|Achieving Culinary Success With Grass-Fed Beef|
|Written by Katherine Czapp|
|Friday, 03 April 2009 17:36|
Cattle raised and finished on pasture represent a tiny proportion of the beef produced for the table in the United States. Most grassfed beef producers are family farmers who sell their meat directly to customers, consumers who prefer grass-fed animal products for health and taste reasons (not to mention environmental and animal welfare concerns) that are obvious when 100 percent cattle pasturing is compared to the industrial, confinement feedlot model.
A Challenge for the Cook
As far as the cook is concerned, however, grassfed beef requires understanding another facet of the art of cooking, since by its very nature grassfed beef does not reflect the same standards of uniform production protocols that commercial feedlots strive to create. The industrial model of beef production favors only certain cattle breeds (such as modern Angus and Hereford) that will produce a lot of meat on a compact body in as short a period of time as possible, on the least amount of feed necessaryâthat is, as cheaply as possible. The subtle qualities of that meatâsuch as the development of complex flavors or its health benefitsâare overlooked. The industry requires only that its product taste âbeefy,â and that as a result of enforced immobility and the short life of the animal it is tender and suitable for mostly quick, high-heat cooking methods.
By contrast, there is quite a wide range of variety in grassfed beef, which is noticeable from farm to farm. Broader diversity in any food category means more choice for the diner, something we can be ever thankful for. This variety is in part due to differences in the cattle breeds, and in particular to the genetics of the cattle on each farm. While certain breeds are more suited for meat production, such as the older Angus stock and some of the heritage breeds like the Galloways, Highlands and Devons, a knowledgeable farmer with a good eye who raises a few beef just for the family and some neighbors can nevertheless choose a properly proportioned Holstein or Jersey from his dairy stock and raise an animal with exceptional meat qualities. It all depends on the care of the well-chosen animal for this purpose.
Forage will also have a great influence on the flavor of the meat, and will produce âstrongerâ tasting meat than beef produced from a concentrated grain diet thanks to the influences of the odorous constituents, reactive polyunsaturated fatty acids and chlorophyll in the variety of forage plants. The cowâs rumen transforms these elements into terpenesâchemicals related to compounds in herbs and spicesâwhich subtly flavor the meat and fat, especially in a mature animal.
Cattle on pasture will naturally take longer to âfinishââthat is, complete growth with adequate intramuscular fat (marbling) and reach the stage for slaughterâwhich may be from 18 to 30 months (or even more) as compared to as young as 12 to 18 months on average for feedlot animals. Pastured animals will be exercised animals, and therefore generally leaner and with âtougherâ meat because of the greater diameter in muscle fibers and amount of connective tissue their exercise induces their bodies to create. This meat also has the very desirable characteristics of juiciness and deep flavor. As Harold McGee sums up in On Food and Cooking: âFull-flavored meat comes from animals that have led a full life. . . Life intensifies flavor, and modern meat animals are living less and less.â
Animals raised in confinement are generally slaughtered before reaching adulthood, when muscle growth slows down (and intramuscular fat starts accumulating at a greater rate). The rapid growth of immature animals coupled with little exercise means connective tissue is continually being broken down and restructured, rather than developing into strong cross-links and sheaths as it does in a mature, active animal grazing on pasture. Rapid growth also means a high level of protein-digesting enzymes is present in the muscles of immature animals, which after slaughter help to tenderize their meat and actually reduce the need for much of an aging process. Shortening the time spent on any aspect of the beef production model is of course music to ears of the industry. The resulting feedlot meat may be yielding, but still fairly lean (young grain-fattened animals will put down a thicker outer coating of fat rather than intramuscularly), not be necessarily juicy, and with a mild flavor in need of saucing.
