Where’s the Beef?

Which is better? Grain-fed or grass-fed beef?

Initially, I guess I didn’t really care; as long as it was a quality piece of beef, cooked in accordance to the cut and to my liking. I could easily give an opinion (informed or otherwise) on what I believe to be the best cut for a steak, whether dry aged is better than wet aged, marbling and how much, when to season your meat, pan or BBQ, etc, etc.

But as for grain versus grass, I have had no opinion; nor frankly do did I care.

Google will, as always, bring up a number of opinions (informed or otherwise) and generally there are three main points of contention. First off, there’s the topic of ethics. In terms of benevolence, when people think about grass-fed moo cows, they think of happy bovines that roam majestically across rich, green pastures without a care in the world. This is opposed to grain-fed cattle, which are fattened on grains and often in feedlots, resulting in a higher than normal growth rate where yield tends to compromise flavour.

But this is not always the case with grain-fed beef. There are ethical, grain fed productions, who focus on a slower growth rate over a longer period of time, resulting in a flavoursome and tender, high quality product.

Verdict: Grass. The greater perception that grass-fed beef is more humane is hard to argue against, regardless of ethically minded grain fed beef. Better still, you should take some time to source your beef from a reputable supplier and understand its origin, feed, rearing, etc and you won’t go wrong.

Secondly, there’s the health debate. Most research is skewed towards grass-fed beef being a much healthier option. Our ideal diet requires a 4:1 balance of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acids and these good fats are meant to reduce the risk at heart disease, reduce inflammation and it makes us smarter by promoting a better balance of fatty acid concentration in the brain, which is believed to be particularly supportive in cognitive and behavioural function.

A US study found that beef from grass-fed cattle contained sixty percent more Omega 3 fatty acids and a more favourable Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio, as well as almost double the quantities of beta-carotene and almost three times the amount of Vitamin E. Are sixty percent more Omega 3 fatty acids and a more favourable Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio going to prolong my life beyond 75? Probably not. My liver’s bound to fail me first.

Verdict: Grass. But we’re all going to die anyway.

If none of the above matters, then thirdly, the most important (and interesting) points are flavour and texture. Tender beef is nice, but most people are so concerned about a sourcing a steak with the ultimate tenderness that they simply forget that good beef should actually taste beefy.

God it’s hard… Do I trade flavour for tenderness? Am I satisfied with a marbling score of 6? Did the cow on my plate live a happy life?  WHY IS EVERYTHING SO DAMNED DIFFICULT?

I just want a nice piece of steak [sob].

Fortunately for me, last night the bulk of my pent-up beef frustration dissipated, as I attended one of two experiences that should be compulsory for all Australians (the first is Defensive Driving). As one of a number of excellent events organised through the Fringe Food Festival, last night saw a beef tasting and education night, led by chef Ron O’Bryan at The Vine Hotel in Collingwood.

Ron’s recently taken over The Vine and in keeping with the feel of “a pub that your dad would have gone to”, aesthetically he hasn’t done too much to the place, which is fine by me as it suits the back streets of Collingwood like… well, a good fitting tracksuit. More importantly, the kitchen is the heart and soul of this place and in my opinion there should be more chefs owning pubs – how many times have you been let down by a saggy parma, bad chips or a steak that resembles a pair of Havaianas? You’re not going to get that here. These are pub staples (including a few old school favourites, like crumbed brains and bacon) that are done well.

Anyway, back to the meat. We kicked off proceedings with some mingling over a variety of oysters from Tasmania & South Australia, Red Hill Brewery’s Imperial Stout and an interesting, textural, cloudy white made by Neil Prentice. Neil calls it Reverse Cowgirl, in that it’s crafted using a different technique to your standard (missionary) wine making.

After we were seated, we were presented with a taste of Neil’s other passion: Moondarra Grass-Fed Wagyu, in the form of tartare. A shared charcuterie platter was also placed in the middle of the table, which featured even more of Neil’s passionate handiwork (I was beginning to love this man): wagyu bresola and salami.

Artisan Charcuterie Plate

Several other meats from other producers also featured on the charcuterie board, including a pastrami, chorizo, a pork-based salami and some lovely hand-made pickles. Meat heaven. 

