On the eve of launching our grass-fed beef line at our butcher counter, we talked with our Master Butcher, Red Seal Chef James Tober, about grass fed beef: What’s special about it? Why should we care? And how should we cook it?
While we were talking, we have to note: he didn’t stop what he was doing – breaking down a side of fresh pork from Mennonite farmers near St. Jacobs, ON.
JT: Here, just look at that.
He slides the cutting board over to me, showing off the quality of the pork he’s cutting.
TSP: What is this you’ve just shown me?
JT: Mennonite Pork, rib chops. Just look at the marbling.
TSP: Beautiful. It’s like an aerial map of the Amazon.
JT: It’s beautiful!
We pass a moment in silent admiration.
TSP: …Okay, but we’re supposed to be talking about Grass-Fed Beef. So – what is it?
JT: Most beef cattle are fed grass for the majority of their lives and then finished on grain, or – more often – corn. And that finishing gives it the marbling, gives it the fat, for your delicious steaks. That’s standard, across the board. Grass-fed cattle aren’t finished on anything, so therefore it takes one third to one half longer for the cow to grow to the same weight. That’s why they can be more expensive than grain-finished beef. There’s also a huge taste difference.
TSP: Wow, okay. So my question – which I think you just answered – is, isn’t all beef grass fed? And the answer is: not exclusively.
JT: 98% of cows are grass fed, but almost no cows are 100% grass fed.
TSP: Because they’re finished on grain or corn?
TSP: Whereas when we say Grass-Fed Beef, we mean beef that is 100% grass fed. And that’s where the time comes in, because they can’t quickly get up to weight, so they just have to get there the old-fashioned way?
TSP: So now that we’ve established what Grass Fed Beef is, what’s so special about it?
JT: There are a few big differences. One of them is the carbon footprint. When cows eat corn, it’s not a natural part of their diet and so it’s hard for them to break it down – and it creates more gas. So if you ever see infrared satellite photos, anywhere there are huge populations of cows you’ll see there’s more methane gas pockets.
TSP: Clouds of methane… so we’re not just talking about the quality of the beef, we’re talking about the environment.
JT: Yes. There’s a lot of discussion about it, because they say grass fed is clearly better for the environment because there’s less air pollution. But then they also need more land to graze on…
TSP: Ok, interesting!
JT: So it’s a very back and forth discussion. But for the health and well being of the animals, there’s no argument – they’re spending their entire lives in pasture, and they’re only eating food that is easy for them to digest.
TSP: Right, okay.
JT: The next big difference with grass-fed beef is health. Because they are strictly grass-fed, the quality of the meat is different. They’re about 10-30% leaner, they’re higher in Omega-3’s, higher in polyunsaturated fats, they’re higher in vitamin A and E, and Conjugated Linoleic Acid, which is said to reduce the risk of several chronic diseases.
TSP: Wow, so it’s a much healthier meat to eat! So this is like – if you want to live like a Mediterranean, but eat like an American?
JT: Yes – the beef is that much leaner.
TSP: Ok, so it’s better for the environment, it’s better for the consumer, and it’s better for the animal?
JT: It’s just not better for the producer. That’s pretty the much bottom line – it’s much more expensive and time-consuming to produce.
TSP: What about the flavour?
JT: The flavour profile is completely different, like 100% different. The finish plays such a huge part in the flavour of the beef. For example, the PEI program finishes their cows on potatoes.
TSP: As in – the cows raised in Prince Edward Island?
JT: Yes. They have a great program; they’re all grass fed, and then they’re finished on potatoes. It gives the beef a creamy, starchy, sweet aftertaste and you can actually taste it. If you get a nice piece of beef from Nebraska, they are almost 100% corn-fed – so you’re going to see yellow fat, it’s gonna be super-sweet, and you’re gonna be able to taste that corn finish.
JT: It’s the same reason that a lot of pork farmers, they’ll find different finishes. One of the farmers in Southern Ontario is beside the Del Monte pineapple plant – they have a plant in Southern Ontario, and one of the farmers that I know used to go and pick up all the scraps. And that’s what he would use to finish his pigs on. Another one – I know they do this a lot in Italy – they’ll finish their pigs on chestnuts. So it’s a huge part of the process, finishing – it makes a big difference. And so when you’re finishing on grass, there’s a lot less strong flavour in grass than, say, corn or grain. So you’re gonna taste the beta-carotene, you’re gonna taste the iron in that grass – very earthy.
At this point, James stops what he’s doing and takes me over to the service counter, where we compare a grain-finished striploin and a 100% grass-fed striploin. The grain-finished steak has channels of fat, whereas the grain-fed steak has just flecks.
JT: See, it’s the same cut, but there’s more fat and it’s consistent. And there’s also no cap on it. There’s no fat on these animals.
TSP: There’s hardly any cap on any of these. It’s super lean. So how do you cook it?
JT: You braise it, do roasts. Or if you’re cooking striploin or tenderloin, you don’t cook it over medium.
TSP: Okay. So rule #1 is: don’t overcook it.
JT: Don’t overcook it!
TSP: How would you build a meal around it? Like, if you know you have a leaner cut of beef, are you gonna serve it with other stuff?
JT: Marinate it, to soften it. Or cook it slowly, with lots of liquid.
TSP: Grass-finished beef and corn/grain-finished beef is not a one-to-one where you can just swap one in for the other?
JT: There’s a different flavour, there’s a 30% shorter cooking time. It’s like apples to oranges. You can say that beef is beef is beef, but it’s not all the same – you can tell good quality beef, you can tell breeding, you can tell whether it’s triple or it’s prime, or it’s hand selected… It’s like cars. Some people might be happy driving a Lada, and others insist they can only drive a McLaren.
TSP: Wait, what? Are you talking about cars now?
JT: Yeah, stay with me – this will make sense. Like with cars, what you get from beef depends on what you want. Some people will be happy driving a Lada – which is an old communist-era Russian car. Some people insist they can only drive a Corvette, or some other high-end sports car. The Lada is like utility-grade beef, and the Corvette is your top-dollar, grain-finished sirloin steak. But more and more, people are going for something like the Camry Hybrid (a.k.a. the grass-fed beef of cars) – it’s high end, and it’s reliable, and it’s really good for a family. All in all, it leaves a good taste in your mouth!
Grass-Fed Meat and Dairy will be on deal at The Sweet Potato from April 27th through May 24th. Come in and chat with James or one of our other knowledgeable clerks to learn more!