Consumer Advice and Cooking Tips

Consumer advice and cooking tips for those looking for grass-fed beef.
By Nancy Smith
October/November 2005
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Consumer Advice and Cooking Tips

Grass-fed beef must be flavorful and tender as well as healthful if it is to become a staple in the kitchen. Sue Moore, meat forager for Chez Panisse Restaurant and Café in Berkeley, Calif., which regularly serves grass-fed beef, describes it as “more robust” than grain-fed beef, with a taste of the place where the cattle are grazed — the grasses and the minerals found in their pastures. “It goes along with the French concept of ‘terroir,’” she says, “or a sense of place. It’s the same reason that wines or olive oils taste differently.”

Moore says grass-fed fans are people who want “character in their beef.” For Chez Panisse, she searches out local sources, talking to producers, visiting their farms and finding out what they’re doing to make their products so appealing. “A lot of these producers are ‘beyond organic’,” she says, referring to the experience established graziers bring to the production of the best tasting and most healthful grass-fed beef today.

During the grass season, Chez Panisse buys two head of cattle every other week from Magruder Ranch in Mendocino County, Calif. The restaurant also buys particular cuts from Marin Sun Farms of Point Reyes, Calif.

The Magruder animals are slaughtered at the only remaining U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)-inspected slaughterhouse in the area and dry-aged at another nearby facility for 21 days before being served to customers in the restaurant and café. “In responding to the lack of infrastructure serving the small rancher, mobile abattoirs (slaughterhouses) are a bright spot on the horizon,” Moore says. “The art of butchering the animals is practically lost. Artisan quality [butchering] is needed. We need to resuscitate that.”

Because Chez Panisse is committed to using the whole animals from Magruder (not just the steaks), Moore says the restaurant chefs spend a good deal of time figuring out how to present all the different cuts. “For example, there’s only 4 pounds of skirt steak on any one cow. That makes it very difficult to offer skirt steak to 50 people. A lot of cuts go into hamburger.” Phillip Dedlow, a Chez Panisse chef who works mostly with the grass-fed beef, says the hamburger never goes on the restaurant’s menus even though people love the taste of Magruder Ranch ground beef. “We have orchestrated sales to friends,” he says.

In contrast to grass-fed beef, forager Moore adds, “grain-finishing tends to ‘homogenize’ the taste, to smooth the flavor over so it all tastes the same, and a lot of Americans want that.” Grass-fed beef lovers, on the other hand, want “excitement in their eating,” which translates to the subtle but definite flavor differences.

Dedlow says at Chez Panisse they tasted a lot of grass-fed beef before they settled on the ones they really liked: “You just have to keep looking.”

If you want to find a high-quality, reliable source of grass-fed beef, search first for locally produced grass-fed meat and do it during the grass-fed season — late spring and early summer.

Start by checking your natural food stores, food co-ops and farmer’s markets. Many grass-fed beef producers are marketing their products through such venues. Also, check with your county Extension office; across the country, offices often maintain lists of local farmers and the products they sell. The following Web sites allow you to key in your zip code or city and state to get many local listings: www.eatwild.com, www.localharvest.org andwww.eatwellguide.org.

Eatwild.com, for example, provides a place for grass farmers to advertise their products. You can read about the criteria farmers must meet to be listed at Eatwild.com on the “Eatwild Pastured Products Directory.”

Watch out for the terminology. Until the USDA formally defines the terms associated with this kind of beef, you will find a variety of names used in the marketplace. “Grass-finished” is what you want to find; ask what “grass-fed” means; be suspicious of any others.

After you have compiled your list of potential local sources, you will want to check them out personally, much as Moore does for Chez Panisse. Ask plenty of questions about any product you may consider buying. Eatwild.com advises “Buyer Beware” and offers tips on “How to make sure you’re getting healthy, tender meat”.

The grass-fed industry is growing so quickly that meat quality is uneven right now. Also, tastes do reflect the grasses and minerals in the pastures where animals are grazed, so differences may arise that have nothing to do with quality. The more questions you ask before you buy, the better your chances will be of getting meat that satisfies you.

If you’re not happy with your initial purchase from a particular source, go back and talk with that producer about your experience with his or her product. Try different sources in your area until you find one you like. Then, support that farmer to the best of your ability.


In the Kitchen

Proper cooking and, when necessary, thawing of high-quality grass-finished meat is important if you want tender eating.

If your meat is frozen, be sure to use it in a timely fashion and always thaw it slowly when you are ready to cook.

Because grass-finished meat is low in fat, it needs to be cooked with one eye on the clock. The leanness makes it vulnerable to drying out as it cooks, so the trick is not to overcook it.

Careful attention will give you tender meat with more “character of flavor” than any feedlot beef on the market.


RESOURCES

Eat Wild
A clearinghouse for grass-fed information, featuring a comprehensive state-by-state list of producers.

The Stockman GrassFarmer 
P.O. Box 2300
Ridgeland, MS 39158
Monthly newspaper for graziers; a free sample issue is available on request.

American Grassfed Association

The American Devon Association

Books

Pasture Perfect
by Jo Robinson

Farm Fresh: Direct Marketing Meats & Milk
by Allan Nation

Holy Cows and Hog Heaven
by Joel Salatin

The Grassfed Gourmet Cookbook
by Shannon Hayes

Grass-Fed Cattle
by Julius Ruechel

Newsletters

Feature articles and special sections on grass-fed production techniques abound in recent issues of specialty sustainable farming newsletters; some are tied to the availability of new resources on grass-fed practices being offered by the publishers of these newsletters. Among these are:

American Livestock Breeds Conservancy 

A nonprofit membership organization working to conserve heritage breeds and genetic diversity in livestock. The 2005 ALBC Annual Membership Meeting and Conference is “Green Genes: Saving Breeds Created for Grass,” Oct. 7-9, 2005, Greeley, Colo.

ATTRA 
National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service
P.O. Box 3657
Fayetteville, AR 72702
A national clearinghouse for information on sustainable agriculture. Among various grass-fed informational materials, the Sept.-Oct. 2004 issue of ATTRA News (Vol. 12, No. 5) focused on the topic.

Northeast Organic Farming Association 
411 Sheldon Road
Barre, MA 01005
The winter 2004-2005 issue of the association’s quarterly, The Natural Farmer, includes a 30-page supplement on organic meat with a number of articles that grass-fed producers would find useful.

The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture 
209 Curtiss Hall, Iowa State University
Ames, IA 50011
The Center’s newsletter, Leopold Letter, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Winter 2004), reports on a new grass-based initiative; the center has completed 22 other projects that relate directly to grass, grazing and keeping animals on the land.

Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture 
P.O. Box 588
Poteau, OK 74953
The Center’s newsletter, Field Notes, Vol. 31, No. 2 (Spring 2005), includes several stories pertaining to grass-fed meats. The center also sponsors grazing workshops.


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