Over the years, many incidents inspired me to write a book about grass-fed meat. One such time came when I read a New York Times article in which the author wrote about not knowing how to cook lamb shoulder. I was struck by how we’d lost our ability to cook anything more than steaks, burgers and chops.
A second time was the recognition that, years before anyone was a “locavore,” nearly everything my family ate came from within a 20-mile radius of our home. I thought this was interesting but not terribly useful for others, until I began to notice that it was increasingly possible to eat this way thanks to CSA (community supported agriculture) programs, farmers markets and local food websites.
A third incident made an even bigger impression. My husband, who has high cholesterol, happened to have his blood tested after our first year of eating local, entirely pastured meat. Although he had eliminated desserts from his diet, he still ate a prodigious amount of meat. Without further effort on his part, his bad cholesterol (LDL) count had gone down 40 points! That made me research the health benefits of grass-fed meat.
As I cooked my way through a quarter of beef, half a pig and a whole lamb, I discovered cuts and tastes I hadn’t experienced in years. Most grocery stores don’t stock briskets, short ribs, lamb breasts, pig’s trotters or pork shanks. It was a treat to cook them and a delight to share their flavors with friends and family. What is extraordinary is that, once tasted, the lively, honest flavors of pastured meat create instant converts.
What Is Pastured Meat?
Beef and other ruminants are generally called “grass-fed,” while pork and poultry are referred to as “pastured” or “free-range.” The essential point is that these animals spend their whole lives eating what they were designed by nature to eat and getting exercise, fresh air and sunlight. They tend to be healthy, with no need for antibiotics or other drugs. Because they range through rotating pastures, they aren’t stressed or crowded. When grass-fed animals are allowed to grow slowly and naturally to the appropriate processing weight, they don’t need growth hormones.
Pastured animals produce manure that enriches the fields they roam on and nourishes birds, promoting a diverse ecosystem. Grass-fed meat and milk are increasingly recognized as healthier and consistently lower in bad fat than industrial products.
In addition to taking part in a cycle that nourishes pasture rather than depleting the soil, pastured animals are a sustainable choice because the meat can be obtained locally in every state. This drastically reduces the distances products must be shipped, and buying it helps small farmers make a living caring for their land and animals.
Industrial Versus Grass-Fed Meat
Industrial meat is raised or finished in severely cramped quarters, often where animals cannot even turn around. They may never again see open land or walk in the sun. By any standard, their treatment is stressful and inhumane. Fed an unnatural diet of animal “byproducts” such as chicken dung, fast-food refuse and corn — sometimes along with plastic pellets for “roughage” — they need drugs to stay alive. Their highly concentrated wastes become sources of pollution that blight rivers, seas and whole areas of land.
You’ll discover that the products of sustainable farming look and taste differently — the yolks of the eggs are deep orange, the pork is firm and flavorful, the beef tastes like that great steak you may have eaten in France years ago, and the lamb reminds you of why it’s a sacramental food in so many traditions.
Consider the astonishing fact that eating red meat, rather than compromising our health, could actually benefit us. Grass-fed beef as well as pastured lamb, pork, poultry and eggs have dramatically beneficial nutritional profiles in comparison with their industrially produced counterparts. (To learn more, read The Fats You Need for a Healthy Diet.) It is important to note that many of the benefits of the grass diet diminish immediately if an animal begins to be fed grain. Every day it’s off grass, the animal’s meat loses valuable antioxidants and the composition of its fat changes.
Grass-fed beef and pastured lamb taste meatier, more mineral — with less fat and more flavor. Pastured chicken and pork are not flaccid; they have a distinct taste and texture. There are variations in flavor depending on the animal’s breed, its age at processing, the climate, the quality of the pasture it fed on, and whether it was well processed, aged or frozen.
Use the rest of this article to better understand the cuts available from a butcher and the best ways to cook grass-fed meat.
True grass-fed beef is free of antibiotics and hormone residues. The cattle move around — often changing pasture daily — fertilizing the landscape. This natural diet keeps the cows healthy, promotes an ecosystem that supports wildlife and grasses, and protects rural landscapes. Not surprisingly, 100 percent grass-fed beef is less likely to be contaminated by harmful E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria, or to contribute to the drug-resistant strains of E. coli that make our meat supply less safe.
Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) published a regulation in 2007 devoted to rules for labeling “grass-fed” beef, lots of misleading and false marketing claims are still around. Be suspicious of the terms “pasture-raised” and “grass-fed, grain-finished.” Support producers whose meat is labeled “100 percent grass-fed beef.”
If grass-fed beef is new to you, try meat in single cuts from different farmers. There will be variations in the flavors, and some will please you more than others. It may be an Irish Dexter rather than a Belted Galloway cow, it may be a young animal rather than an older one, or you may prefer meat that is more or less dry-aged after processing. In any case, the variables are so numerous that only your palate can be the final arbiter.
Beef Cuts and Cooking Tips
Because grass-fed beef has less fat and marbling (which help keep the juices in the meat), the meat toughens much more rapidly and requires more careful cooking. This means it’s essential to rely on a thermometer rather than timing when roasting to ensure you don’t overcook the meat, and to avoid salty or soy sauce-based marinades, which will dry out the meat. Instead, choose spice rubs or marinades that are oil- or herb-based, and plan to serve all fast-cooked cuts medium rare or rare. Watch braises and stews to make sure they cook at an extremely low temperature in order to break down the meat rather than toughen it, and allow the meat to rest at least 15 minutes before carving. Such careful cooking guarantees complex and satisfying beefy flavors with good mouthfeel and texture. Below are the various sections of the cow and cuts you can request from your butcher or meat processor to help you get what you want to cook. See the Image Gallery for a diagram of the sections of a cow that your meat comes from.
Ground Meat: Either quickly sear ground meat on the outside to stay rare within, or cook slowly to a more advanced state of doneness.
Chuck: This section contains portions that can cook low and slow (such as pot roast), but also offers steaks (chuck steak) and cuts for the frying pan, grill or broiler. Conventionally, large amounts of chuck tend to be ground, which tenderizes the meat, but you can ask that chuck trim be left whole, set aside and labeled.
Brisket: Whether left whole or divided into two cuts, brisket is best slow-smoked or slowly braised in a flavorful liquid blend.
Shanks: Another great braising cut, shanks are worth cooking slowly, whether on or off the bone (on the bone offers more flavor). Shank meat may be ground if not specified as a separate cut.
Rib: Rib steaks are tender and can be cooked rapidly over high heat on the grill, in a grill pan or under the broiler. Rib roasts (on or off the bone) are for roasting. Roasts and steaks are both best served rare or medium rare.
Plate: The great cuts from the plate, such as short ribs, make for memorable braised dishes that require long, slow cooking.
Flank: Flank steak, with its open grain, is often marinated before pan-cooking or broiling. It’s cut across the grain, on the bias, to create tender slices. Other cuts from the flank include portions of the sirloin, which are cut into steaks, steak tips, and meat suitable for stuffing and rolling.
Short Loin: Great tender and flavorful steaks and roasts come from this section, including porterhouse, T-bone, tenderloin and strip loin. Cook to rare or medium rare, with or without spice rubs.
Sirloin: Tri-tip roasts and steaks, stewing beef from the ball tip, sirloin steaks and roasts, as well as the culotte (used for stuffing and rolling) make up the offerings from this portion of the cow. Stews should always cook slowly with the lowest possible heat (in the oven or on the stovetop), while steaks can cook more rapidly over direct heat on the stovetop, grill or under the broiler.
Round: Divided into top, bottom, sirloin tip and eye of round, this portion of the cow offers a wide mix of steaks and oven roasts as well as stew meat and pot roasts. Some parts are tenderer than others, so they profit from different cooking methods and cutting patterns.
Offal and Odd Bits: Liver, heart, kidneys, sweetbreads and tongue offer good eating and are worth cooking carefully. Odd bits such as oxtail or beef cheeks are equally rewarding when braised.
Suet: Beef fat, or suet, is the hard, white fat that is the analog of the fine lard that comes from pork. When you buy a whole steer and ask for all of the suet, you get an enormous amount. (It’s actually called “HPK” or “KPH” fat at the processors — that stands for “heart, pancreas/pelvic and kidney fat.”) Rendered suet (tallow) is good for all kinds of baking and frying — it makes great french fries!