In other beef-eating countries, however, traditional tastes have been different. âAccording to a standard French handbook, Technologie Culinaire (1995),â states Harold McGee in On Cooking, âthe meat of an animal less than two years old is âcompletely insipid,â while meat âat the summit of qualityâ comes from a steer three or four years old.â
Two Types of Meat
For centuries, people have eaten mature, tough, well-flavored meatâoften from draft or dairy animals at the end of productive livesâand created long-cooking, moist, low-heat methods to prepare it. Also for centuries, people have raised animals specifically for the luxury of roasting a tender piece of meat from a young, specially fattened animal spared the usual work of the farmstead. These two methods of meat production and preparation existed side by side until about the time of the Industrial Revolution when draft animals eventually became obsolete, the rise in urban populations led to greater demands for meat, and a mass-scale, centralized means to provide it was developed. Mass production favors immature animals because of its economies of scaleâthe imperative is to produce the most meat at minimum cost. Commercially raised beef in the U.S. for the last several decades has sacrificed flavor and texture, as well as many important health bonuses, for the specious goal of âgreater efficiencyâ that concentrated grainfeeding appears to provide.
The Tenderness Controversy
What creates tenderness in beef and what makes meat tough? Weâve mentioned some of the contributing factors, such as breed, type of forage, exercise and age of the animal. There is also the long-held belief that fat marbling is essential for tenderness, but visible marbling may actually account for a much smaller variation in meat tendernessâas little as 10 percent in some food science estimationsâand is not necessarily the best predictor of meat quality. More important factors affecting the tenderness of meat concern the complex interplay of factors that occur around the time of slaughter, and include stress before and at the time of killing, and how the meat is handled after slaughter (the aging process).
Even the tenderest cuts on an animal can end up tough due to stress at the time of slaughter. The most humane methods of slaughter will, fortunately, produce the best results in the meat. Why this is so depends upon understanding the relationship of glycogen and lactic acid to pH decline (rise in acidity) in meat after slaughter. An animal that has not been stressed will have normal levels of stored energy, or glycogen in its body. When the animal is slaughtered and bled, the metabolic processes continue for a time, however there is no longer circulating oxygen. Without the presence of oxygen, the breakdown of glycogen/glucose results in a buildup of lactic acid which then causes a rise in the acidity of the meat. This acidity normally helps retard growth of microorganisms after slaughter, and sets the stage for the aging process to begin properly.
If, on the other hand, the animal has used up its glycogen stores before slaughter because of the trauma of physical crowding, transport stress, rough handling or fear, the pH in the meat may not drop quickly enough after slaughter because not enough lactic acid can be produced. In this case the meat will be very dry, tough and dark in color, and will be more susceptible to spoiling and contamination.
Influence of Aging
Very rapid chilling immediately after slaughter causes the muscle fibers to shorten. These tightly contracted muscle bundles resist stretching in the hanging carcass and produce tough meat. In Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal, Joel Salatin explains why U.S. government regulations on post-slaughter carcass temperatures are ruining artisan beef production: âWhen a steer is slaughtered, the muscle tissue releases an enzyme called calpain. This enzyme keeps the fibers from shrinking, or tightening, and instead makes them relax. Activated by calcium and only viable in ambient room temperature, this enzyme works for only a couple of hours after an animal dies. But if the fibers get cold, it shuts down. One of the biggest problems in the grass-finished beef business is tough tissue, which many experts have blamed on insufficient intramuscular fat, or marbling.
âYet hunters know that very lean venison and elk is tender, with virtually no intramuscular fat. Whatâs the difference? The difference is that wild game usually stays out at ambient temperature for hours before being chilled. By the time the hunter. . . gets it to refrigeration, the meat has been out for hours, allowing calpain its maximum tenderizing function.
âUnder government inspection, however, the regulations require [that] the carcasses must be in the chill room blasted by frigid air within one hour of slaughter. An animal that doesnât comply is automatically discarded. . . When one of my grass-finished animals is shoved into a chill room next to one of these [feedlot] fat carcasses, the internal temperature will drop much faster than the next door neighbor with a 200-pound coat of fat. As a result. . . the regulations inherently chill the leaner pasture-finished carcasses down. . . too fast. The faster cooling deactivates the calpain, which stops the tissue relaxation, which creates tough meat.â
Proper Aging Techniques
In Kitchen Mysteries, HervĂ© Thisâs summary of the meat tenderizing process is brief but accurate: âVery fresh meat is tender, but fresh meat is tough; gradually it becomes tender again, then it rots.â For a short period after beef is slaughtered, the meat can immediately be cut and cooked and will be especially tender. This span of time lasts perhaps two and a half hours, after which the carcass is hung and rigor mortis (the contracting of muscle fibers) sets in, the effects of which will be exacerbated by excess chilling just mentioned. However, going through normal rigor improves meat quality in several ways. The meat texture is firmed up, and the water-holding ability of the meat proteins is enhanced, producing juicier meat.