The Wagyu tartare was a pared back version, served only with a cured egg yolk to compliment the richness of the Wagyu, and Pont Neuf (which is a fancy term for a big, fat chip). The usual suspects of shallot, cornichons and so on were not missed, letting the real flavour of the meat speak for itself.

Adam Foster was also on board again, matching his Foster e Rocco Nuovo Sangiovese with the first course. This young red is a versatile drop; its lightness and smooth tannins complimented the meats, with neither dominating the palate.

Next up was our first lesson in attempting to find a difference between grain versus grass. We were each served a generous slice of rump cap from a grain fed bovine and a grass-fed moo cow. Both were prepared and cooked (rare) and rested in the same manner. The grass-fed rump was a far superior, in both taste and texture, whereas the grain fed rump was very tough. Many people around the table left the grain fed rump unfinished, declaring a resounding thumbs up for grass-fed.

Then came the coup de grâce. A selection of grain and grass-fed beef – four different cuts; porterhouse, rump, scotch and another one which escapes me. Our challenge: to enjoy and accurately identify which was which.

The Test

Personally, I struggled to remember which was which, making it very hard when it came to the judging. What made it even more difficult were the ‘pub-appropriate’ sides of battered onion rings, chips, green beans and red wine jus. Deliciously distracting.

For what I thought were the grain fed cuts (porterhouse – bottom of the place, rump – on the left), they were far more tender than the initial grain fed offerings. A little more buttery in flavour too.

However, the grass-fed morsels were again more superior in flavour and texture.

The accompanying Foster e Rocco 2009 Syrahmi (rhymes with salami) Shiraz held its own in an expected steak / red pairing.

We rounded out the night with some locally made Artisan cheeses; a thimble-sized fresh goat’s curd, a washed rind cow’s cheese and a cheddar – all exemplary and washed down with a Foster e Rocco 2010 Syrahmi Mouvedre.

So what did I learn?  I learned that the consensus on the night also leaned towards grass-fed, which although unsurprising, poses an even greater dilemma. The bad news is that the bulk of domestic retail beef sold in Australia is grain fed and unfortunately profit dictates over flavour and quality in a number of ways. 

 To keep up with demand, most beef sold is processed (killed) as yearling beef, which is up to 18 months old. Veal is generally processed at around 10 months. Yearling beef hasn’t lived long enough to develop any flavour. Young Prime Beef is processed at around 36 months. Far superior in flavour, but the math is obvious.

Once your beef has been processed, the next step to give you more flavour on your plate. But there’s wet ageing your meat and then there’s dry aging or hanging your meat, which is vastly different. Your typical supermarket ages its meat for around 14 days via a wet ageing process. Simply, the meat is vacuum packed and refrigerated. Although this process allows for the cells and muscle tissue of the meat to break down, thus naturally tenderising the meat, the ageing process rate of vacuum-packed meat decreases with time, with about 70% of the improvement in tenderness occurring in the first 10 days. It only does so much.

Dry ageing is a process where the entire carcass is hung in an environment with a controlled temperature (2-3 degrees celsius) and humidity (up to 90%) for up to 2 -4 weeks. This process intensifies flavour, however this is also as a result of losing up to 30% of the initial carcass weight due to the loss of moisture. This of course greatly reduces the profits of your average meat seller, who still want to pass on an inferior product at $9.99 / kg.

Basically, we’re stuck with the stuff we get at the local supermarket. They won’t change, but you can. Which is why you need to find a good butcher that knows where his or her meat has come from, how old it was, what it was fed, how long it was aged, how it was aged and so on. Better yet, get along to your local farmers market and buy it (and other goods) straight from the loving source (thanks Alli).

I’m never going to source a 36-month old, grass fed, dry-aged for 30 days piece of beef from Coles. Although such a cut could command a price upward of $50 / kg, quality doesn’t come cheap. And you know what? We’re only meant to eat a moderate amount of red meat, so if you’re willing to buy a little less, spend more on quality and really enjoy your beef, then you won’t need that whopping 450g beast that hangs off your plate. But if you do, then I suggest a colonoscopy every now and again.

Verdict: Buy the best you can afford and enjoy it.