The Taste of Grass
How farmers are improving the flavor of grass-fed beef, with fat
Written onFebruary 13 , 2015
Fat tastes good. Whatever your other feelings about fat and health, good fats and bad fats, let’s agree that fat improves a food’s flavor. Our salivary glands respond to fat’s aromas during cooking (think frying bacon or browning butter) and its presence changes the way food feels on our tongue, adding a satisfyingly rich texture. Fat is an essential nutrient and, in fact, scientists have found receptors in our mouths that send us a pleasure signal when they detect fat’s arrival. We’re also conditioned culturally to associate fat with deliciousness, particularly when it comes to meat.
“When you smell a great burger, is it a lean, dry burger in your mind? No, it’s juicy and full of flavor. Depending upon what your memory is, or your expectations are, that will change the overall experience,” says Sean Buchanan, president of Black River Produce, which owns Black River Meats in Springfield.
The relationship between fat and flavor has set up a particular challenge for Vermont’s producers of 100 percent grass-fed and grass-finished beef, a famously lean meat. How can they deliver all of the benefits of grass-fed meat—from environmental stewardship to animal welfare to improved human health—while also selling customers a tasty, marbled steak, something that conventional, grain-fed cows produce so easily and consistently?
Solving the challenge of producing delicious grass-fed beef began a couple of decades ago with the basic question of what the flavor goal for grass-fed should be. After all, farmers knew that the USDA’s standard measurements for quality beef didn’t fit quite right. Cooking to USDA-dictated temperatures leaves grass-fed beef closer to shoe leather than tasty steak—they’re too high. The USDA system of grading doesn’t really take into account the possibility of complex flavors, either. Many grass farmers hope that their farming methods can provide meat with a nuanced character that stands out from beef coming from large feedlots, where cows are placed on a steady ration of cheap commodity grains for the majority of their lives. As Beth Whiting of Maple Wind Farm in Huntington puts it, “I don’t like to use the word terroir because then it gets overused, but when you finish [cows] outside, on grass, you know they’re getting those proteins and solar energy.”
On the other hand, even if the conventional standards for beef aren’t perfect, they do get to one basic truth: most consumers desire tender, juicy, flavorful cuts. And that requires intramuscular fat, also known as marbling.
“To truly finish a beef, that means the animal has some fat on it,” says Jenn Colby, pasture program coordinator at the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture. It isn’t that nobody likes ultra-lean meat or that we can’t learn to like it. However, ultra-lean meat can have flavors that consumers perceive as tasting like “liver” or “gamey,” off flavors that aging the meat (a recommended practice) can concentrate. Home cooks might be able to cover up problems in meat flavor through cooking techniques (a potent chili can hide a host of ills) but grass farmers wanted people to enjoy an unadorned rib eye, too. No one should have to “settle” for grass-fed; farmers wanted people to seek it out.
To provide consumers the option of marbled meat from an animal fed entirely on grass required research and changes in production practices.
“Over the last 10 years we’ve seen an upswing in very sophisticated grass-fed, grass-finished, highly managed systems,” Jenn says. “It’s no longer the impression that you can throw a few cows on the back forty and have grass-fed beef.”
One major change has been in how intensively farmers manage their cattle’s grazing patterns. Grass grazing emphasizes achieving a high ratio of carbohydrates relative to protein in the forage. That means paying attention to the types of forage in a pasture, whether the pasture fully recovers between grazings, and ensuring that the cows move frequently enough that they’re only eating the highest quality food available in their paddocks.
Jenn remembers: “People used to think it was crazy to move your animals throughout the day, but it’s not crazy…we’re looking at four or five times a day now,” depending on how large an area is being grazed per animal. Or, as Beth Whiting emphasizes, “Grass farmer means grass farmer.”
At Maple Wind Farm, Beth and her husband, Bruce Hennessey, carefully monitor the forage available. Bruce explains. “We have a mix of cool season grasses (orchard grass, timothy, ryegrass, fetulolium) and ideally about 30 percent legumes (clovers, alfalfa). At times we have frost-seeded 5 percent forage brassicas (turnips) to round out the mix.” Bruce extends the season beyond when fresh grasses are available by no-till seeding rye for late season grazing.