The flavor and texture of meat benefit greatly from aging after rigor. The proper aging of meat is the work of the endogenous enzymes in the muscles as they break down large molecules into smaller, flavorful fragments. The enzymes need time (two to six weeks, depending on the age of the animal) and temperatures between 34 and 40Â°F. Nineteenth century meat was aged at room temperature for a period of days to weeks until the outer portion was indeed rotten, in a process the French called mortification.
Meat aging that exposes the carcass to the air (these days temperature- and humidity-controlled) is called dry aging, and in spite of the tremendous contribution that the process confers upon meat quality, the modern meat industry generally avoids it as not cost effective, of course. Trained butchers must monitor the dry-aging process; the meat will lose moisture and weight as it ages and must be carefully trimmed of dried, sometimes moldy or rancid surfaces. The result of proper dry aging, however, is an intensely meaty, buttery or nutty flavor and tender tissue, even from older animals. Farmers who sell grass- finished beef and who are able to fully control the processing of their beef can provide meat that has been properly aged and therefore tender and flavorful.
When meat is aged at all in the commercial industry, a process called wet aging is used, in which the meat is sealed in Cryovac (plastic), and protected from oxygen. It loses no moisture or weight, does not require the skill of a knowledgeable butcher to monitor the process, and while enzymes create some tenderness, the flavor does not develop as in slow, dry aging techniques.
Aging Meat in Your Kitchen
You can continue the aging process of meat at home in order to enhance its tenderness and flavor. In Cookwise, Shirley Corriher recommends this method: âPlace the unwrapped meat on a rack over a dish that is lined with a paper towel and leave uncovered 2 to 7 days in your refrigerator, which is between 36Â° and 40Â° F. [The meat] will turn dark and the surface will dry out. When you are ready to cook, cut away the dried surface area.â I would emphasize that this method will work best with a relatively large piece of meat, such as a roast. Thinner cuts such as steaks would dry out too much unless loosely covered, or consider using a marinade or herb paste.
Marinades of Herb Pastes
There is quite a bit of debate about how marinades work to tenderize meat, or even if they can achieve that goal at all. The theoryâthat acidic ingredients in the marinade break down collagen prior to cookingâhas been shown to be only nominally true. Marinades tend to penetrate only a few millimeters into the meat and over marinating produces a gray and mushy (not tender) meat exterior. However, marinades have been used for centuries to prepare meat for cooking, and traditional ingredients have been acidic liquids such as wine, beer, vinegar, kvas, and cultured milk, with the addition of aromatic herbs that also contain antibiotic oils, such as thyme, marjoram, rosemary, oregano, and garlic and onions. It has been my suspicion that the marinade, while imparting marvelous flavors, really provides a safe environment for the meat to continue its natural aging process.
HervĂ© This, in Kitchen Mysteries, agrees: âVinegar is an acid that attacks the connective tissue and breaks it down. That is one reason it was thought that the meat gets tender, but not the only reason. From our laboratory experiments, we concluded that meat becomes tender in a marinade because, while it is protected from putrefaction, the muscular fibers age and protein aggregates are slowly dissociated, just as when butchers age meat in their special refrigerators.â
A way to enhance the power of the marinade as a safe aging medium is to be sure to allow enough time for the meat to age in the marinade if keeping the meat in the refrigerator. You can also boost the enzyme activity by marinating at room temperature. A roast can marinate a couple of days in the refrigerator, for example, but take it out the night before the day youâll cook it and let it marinate at room temperature for that final period. Most meat-aging enzymes will start to denature and lose activity between about 105Â° and 122Â°F, but will work faster the closer they come to that range. This means that aging enzymes will also be working as the meat slowly heats up during the cooking itself.
