After two years into an on-going quest for the country’s best beef–involving research, field-work, and numerous tastings–we’ve been able to distill our findings into five key factors that produce the highest-quality beef.
Grain-fed conventional beef yields beef with uniformly bland flavor. If grain-fed beef were beer, it would be Budweiser: very predictable but fairly uninteresting when compared to craft beer. Grass-fed beef, by contrast, yields meat with expressive flavor, full of complexity–every bit as unique as the land on which it was raised. Like wine, pasture-raised beef has terroir: the ability to taste the geography in food (and drink).
From the first bite, my palate sang praises…The delicate crunch of the caramelized exterior was perfectly balanced with the lightly earthy flavors of the rarer meat beneath…distinctive notes of black walnut and warm oak leaves, a bouquet of orchard grass on a sunlit day (Forrest Pritchard in Gaining Ground with a forward by Joel Salatin, on tasting his first grass-fed beef)
MaturityA 12-year old Scotch is good. But a 15 or 20-year Scotch is even better. The maturity of a steer or cow at harvest affects the quality of its beef, for as the adage goes, “Age imparts flavor.” This is why Mr. Mark Schatzker, author of Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef, makes this recommendation:
Heritage breeds have maturity built into their genetics–they grow slowly, which gives them an unfair flavor advantage.
BreedAfter millennia, farmers have distinguished certain cattle breeds as producing exceptional beef. These farmers have also played a role in developing the beef breeds. For the past 100 years, however, the conventional beef industry has selected breeds on their ability to yield more beef, quickly. They have further enhanced that yield through the use of growth hormones, this, to the detriment of quality and flavor. Focus on those cattle breeds that history has shown to provide beef of the highest caliber, breeds like the Highland, Red Poll, Shorthorn, and others.
‘Quantity and quality are two opposing goals,’ [Temple] Grandin pronounced, neatly diagnosing the central problem of today’s meat industry. It didn’t matter how quantity was cranked up—hormones, genetics, drugs—there was always a price to be paid in quality.” (As Quoted in Steak: One Man’s Search for the Tastiest Piece of Beef, Schatzker)
Raising beef on pasture is really an art-form requiring an expertise that comes with time. Look for seasoned farmers who have been at it for years, whose expertise of land and livestock consistently translates into exceptional beef. Look for newer farmers who stand on the shoulders of giants, employing time-honored traditional farming practices that have consistently yielded superior results.
Dry-Aging The country’s finest steak houses dry-age their beef. Why? Dry-aging tenderizes meat while concentrating and enhancing its flavor. A week to 14 days of dry-aging is good, but if you can get it look for beef dry-aged at 21 days: a rare find, indeed!