonneau said, explaining that the students used transglutaminase in lab to create beautiful, and delicious, combinations of meat far superior to chicken nuggets and other industrial food typically made with the enzyme.

To make your own meat masterpieces, try the following recipe:


1 long sheet of plastic wrap OR a bowl
1 cutting board
1 knife
2 latex gloves for each person
1 mask for each person
1 meat grinder (optional)
1-3 gallon-sized Ziploc bags
1 scale


1 portion fish, chicken, beef OR vegetarian protein (ie black beans and sunflower seeds)
10 g meat glue powder (available online here)


Gluing meat chucks together –

1. Choose meats
2. Place meat on plastic wrap
3. Choose meat pattern – braid or stack
4. Season meat with salt and pepper
5. Put on gloves and mask and measure 10 g of meat glue using the scale
6. Sprinkle meat glue on sides of meat you want to connect
7. Fold meat into desired pattern
8. Place meat in Ziploc bag
9. Refrigerate for 6 hours
10. Cook meat as you would any other time

Making meat patties –

1. Choose meats, grind in meat grinder, and mix in a bowl (Or, buy ground meat and mix)
2. Season meat with salt and pepper
3. Put on gloves and mask, then measure 10 g of meat glue using the scale
4. Add meat glue to meat and knead until fully mixed
5. Separate into two portions (or more for patties) and seal each in a Ziploc bag
6. Roll with rolling pin, if desired
7. Refrigerate for 6 hours
8. Cook meat as you would any other time