Have you had a chance to read the April issue of Smithsonian yet? I recommend "Breeding the Perfect Bull," a wonderfully written feature by Jeanne Marie Laskas about a family of cattle ranchers in Texas. Judging from readers' response, she really captured the flavor of the modern cowboy's lifestyle, as well as explaining the scientific and practical details of breeding cattle.
There was one sentence in it that puzzled me, though: "All cows eat grass."
I paused when I read this. It unsettled me somehow, and not just because it was the mnemonic device we learned in high school band to interpret the bass clef.
I've heard a lot about grass-fed beef lately, and how it's healthier and tastier than cattle fattened in a feedlot on corn and who knows what else. But if Laskas is right—and she is; though it may be only as calves, all cows eat some grass—does the term "grass-fed" really mean anything?
I called Carrie Oliver, founder of the Artisan Beef Institute, to see if she could shed some light on this and other terms consumers might run across when buying beef. Turns out, I know next to nothing about beef—which, given my recent tale of stumbling into vegetarianism, probably doesn't surprise you! (For the record, I'm not vegetarian anymore. But I generally don't eat meat unless I know where, and how, it was raised.)
She dispelled my first misconception even before we spoke, with the tagline on her Web site: Psst! It's not about the marbling! So, I asked, what is it about? What should consumers be looking for on labels?
Oliver uses the term "artisan" to describe meat from suppliers who are focused on raising flavorful food, rather than trying to produce "as much, as cheaply and as uniformly as possible," she says. It's more of a mindset than a strict definition.
"From a big picture perspective, the meat industry is really focused on speed, yield and uniformity,” Oliver explains. Her institute focuses on different criteria: The beef must contain no artificial growth stimulants or antibiotics, be “gently handled,” and be a breed or cross-breed that makes sense for the region where it was raised (for example, Black Angus should be crossed with something more heat-tolerant to thrive on southern ranches, she says).
Oliver compares fine beef to to fine wine, because “unique flavors and characteristics emerge from influences of the breed, growing region, diet, husbandry and aging techniques.”
That's right, aging techniques—another thing I didn't know about beef (I assumed the fresher, the better). Oliver explained that aging produces a more intense flavor and tender texture, depending on the process used. (This article by Brooklyn-based butcher Tom Mylan explains the difference between dry vs. wet aging.) But much of what you see in the supermarket isn't aged at all, and she thinks that's a shame.
Oliver agreed that the term "grass-fed" can be confusing, although the USDA has defined it, and recently issued rules for organic beef to ensure it comes from cows who are at least 30-percent grass-fed. Perhaps the more important question is not whether the cow eats grass but what else it has eaten, says Oliver, particularly because grain feed often includes preventive antibiotics, growth hormones or other additives. She asks a series of questions before buying beef: Is it grass-fed? Has it ever eaten grain? No? So, is it grass-0nly?
The smartest thing consumers can do to ensure they're getting the best beef is to find a good butcher, Oliver says. Unfortunately, that's easier said than done—traditional butchers are an increasingly rare breed in many parts of the industrialized world.
"But if we all start asking these questions even at the supermarket, it will start to have an effect," she adds. "The more we ask, the more they’ll have to know. Start by asking what farm the meat comes from. If you get a blank stare, walk away."