The taste of pastured pork reflects the animal’s diet: Meat from pigs that graze on fruit tastes different from that of pigs that graze on nuts. Today’s sustainable producers offer pork that reflects the unique characteristics of the place the animal was raised, its terroir, in much the same way pork has always been offered in Europe. Pastured pork offers one of the most dramatic flavor and texture contrasts between the products of industrial production and those from farm-based husbandry.
Pork Cuts and Cooking Tips
Pastured pork meat has a good fat cover and is well marbled, which makes it easy to cook (because it doesn’t dry out). See the Image Gallery for the four main sections of a pig, which create a variety of retail cuts.
Shoulder: The shoulder is a versatile cut from a hardworking part of the pig. It includes the butt, which can be smoked and cooked like ham, country-style ribs (great for braising and baking), Sunday dinner choices such as picnic arm roasts and shoulder blade roasts, and weeknight standbys such as picnic and blade steaks.
Loin: For pork chops, it’s not just the part of the loin that determines their cooking method and timing; cut and thickness also factor in. Ask for inch-thick cuts, if possible, to ensure succulence, and brine thinner chops if you can. Roasts are more elastic when it comes to timing and are more flavorful when they have bones.
Leg: Whole hams (smoked or fresh) and ham steaks are the stars of this section, which also offers sirloin roasts as well as pork cutlets and steaks. The lower portion gives us shanks and hocks, which are great for braising.
Belly: Lush and fatty, this cut is best known for bacon (smoked) and spareribs. It’s increasingly valued for fresh belly, which is usually braised or boiled before browning.
Pork Fat: There are many kinds of pork fat, including rendered lard, bacon drippings, fatback and salt pork. Home-rendered, pastured pork fat has no trans fat and has saturated fat that contains stearic acid, which may have a beneficial effect on cholesterol levels. Lard is one of the fats high in oleic acid, the monounsaturated fatty acid believed to be responsible for many of olive oil’s health benefits. Lard also has antimicrobial qualities that help it to preserve foods.
Free-range poultry and penned birds given fresh pasture daily are flavorful, have real texture, and are vastly different from their industrial counterparts, even if the bird in question is exactly the same breed.
“False” free-ranging is when the birds have theoretical access to a small patch of green but never actually go there, or they are allowed outdoor time for only brief periods. Many chickens labeled “organic” fall into this category; they are fed organic grain that may be supplemented with organic greens. These birds are both tastier and more sustainable than industrial birds — which are fed appalling substances and live under much less humane conditions — but they do not have the flavor of real free-range chickens.
True free-range birds have regular and prolonged contact with dirt, green growing things and insects for most daylight hours. True pasture-raised chickens are the ones I cook reverently as whole roasts, saving their bones for rich stock.
If you buy a freshly killed pastured bird, give it a day or two in the coldest part of your refrigerator before you cook it, as these birds need to “relax” before they are good eating. Even though pastured chickens are usually processed at a young age, and even if they are a common breed of meat bird, their flesh has much more texture and a fine, deep flavor.
Free-Range Chicken and Old Stewing Hens
When you’ve paid for a whole chicken and bought it from the person who raised it, you want to make that bird into the best meal it can be. You can salt or brine the bird overnight, marinate it in spices and oil, slow-cook it to melting tenderness, or simply roast the whole bird while paying close attention to its internal temperature.
If you can buy sustainably raised chicken in parts or cut up one yourself, the meat will make one of the most memorable chicken braises you’ll ever taste. And if you are lucky enough to come across a stewing hen (usually older birds that are no longer laying eggs), snap it up and make any of those braises again (only cook it for much longer — up to five hours) to discover a depth of chicken flavor you’ve probably never experienced before. My source of “old hens” is a local organic egg farm that processes the old girls when they stop laying regularly. There may be similar sources local to you. See the Image Gallery for a diagram of chicken meat sections.
Pastured Meat Recipes
Deborah Krasner is a writer and food professional living in Vermont, where she offers Vermont Culinary Vacations. This article was adapted from her book, Good Meat, which is available for 25 percent off until June 30, 2012.