A favourite cut of chefs and butchers, a thick bone-in rib-eye or tomahawk makes for an impressive presentation when it hits the table. These meaty masterpieces are often served feasting style, sliced on a board for sharing – and plenty of photo ops. But is there more to the bone than its good looks?

There’s a theory that steak, when cooked on the bone, tastes better than its boneless counterpart. Bone-in advocates suggest that the rich flavours of the marrow seep their way into the meat during the cooking process, thus enhancing the flavour and juiciness of the steak. But others say cow bones are just too thick for the marrow to transfer into the steak and impact the flavour of the meat.

So what’s the answer?

The anatomy of bones

Before we can decide whether bones make meat better, let’s first break down what’s inside. There are three main components to bones: the connective tissue and fat, the bone marrow and the bone material itself.

The bone material is hard and calcified, and does not contribute anything towards the flavour of the meat. The marrow, which has become somewhat of a restaurant trend over the past few years, is the soft, spongy tissue found inside the bone cavity. When extracted correctly*, it can be an enjoyable culinary experience that has a rich, creamy and buttery taste.

Surrounding the bones are the membranes of connective tissue and fat. This tissue is mostly made up of collagen that, when heated, becomes quite tender and gelatinous. You’ve probably heard that “fat means flavour”, and that is certainly true if you enjoy gnawing on the fatty ends of a rib bone.

Cooking methods matter

Bones do not dissolve or melt while cooking. When you break down beef bones to make a stock, for example, the bones must first be cracked for the flavour of the marrow to actually permeate the bone.

*Marrow cannot be extracted from a quick, high-heat cooking method such as grilling. As the bones are impermeable, very little marrow can escape during a dry cooking process. But in wet cooking methods where the meat is submerged in liquid for hours, the marrow and connective tissue has a chance to break down. This is why dishes like osso bucco or shanks lend themselves best to slow cooking, where the braising liquid helps to extract the marrow and impact the flavour of the meat.

Bone-in vs bone-out

So which is better? For this, we turned to Serious Eats’ Food Lab, who ran an experiment cooking four identical rib-eyes: the first was cooked on the bone, the second was cooked with the bone removed but tied onto the steak during cooking, the third was cooked with the bone removed but with a piece of aluminium foil between the bone and the meat, and the fourth one was cooked completely off the bone.

The results showed there was no distinguishable difference between the first three steaks. However the fourth steak, cooked off the bone, was slightly tougher around the region where the bone used to be. This debunked the theory that bones transfer their flavour directly onto the meat.

What the bone actually does

Even though the bone does not impart flavours into the meat, it still has an important role to play. The bone acts as an insulator during cooking, which means the closest meat stays slightly cooler than if it were cooked off the bone. The bone effectively slows the transfer of heat onto the meat, allowing the steak to retain its moisture and juiciness – thus giving the impression that the bone transfers moisture onto the meat.

The bone is also an important part of the dry aging process, acting like a shield to protect the meat from rotting. All high quality dry aged beef will have the bone attached.

So which is better, bone-in or boneless?

The answer lies in how you prefer your steak cooked. Those who enjoy a medium to well-done steak will probably find the flavour of the meat closest to the bone juicy and tender. Those who prefer their steak on the rare to medium side of the grill might find the meat closest to the bone too chewy.

If you are a fan of a nice crispy, crunchy char and browning on your steak, choosing a bone-in steak might make it harder to achieve an even crust. A bone-in steak will also take longer to cook, however the chances of overcooking a bone-in steak are not as high because the meat takes longer to come to temperature. For best results invest in a meat thermometer – and always insert it away from the bone.

Another consideration is the cost. When you buy steaks by weight remember that you are also paying for the bone weight, so if presentation is not important to you just go with a thick cut boneless rib-eye.

Want to learn more? Here are a few recipes to get your started:

Bakehouse Steakhouse’s T-Bone with Cafe De Paris Butter
Wood-fired Bone Marrow with Chimichurri, caramelised onion and herb crumb
T-Bone Steak with Roast Capsicum Salsa and Quinoa Salad