In the case of steaks and thinner cuts of meat, I utilize an herb paste for the same purposeâto allow the meat to age further while slathered with aromatic herbs and raw olive oil. My method for two rib steaks (about 7 -8 ounces each) is to pound 6-7 cloves of garlic in a mortar with fresh thyme, marjoram, pepper corns, a dab of coarse prepared mustard, and a couple of tablespoons of raw olive oil to achieve a paste the consistency of thick mayonnaise. I coat the steaks with this herb paste, cover loosely and refrigerate for 24 to 48 hours. Not only the refrigerator, but your whole kitchen will smell of this wonderful concoction, which is part of the pleasure. I let the steaks finish marinating at room temperature for about eight hours before cooking them over a wood fire. Many home experiments have proved that the herb paste application produces more tender steaks than meat merely thawed in the refrigerator overnight and promptly cooked the next day.
Keys to Preparing Grassfed Beef
There are a few basic principles to keep in mind when preparing grassfed beef, and these are primarily dependent upon how long or how well the meat has been aged, the fat content of the meat, and the type of muscle you will be cooking. The cook can decide whether to age the meat further in the kitchen, or to employ a mechanical means to tenderize the meat (more about this later on). Since fat is an insulator and most grassfed beef is fairly lean, the meat will cook more quickly than âconventionalâ beef almost regardless of the cut, and one must always be aware of this limiting factor. Also, depending on the animal and the age when it was finished, cuts from different animals can vary quite a bit in size, which will of course change their cooking requirements. This means it is less important for you to try to time your recipes than to carefully check on the meatâs progress by monitoring its internal temperature and know when to halt the cooking process. Purchasing a good quality meat thermometer is an excellent way to improve your outcome as you learn just how quickly meats can reach doneness.
An internal temperature of 120Â° is rare; 125Â°-130Â°F medium rareâand most grassfed beef will taste best and be at its juiciest and most tender when cooked to no more than rare or medium rare. Be aware, too, that meat continues to cook even when removed from the heat source. It is wise to stop the cooking just short (10Â° or so) of your desired temperature.
It will help to become accustomed to using lower oven and stovetop temperatures. A matter of a few degrees and a minute or two can mean the difference between perfectly juicy, tender meat and a dried out, cardboard-like failure for dry heat methods. Very low temperatures used in moist-heat methods give you more leeway, but careful monitoring is still the watchword.
Learn where cuts come from on the animal. Useful charts can be found in numerous cookbooks to help you understand what sort of muscle meat you have and which method (dry or moist heat) will produce the most satisfactory results. If you can imagine a steer grazing on pasture in your mindâs eye, you will see that the parts of the body doing the most work are the neck, shoulders and legs. Chuck, shoulder and blade cuts come from the shoulder portion and are tough as they contain quite a bit of connective tissue that must be cooked long enough to dissolve into gelatin. This is also true for the arm, shank and brisket cuts. All of these cuts will benefit from moistheat cooking methods, such as gentle stewing, braising and pot roasting.
The parts that ârideâ the steer and do the least amount of work are the ribs along the back and the loin area, and represent a limited amount of such tender meat on each animal. Prime rib or rib steaks are cut from this portion, with loin, tenderloin and T-bone cuts following along the back. Dry-heat methods such as frying, broiling or grilling can be used with these cuts, again, always with an eye for the light touch. Sirloin cuts come from the edge of the loin cuts just before the rump, where round, leg and rump cuts are found. These cuts will require careful preparation because even though they contain less connective tissue than the beef shoulder, they also contain less intramuscular fat, and so will be less succulent than properly prepared shoulder cuts.
Recipe: Super-Slow-Roasted Beef
This recipe for Super-Slow-Roasted Beef from Shannon Hayesâs Grassfed Gourmet is an excellent example of careful use of heat to produce a succulent result. Note that the long time spent at very low temperatures means that the aging enzymes in the meat will be working their magic in tenderizing the meat for several hours. I include her useful prefatory comments: âNothing beats super-slow roasting for turning even the toughest cuts of meat into wonderful roasts. No matter how lean your roast may be, this technique ensures a beautiful cut of beef that is juicy, pink in the center, and absolutely delicious. And the best part is that overcooking the beef is just about impossible. The meat insulates itself: super-slow roasting dries the outside of the roast and locks in the moisture, enabling the meat to cook in its own juice. The flavor will be extra beefy, but be patient. Super-slow roasting takes a long time. Servings vary, depending on the size of the roast.
