Grass-Fed Beef: Splendor in the Grass

If your cardiologist has suggested changing that steak on the grill to a slab of tofu, take heart. Grass-fed beef not only tastes great, but it has a nutritional profile that would make olive oil envious.

“Isn’t all beef grass-fed?” my friend Tina asked, when I invited her over to sample some steaks. Well, sort of. The vast majority of beef that Americans consume comes from cattle that are weaned off grass while young and then fattened on grain, primarily corn, in feedlots. Before World War II, virtually all cattle ate nothing but grass. After WWII, agribusiness, aided by federal subsidies, produced huge surpluses of corn, which, through theencouragement of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, found its way into animal feed.

Today, restaurants are beginning to return to grass-fed beef for taste, health and ecological reasons. “The flank steak is dynamite. I sell twice as many hamburgers as I used to,” says Derek Davis, owner of Philadelphia’s Sonoma restaurant, where grass-fed beef is also used for a beefy osso buco, and even cheese steaks. Davis uses meat from Natural Acres in Millersburg, Pa., because “I like the way it tastes. The grass gives it a sweeter-tasting fat.”

“For me, it has a more intense, truer beef flavor. It has less of the nuttiness of prime steaks, which comes from the grain cattle eat,” says Peter Hoffman, who uses Conservation Beef from Helena, Mont., at Savoy, his restaurant in New York.

The grass-fed beef movement began in earnest at a 1999 conference of 500 ranchers in Dallas. “It was the first time anyone had gathered all the information on grass-fed animals and their benefits,” said Jo Robinson, who lectured at the conference and is the author of Why Grassfed Is Best! and The Omega Diet.

Robinson told the ranchers that grass-fed beef has four advantages. Cattle benefit because as ruminants they are biologically designed to eat only forage; feedlot cattle are usually given antibiotics because they cannot tolerate eating only grain. Second, the environment also benefits because manure from grazing animals naturally fertilizes grass; on the other hand, grain produced for cattle feed requires petrochemical fertilizers. Third, small regional farms, where the vast majority of grass-fed cattle are raised, foster employment more so than do the large, mechanized producers.

Then there is the health aspect. The amount of fat in grass-fed beef is about half that of grain-fed beef. Grass-fed animals also provide heart-healthful Omega 3 fatty acids (grain-fed animals don’t) and significant amounts of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a potent anti-cancer agent. And grass-fed animals produce less of the potentially harmful e-coli.

While many acknowledge the environmental and health advantages of grass-fed beef, not everyone agrees about the taste. Steve Johnson, chef and owner of the Blue Room in Cambridge, Mass., has conducted grass-fed beef tastings with meat from the New England Livestock Alliance, a cooperative of farms from Virginia to Maine. “My general impression over the years is that it doesn’t quite have the texture or flavor of grain-fed,” he says. “It’s leaner and slightly chewy. It’s not quite as rich because it doesn’t have that self-basting fat.”

Allan Nation, editor of The Stockman Grass Farmer, which goes to some 1,100 grass-fed meat producers, recognizes that grass-fed beef is still evolving. “Most people didn’t start in the business until four years ago. There’s still a steep learning curve,” he says. “We have to re-create skills that people have totally lost.”

One of the most important things to learn is what breed to use. Feedlot animals are typically chosen more for their large frames, which can carry a lot of weight, than for the flavor of their meat. However, feedlot breeds do not fatten as well on grass as the shorter, stockier English breeds such as Angus, Hereford, and shorthorn, which are bred for taste, not size. While many grass-fed cattle producers experiment with the best genetics for texture and flavor, they test for tenderness with ultrasound equipment.

According to the USDA, tenderness is a function of internal fat or marbling, which is why its highest grade, prime, goes to beef with the most marbling, and why few grass-fed animals meet the criteria. The USDA also downgrades grass-fed animals because of their yellowish fat–from the beta-carotene in grass–and advanced age. Grass-fed animals take longer to fatten. The USDA does not have a separate standard for grass-fed beef as they do for prime or choice beef. Grass-fed beef is lumped in with grain-fed beef and is therefore often downgraded because the grading system is skewed towards grain fed beef.

