Why all the fuss about grass-fed beef? And why are its producers having trouble keeping up with skyrocketing demand? Many people have embraced grass-fed beef because of ethical, environmental or health concerns, but the most immediately rewarding reason of all may be flavor: Grass-fed beef has a terroir — its taste depends on where it comes from and what kinds of grasses the cow has been eating. It’s more robust and savory — just plain “beefier” than its grain-fed counterpart. And it’s much more nutritious.
As a rule, grass-fed cattle haven’t been exposed to the GMOs and growth hormones used in conventional beef production, nor do they contain arsenic or high levels of copper as does meat from animals raised in feedlots. And raising cattle on pastures according to the rhythms of nature, as opposed to a factory approach, keeps us — and the planet — healthier for other reasons, too. Cows that are raised on pasturelands, roaming freely in the sunshine and fresh air, are better nourished, less stressed and less vulnerable to infection. They rarely need antibiotics. That reduces the risk of creating more antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, which keeps our medicines more effective. Grassland pastures themselves reduce heat-trapping greenhouse gases and decrease erosion, leading to healthier waterways and wildlife habitats.
Because grass-fed cuts are typically more flavorful (and more expensive) than their conventional counterparts, you may want to consider small to moderate (3 to 6 ounce) portions and cook with care. Grass-fed beef has a lower fat content and can get tough when overcooked, so sear the outside very quickly, then cook low and slow to preserve juiciness. Read on to learn more about grass-fed beef’s benefits — and how to make the most of its flavors.
- Grass-fed beef is high in antioxidants like beta-carotene, which helps with immune function, and CoQ10, an enzyme that supports heart and circulatory-system health.
- While grass-fed beef is lower in fat overall than grain-fed beef, it has a higher percentage of good fats like omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), both of which may help prevent heart disease, diabetes and some cancers. Omega-3 fatty acids have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body and support healthy brain function. CLA is important for immune function, blood-sugar regulation and for stimulating fat burning in the body.
- While our bodies need both omega-6 and omega-3 essential fatty acids, studies have shown that if the proportion of omega-6 to omega-3 exceeds 4:1, people have more health problems (experts say the ideal ratio is between 1:1 and 3:1). The average American diet has a ratio of 15:1. Grain-fed beef can have a ratio of 20:1, but grass-fed is about 2:1 or 3:1.
- Saturated fats from whole foods are an important — even vital — part of a healthy diet. They help the body absorb minerals, serve as building blocks for cell membranes and a variety of hormones, provide energy, and act as carriers for fat-soluble vitamins. Because toxins are stored in animal fat, hormone-free beef raised on pastureland that’s not been sprayed with herbicides or pesticides is preferable.
- Meat from pastured cattle has up to four times the amount of vitamin E than meat from feedlots. It’s also higher in zinc and vitamin B12 and is a good source of other B vitamins.
- Before cooking, bring beef to room temperature.
- Since grass-fed beef is very lean, consider tenderizing with a marinade or meat tenderizer.
- Grass-fed beef has lower fat and higher protein levels, so cook it at about 50 degrees lower than your standard beef recipes. It also requires about 30 percent less cooking time.
- Sear the meat on high heat to seal in the juices, and finish cooking over medium-low heat (for best flavor and texture, cook to no more than medium rare). Rare should be cooked to 120 degrees F; medium rare 125; medium 130; medium well 135; and well 140.
- Meat keeps cooking after you remove it from the heat source, so remove from heat when it’s about 10 degrees lower than desired doneness.
- After cooking, let beef sit lightly covered in a warm place for eight to 10 minutes to let the juices redistribute.
Shopping and Storage Tips
- Grass-fed beef can usually be found in your local food co-op, farmers’ market or natural grocer. It’s now appearing in some larger, conventional stores, too.
- If you can find it, choose dry-aged beef, which has been tenderized by natural enzymes and has a concentrated flavor.
- Steaks and roasts should be cooked within three to five days of purchasing. Ground beef should be used within a day or two of purchase.
- If you freeze your meat, thaw overnight in the refrigerator. Do not use a microwave.
Chef Cary Neff is the author of the New York Times bestseller Conscious Cuisine (Sourcebooks, 2002).