Besides kitchen-aging of meat, use of marinades and slow, low heat cooking methods, there is also the mechanical approach to tenderizing meat. This includes pounding meat with a meat hammer, using a larding needle, and using a blade-type tenderizer. Pounding beef briefly, taking care not to cause loss of juices or flattening too much, can be done prior to marinating to help with tissue breakdown.
Larding needles used to be typical kitchen hardware from the time when lean, economical cuts of beef were supplemented with strips of lard or other pork fat products in slow cooked dishes. Piercing the meat with the larding needle itself helps to break apart connective tissue, while the fat insulates lean meat and lubricates and coats it during cooking, adding extra flavor to the meat juices.
Blade-type tenderizers are sometimes recommended by farmers selling grass-finished beef as a means to sever the connective tissue in all sorts of cuts, from steaks to roasts. The Jaccard meat tenderizer is one of these devices, and touted as âthe secretâ behind the tender steaks at upscale restaurants, where, presumably, the âPrimeâ beef of the nation ends up. The principle of tenderizing is simple: numerous razor-sharp blades are pressed into the meat against the grain to cut the connective tissue into small sections that will yield to the bite.
Honing A Culinary Art
Producing and preparing grass-finished beef seems to be a continuous learning experience for all those who choose to participate in this adventure. Like anything that is done well, superior results come from constant investigation, trial and error, and keen attention to the details. We can be grateful to the passionate farmers who enrich our lives with nutritious food. Our reward is in the eating!
The Importance of Fat
When we chew a piece of meat, we perceive it to be tender often based on the presence of fat. Marbling of meat means that the muscle fibers and connective tissue are interrupted by fat cells, which help to weaken the tougher structures. As it cooks, fat melts and lubricates other tissues (which alone tend to dry and stiffen) and individual muscle fibers are pleasingly, unctuously coated. Without a lot of fat, even tender meats (those without connective tissue) can easily shrink, dry out and become tough, making a very finicky meat for the cook to handle properly.
Many farmers raising grass-finished beef are proud of the fact that their meat is so lean, perhaps partially because they, too, fear saturated fat and believe less of it in their animals is a good thing. (The argument that grass-fed beef is better because it contains more omega-3 fatty acids is bogusâcows are ruminants, designed to turn unsaturated fatty acids into saturated fats, and the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in the fat of both grain-fed and grass-fed beef is very small.) It is the ample presence of saturated fats that contributes to the satisfying taste of beef. Fat can compensate, to some degree, for a shortened aging process by contributing that unctuous coating around meat fibers, and as it insulates the meat, is more forgiving to the cookâs recipes and higher temperatures.
Shannon Hayes, in The Grassfed Gourmet discusses fat and weight gain in grass-finished beef: âFor the meat of beef animals to be tender, they must gain weight at a rate of one to two pounds per day before theyâre processed. (In feedlots, a typical gain is three pounds per day.) If the rate of gain is less, the meat will be tough.â She then emphasizes that the cattle must be on lush fields with grass no taller than 6-10 inches. âIf the grass is higher than that, then it has probably gone to seed. Once this happens, the energy has gone into the lignan (the woodier plant tissue), and the cattle can no longer digest it efficiently. . . When pastures are overgrown, the animals will eat only enough to surviveâthey will not eat to gain weight.â
In what could not be more stark contrast, Joel Salatin recently published an article in the May, 2008 issue of Acres, USA called âTall Grass Mob Stockingâ that directly contradicts this approach. By his own admission, Salatin had long proclaimed the same recipe for grassfeeding that Hayes describes above. . . until unexpected events showed him otherwise.