Some producers try to hedge their bets by feeding animals a limited amount of grain. Sunnyside Farms in Washington, Va., feeds organic corn, oats and other grains, in addition to organic grass, to Wagyu (a Japanese breed) and Angus cattle. “If we go 100 percent grain-fed, the animal gets sick. If we only use grass-fed, the meat is too one-dimensional. A marriage in the middle is the best of both,” says Steven Damato, a partner in Restaurant Nora in Washington, D.C., which uses Sunnyside’s Angus beef. Natural Acres also gives its cattle a small amount of spelt (less than 10 percent of the overall diet). According to Robinson, however, even a small amount of grain disrupts the CLA benefits. Omega 3 diminishes gradually as more grain is used.

I tasted New York strip steaks and filet mignons from six grass-fed beef producers. My two favorites came from Australia and Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania beef, from Natural Acres, was also organic, meaning that the feed was free from pesticides and artificial fertilizers and the animals weren’t given hormones or antibiotics. The strip steak was delicious, rich and full-flavored, but without the excessive fattiness on the finish in some prime beef. The filet mignon was perhaps even more impressive, given the fact that this cut is generally chosen for tenderness, not flavor.

The Aussie beef, sold by D’Artagnan, a specialty meat company in Newark, N.J., comes mainly from South Australia. “The temperate climate means that the cattle can graze on green grass all year long, which gives the meat a more vibrant, more complex flavor, as opposed to other places where the cattle have to eat dried grass,” says D’Artagnan co-owner George Faison. “It’s like the difference between dried thyme and fresh thyme.” In taste and tenderness, the Aussie strip steak was similar to a grain-fed prime steak.

A Wagyu strip steak (called Virginia Kobe) from Sunnyside Farms was a solid number three. It had just enough of that nutty, buttery quality of grain-fed beef, though the filet mignon was rather flabby. The remaining three producers (in descending order of preference) were Napa Free-Range Beef, Conservation Beef and the New England Livestock Alliance. The Napa strip steaks had a slightly gamy flavor, which I liked, but I found the texture a bit chalky. Though the Conservation Beef strip had good beefy flavor, it was not especially tender and downright gristly in places. Its filet was quite tasty. While the New England Livestock Alliance filet (from Little Alaska Farms in Maine) also had good flavor, it had a dry texture. The strip was rather bland.
The leanness of grass-fed steaks means that a bit more care is needed when cooking. Steaks cooked beyond medium-rare start to become chewy and dry out sooner than more marbled beef.

While big red wines are natural partners for beef, I think grass-fed beef is more versatile with wine than grain-fed beef because it has elements of game. Thus, Barbaresco and Amarone are good matches. I also found that the earthy quality of an Argentinean Malbec and the mature flavors of a 1994 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon went well with the beef.

Prices for grass-fed beef are equal to or less than grain-fed beef of similar quality.  Though availability of grass-fed beef can be difficult, the good news is that July through December is the best time to get it in many parts of the country. Though mail order is increasing, most meat is sold directly at the farm or at farmers markets. So fire up those grills and invite your cardiologist over for dinner.

How to Get It

  • Conservation Beef, Helena, Mont., (877) 749-7177, www.conservationbeef.com
  • D’Artagnan, Newark, N.J., (800) 327-8246, www.dartagnan.com (Australian beef; whole strip loin (about 9 pounds) and whole tenderloin, (about 5 pounds)
  • www.eatwild.com (lists grass-fed producers across the country)
  • La Cense Beef, Dillon, MT, 1-866-442-2333, www.lacensebeef.com
  • Napa Free-Range Beef, St. Helena, Calif., (707) 963-8784, www.napafreerangebeef.com
  • Natural Acres, Millersburg, Pa. (717)-692 1000, naturalacres@PA.net, www.naturalacres.com
  • New England Livestock Alliance, Hardwick, Mass. (413) 477-6200, www.nelivestockalliance.org
  • Sunnyside Farms, Washington, Va., (540) 675-3636, www.sunnysidefarmmarket.com

Addendum: Since this story was written, Lobel’s, one of America’s premier meat purveyors, has started marketing grass-fed beef. I tried one of Lobel’s filets and found it firmer than usual for this cut with good, though not remarkable, flavor. Lobel’s, New York, NY, 877-783-4512. www.lobels.com

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