Also, instead of grazing to the “last blade” at the end of the season, when grasses are higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates, then sending cattle to slaughter, they ensure that cattle finish on fresh pasture with high carb, high energy food. “This provides adequate marbling and superior tenderness and taste,” Bruce says.
Care isn’t only taken in the fields. Bruce and Beth also look closely at the genetics of their cattle, paying attention to which have tender meat and which lay down fat most efficiently on a grass diet, and noticing the differences between breeds and within breeds. Their line is an Angus-Devon mix. (British breeds tend to work better for grass finishing.)
Another challenge is knowing when a particular cow has reached that fully fattened, marbled stage. The solution of bringing animals to slaughter when they have no more fresh grass to graze doesn’t suffice. Some study of beef marbling and overall quality requires testing meat after slaughter, but farmers can use various indicators to make the call on properly fattened, tender beef before then.
An ultrasound between the 12th and 13th ribs of a live animal will give a strong indication of marbling, for those who have access to the equipment. Joe Emenheiser, livestock specialist at University of Vermont Extension, recommends looking at certain pockets of subcutaneous fat. This fat, while not mixed in with the lean muscle, can give a sense of what’s happening inside the meat. When a cow starts building fat deposits at the base of its tail—one of the last places to fatten—that’s a sign that it’s probably fully fattened.
Joe notes that you can’t take this measure in isolation, though; all production practices matter, especially when discerning how long it can take grass-fed cattle to fatten, which introduces the problem of tenderness as animals get older. “You can deal with this via grass quality, targeted grazing, and finding the optimal point in foraging, when beef have an appropriate growth curve.” Tenderness is also a genetic trait, so farmers can improve consistency in tenderness by evaluating their cattle’s genetic lines.
Joe is one of the people Sean Buchanan works with when inspecting a farm interested in selling to Black River Meats. They check soil quality, feed quality, whether the farmer is able to monitor the rate of weight gained by the cows, the genetics (tenderness is partially a genetic quality), plus what happens to the meat later in processing.
“You can look at the romantic side of eating grass-fed meat, or the analytical, scientific side,” Sean says. “I’m looking at that analytical side…this is where your flavor comes from.” Using objective measurements to quantify something as variable as taste lets Sean, who is also a chef, speak to what will make a positive dining experience for his customers, and his customers’ customers.
“What Sean says about the samples he gets from farmers gives them something to shoot for,” says Jenn Colby. “It’s learning from the marketplace.”
In some ways, Sean’s feedback illuminates the fact that Vermonters are learning to be better customers for grass finished beef. We’re starting to undo some of the past confusion about the flavor of “grass-fed.”
“Consumers had been led to think that grass-fed beef doesn’t have that marbling, so they look for a lean beef, and [if customers look for lean] then the farmer perception is that they ‘should’ have a very low fat product,” explains Jenn Colby. In other words, we ended up with a cycle of incompletely fattened cattle partially because a generation ago so many people believed that grass-fed must mean low fat. The customers who didn’t enjoy that ultra-lean flavor may have given up on grass-fed meat as not to their liking, or vowed only to use ground beef with other flavors added, often without talking to farmers about their concerns.
Ridge Shinn, a farmer, grass-fed meat consultant, and co-founder of Hardwick Beef, based in Hardwick, Massachusetts, compares the consumer’s experience of grass-fed beef to other alternative agricultural products that eventually made their way to a broader audience. “It’s not a long-term problem,” he says, “This is like when organic [vegetables] got started: people were figuring out what to do.” He admits that grass-fed beef has had an “intermittent” flavor in the past, but with what we’ve learned in the last few decades, with the help of workshops, conferences, and professional organizations, he sees that changing.
Ridge remembers when Dan Barber, a New York chef known for studying how on-farm production practices affect the final flavors of ingredients, first sampled Hardwick Beef. “He called me up, amazed at the fat and the flavor,” Ridge recalls. Hardwick Beef is still the featured beef at Barber’s Blue Hill restaurant, and it has been mentioned in articles the chef has authored since.
“The meat is phenomenal and will rival any meat,” Ridge promises. Meaning that today, we can have our grass-fed beef and our juicy steaks, too.