When delays prevented Salatin from moving his cattle onto a neighboring farm for grazing until summer, it was nearly September before the herd reached the last fields in their grazing rotations. Late season, rank and over grown, âit looked like a wreck from a conventional grazing mindset.â Expecting the cattle to reject the browning grasses that had gone to seed, Salatin was stunned to see them mow down everything in sightâwhat they didnât eat was trampled into the soil surface. To Salatinâs great surprise, âThe animals looked extraordinarily fat. They possessed a bloom that we were unaccustomed to. We expected them to fall apart. . . What we got instead was a remarkable performance from the stock and a landscape change nothing short of miraculous.â The key to the cowsâ performance lies in bovine dietary requirements: â. . . bovines need starch more than protein. After all, these are walking fermentation vats, and fermentation thrives on sugar. . . Young, vegetative, succulent grass blades are high in protein and low in carbohydrates, or energy. We follow that principle carefully in selecting corn maturity for good silage fermentation, but generally throw the same concept out the window when it comes to harvesting our forages at their energy peak. That is why I like the corn parallel. It shows easily and graphically the disconnect between how we harvest corn and how we harvest grass for maximum energy. The goal is the same. Both are feeding a fermentation process; one inside the cow and the other outside.â
Autumn is the time to harvest grass-finished beefâthis is the lesson we can learn from Salatinâs experience and from the tradition of native peoples who hunted bison on this continent. As summer turns to fall the animalsâ natural feeding selection is maturing grasses going to seed, and is the key to the laying down of fatâdelicious, satisfying fatâfor the winter.
Getting the Fat Back Into Grass-Fed Beef
One of the most unfortunate beliefs among proponents of grassfed beef is the notion that grass-fed beef is good because it is lean. Many a consumer has bitten into a lean grass-fed steak or hamburger with great anticipation, only to be sworn off beef altogether because this so-called healthy beef is dry and tasteless.
Many of the benefits of grass-feeding are concentrated in the fat, including fat-soluble vitamins, CLA and minerals. The fat of grass-fed beef is actually more saturated than the fat of grain-fed animals, and this is a good thing, because saturated fat supports a myriad of biochemical processes in the body. After all, if we are imitating the practices of Native Americans, we should surely honor their one food-combining rule: they never ate lean meat. Native Americans hunted fat animals preferentially and saved all the fat from the back, hump and cavity, often throwing excess lean meat away.
Here are some pointers for getting nutritious fat back into grass-fed beef:
Juicy Ground Beef Tips
Ideally, ground beef tastes best with at least 30 percent fat added in during processing and is worth insisting on when ordering beef from your grass farmer. When working with very lean grassfed ground beef, however, its leanness can be supplemented by lovely rich ingredients in a meat loaf, for example, such as eggs, cream and even anchovies. But if you just want a juicy burger, there are ways to produce a real winner. First, if your meat is frozen, thaw it slowly in the refrigerator rather than taking it out of the freezer an hour before mealtime and plunking it in a pan of water to thaw. The ice crystals in frozen meat pierce the tissues, and in the case of lean meat, juices will leak out making the meat even drier. Meat that is thawed slowly in the refrigerator will retain more juices in the meat.
I bring the meat close to room temperature before I cook itâquite against the standard rules of hygieneâbut my aim is to have the meat spend as little time in the frying pan as possible while deliciously browning the outside of the meat and keeping the center rare, but not cold. I season my ground beef very simply with salt and pepper and garlic all pounded into a paste that I mix into the meat by hand. My favorite fat for sautĂ©ing ground beef is a mixture of 90 percent tallow with 10 percent beef stockâI keep a supply in the freezer. I heat a heavy cast iron pan to medium-high and add the fatâenough to create a small pool. When it is hot, I add the patties and allow them to brown nicely on the bottomâabout a minuteâand turn to brown the other side. Frequent turning of the meat cooks the outside nicelyâand quite quickly. I turn down the heat to low, turn the patties a few more times and immediately take off the heat and serve. The outside is browned and a bit crusty and glistening from the tasty tallow/stock mixture and the inside is rare and wonderfully juicy.
Earlier this spring a grass farmer we know decided to home-slaughter a few sheep that were six or seven years old. After butchering, the farmer hung the mutton for about 10 days, and then double-ground the meat himself, adding in fat until it âlooked rightâ to his eye. He almost bashfully offered the âground lambâ for us to try, commenting that he thought it was better than the ground beef from his steers that the processing plant made. This muttonâfrom elderly animalsâwas succulent, well-flavored and absolutely deliciousâcompletely due to the fact that our farmer controlled every step of the processingâfrom the aging period to the addition of fat to the meat, proving it is entirely possible to have well-flavored, juicy and fat grass-finished ground meat.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2008.
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|Last Updated on Thursday, 09 April 2009 15:18|