Mark Twain once noted “Sacred cows make the best hamburger,” referencing the belief that how well you treat your beef is going to determine its quality. This outlook has recently gained in popularity in the US. From “Prime” to the “grass fed” and even the “dry aged” there are a lot of ways to add value to beef. What do all of these terms mean, and why do they matter?
Do you think you could visibly assess the quality of beef just by looking at it? The USDA meat graders think that you should. They rate quality based on “Prime,” “Choice,” or “Select.” By the USDA standards “Prime” beef is from well-fed young cattle, and has abundant marbling. “Choice” is considered high quality but has less marbling than Prime. “Select” is uniform in quality but leaner than Prime or Choice. To detect these differences, the USDA will take a core section from the cow between the 12th and 13th rib, which allows them to see if the meat is speckled with white bits of fat throughout (Prime) or consisting of only red muscle (Choice).
While marbling found in the steak is prized for its flavor and ability to retain moisture, it’s not everything. There is also the technique of “dry aging,” a process that enhances an already established flavor. The meat will mature in a controlled setting, pulling away moisture and concentrating flavor. The fat will become buttery and taste of blue cheese; the meat will become increasingly tender and its beefy flavor will intensify. Together these characteristics create harmony within the beef like a fine salumi.
“Grass feeding” is another popular topic in the cattle industry. There are in fact some grey areas and complicated details to pay attention to. “Grass-fed” beef in the US only has to be accessible to a pasture of grass, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that the cows will eat it. They may receive supplemental nutrition in the form of corn, grain, or hay. I believe what most people are thinking when they hear “grass fed” beef is something that is referred to as “grass-finished,” which means that the beef’s diet is not subjected to these supplemental grains. It will be tough to find a truly “grass finished” steak packaged in your super market. You have to get out to small town farmers that pride themselves on the quality of their beef – the kind of farmers that treat the cow like one of their own family members.
This practice is becoming more and more rare, and if it is being implemented, it tends to be a watered-down version. Commercial farms have found ways to increase their beef marketing without really increasing value. Not to mention the cattle industry creates more greenhouse gas than all of transportation combined (yes that means planes, trains and automobiles). In addition to the environmental damage greenhouse gasses cause, the commercial cattle industry uses an astounding 34 trillion gallons of water in a single year (about 2500 gallons of water per 1 pound of beef), compared to the hundred billion used for the oil industry. The cattle industry is booming, but with a booming economy comes serious environmental side effects.
If you’re passionate about cooking and eating beef at home, it’s important to know where the product comes from, and to be aware of some of the intricacies of the cattle industry. When possible, supporting the small-time, local farmer that grass finishes their beef will yield the best product.
For some information on how we approach beef and animal butchery at Brimmer & Heeltap, you can read Chef Mike Whisenhunt’s thoughts on the topic here.
Author: Dallas Dziedzic
Images: Will Foster Photography