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Beef 101: How to Choose the Best Beef

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Kobe beef. Photo by nWevurski.

Having beef for dinner? Beef is one of the most versatile ingredients around. Will you have a steak, roast or burger? How will you prepare it: grilled, baked, roasted, fried, marinated? Whether you consult your favorite restaurant menu, cookbook or the Internet, the possibilities are practically endless. But when it comes to the first choice you have to make—about the beef itself—what will you choose?

Beef Basics: “Regular” Beef vs. Artisanal Beef

To be clear, there are two basic choices: regular commodity feedlot beef and artisanal beef.

The vast majority of beef in the US is the first kind. The term “commodity” suggests that there is little to no differentiation in product from one cow to the next, or from one day to the next. The large packing houses, grocery chains, most restaurants, and many consumers seem to like it that way. Why? There are no surprises, and the preparation can be done by less skilled people, according to an established system or recipe. Following that scheme, the final product on your plate will be consistent—for better or worse. The driving force in this system is economics. Efficiency, consistency and predictability lead to a competitively priced final consumer product.

The term “artisanal beef” suggests quite the opposite. It suggests one portion or animal at a time, processed by a skilled craftsman who cares about the whole experience of eating a fine portion of beef in a pleasant, comfortable atmosphere. At the farm level, there’s a farmer or rancher who cares whether his cattle are comfortable, healthy and productive. At the abattoir or butcher shop is butcher who cares about each cut of meat and selecting the best way to get the maximum value from the carcass. At the chef level is a trained professional who knows how to maximize the flavor, tenderness and presentation that makes the whole dining experience memorable. And at the consumer level, there are people like you and me: someone who has a holistic appreciation for all that has gone into the meal before it’s plated and presented. There’s an appreciation and recognition of the fact that the animal has fulfilled its purpose, and that the people involved have done their very best to bring a healthy, tasty food to the table.

The Spectrum of Artisanal Beef

Artisanal beef encompasses many types of beef products, ranging from Kobe beef to grass-finished beef, to grass-fed beef. Here’s a brief overview of each of these types of beef.

Kobe Beef: True Kobe beef specifies a particular breed of cattle; it’s very expensive and full of fat from a high-carb diet.

Grass-Finished Beef: “Grass-finished” means that the cow has been brought to a stage of physical maturity and was also fed well enough and long enough that there is intramuscular fat or marbling in the meat product. Grass-finished beef will have a lot of flavor representative of region where it was produced, and the season of the year that it was harvested.

Grass-Fed Beef: “Grass-fed” is a very generic term that merely suggests that the beef cow or calf was fed grass at some point in its life. This is the most misleading term in the beef industry because it doesn’t actually specify anything. The meat product may be extra lean, gamey, and/or very good depending on the producer’s production practices. But the fact is this: all cattle are grass fed to one degree or another, except true veal calves. The stomach, or rumen, of a cow must have some grass or forage to function properly.

How to Choose the Best Beef

So in light of these confusing terms, how do you select the cleanest, healthiest, tastiest beef product? Simple: get to know your farmer. Here are a few basics to inquire about.

  • Seek sources where cattle are out in the pasture rather than eating from a feed bunk in a pen.
  • Ask about the farmer’s health practices. Does he use vaccines, antibiotics or hormones?
  • Find out whether the animals are EVER fed grain.
  • Inquire whether the animals are brought to a finished stage (preferable).
  • Visit the farm where the animals are, if possible.

In addition to these inquiries, know where your meat comes from. There is no substitute for this. In a restaurant, the menu should reference the source of the beef. If it doesn’t, kindly ask your server. Other consumer packaging is legally required to disclose certain minimal information about the source of origin.

Take the labels to your computer to seek further information. Labels that say simply, “Product of USA” mean you have a commodity in your hand. If the label references a specific farm or processor, search to see what you can find out about it. Find out whether the producer is a true artisan or if the graphics whizzes have just designed a label to make you think they are.

If you want to eat beef that’s healthy, tasty and safe, and will make for a highly satisfying dining experience, go to the source, and get to know your rancher.

Editor’s Note: Do you know where your beef comes from? Will you be checking labels from now on?

John Brady is one of a now-rare breed of farmer-ranchers who comes from an unbroken chain of family farmers going back multiple generations. He is the third generation currently farming the same land in Idaho. After earning a degree in Agronomy and a Master’s degree in Agricultural Economics, borrowing money, and participating in USDA farm commodity programs during the 1970s, he has finally overcome most of that to be a maverick in doing things the “new old-fashioned” way, working with nature to raise beef the way it was intended: on grass, legumes and forage. Watch John move cows at BradysBeef.com, read the Brady’s Beef blog and keep up to date on all things Brady’s Beef on Twitter.


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