Grass-Fed Beef: 3 Factors That Matter Most
Writing about grass-fed and grass-finished beef has been a fun and interesting experience. The fun part is getting reader feedback. The interesting part is learning about consumers’ experiences with grass-fed and grass-finished beef. Even though the focus of my most recent article was the health benefits of grass-fed beef, I got a lot of comments about the eating experience, which covered a wide range of experiences—everything from grass-fed beef is “tough as shoe leather” to noting that the flavor is “far superior” to commodity beef.
That’s why I’d like to discuss the “eatability” (not to be confused with edibility), or the eating experience associated with grass-fed or grass-finished beef. (Read about the difference between these two terms.) On my family farm, we raise grass-finished cattle, which means the animals are never fed grain or similar high-starch diets; they’re brought to a mature fattened state on forages (grass and legumes) alone. Many factors contribute to the eatability of beef, including animal stress, butchering and aging processes, storage conditions, and more. To keep it simple, this article will discuss only the three primary factors that affect the eatability of grass-fed beef: the lean-to-fat ratio, flavor, and manner of preparation.
Lean-to-Fat Ratio: Why It Matters
One common misconception is that the health benefit of grass-fed beef is due to the leanness of the beef. While it’s true that grass-fed beef can be lean, it can also be rich in fat—including essential, heart-healthy omega-3 fats. When grass-fed beef is very lean, it can be tough and dry—like shoe leather—but the culprit is usually overcooking, not the leanness of the meat.
Beef may be lean for many reasons. The breed and age of the animal, the extent of finishing, the amount of fat trimmed from the carcass, and the particular muscle group used for a particular cut are all contributing factors. Breeds such as longhorn and corriente (aka criollo) are naturally lean; they were bred for traveling long distances in dry country to forage and find water the muscle-to-weight ratio is very high. Despite the leanness of longhorn and corriente meat, the flavor can be quite good, but proper cooking methods are critical to tenderness and eatability. Angus and hereford, two of the most common cattle breeds in the US, were developed in wetter climates where traveling to find food and water was not critical. On good feed, they naturally put on more fat. Because of the fat content, cooking skill isn’t as big a factor in eatability. Common dairy cattle breeds such as holstein and jersey fall somewhere in the middle, as dairy cattle are bred so that “extra” fat ends up in the milk rather than the meat. Although it’s possible to finish a dairy animal with quite a bit of fat, it’s a fairly inefficient process compared to the common beef breeds, so much of the meat from these animals ends up as ground beef. Fat from other animals may be added to attain a certain percentage of lean meat to fat. A top quality grass-finished steak or roast will have some external fat and good internal fat or marbling.
An Array of Flavors, Not Just One
Great beef flavor is pretty subjective. Because so much of the beef that’s widely available in the US is grain-fed commodity beef, we’ve become used to a standardized product that tastes like beef—or, at least, the standard “beef flavor” that many of us have come to expect. In the world of grass-fed and grass-finished beef, however, a whole new array of flavor is possible. The animals are, in a very real sense, what they eat. The flavors you’ll find with grass-fed and finished beef will vary regionally due to forages: cool-season grasses, warm-season grasses, legumes, brush, herbs, forbs—what the animals eat makes a big difference in how the meat will taste. Seasons also affect the flavor. Even soil types and cultural practices within the same region will affect flavor of the beef. This is what makes the experience of eating grass-fed beef so interesting. As grass-fed beef becomes increasingly available, you can have a lot of fun discovering and comparing the array of natural flavors. Go to different restaurants that serve grass-fed beef and compare them that way, or source your own from farms and ranches and host a tasting party.
Note: Occasional serious problems with “off” flavor in a beef cut can often be traced to environmental factors such as animal handling and stress, or processing problems in a sub-par facility.
Preparation Matters As Much As the Meat
Grill, fry, roast, bake, broil or slow cook: how do you make the most of each style or cut of grass-finished beef? Any of these methods can work without compromising the quality of the meat, but there are a few ground rules no matter what method of preparation you choose. Follow these guidelines and you can’t fail.
1. Don’t allow the meat to dry out.
2. Don’t overcook.
3. Prefer slow cooking to fast cooking, generally speaking.
To sum it up, when it comes to grass-fed and grass-finished beef, don’t fear the fat, savor the flavor, and cook carefully. Enjoy!
Editor’s Note: Have you tried grass-finished beef? What’s your favorite preparation?