While I’ve come to appreciate the difference since then, I distinctly remember the first time I noticed that the smell of my grass-fed steak was a little…off. I was interested in what could cause the difference in smell and flavor from corn-fed beef, so I set out to do some research. Here’s what I found:
Several factors contribute to the difference between grain-fed and grass-fed beef. First, the old adage is correct: you are what you eat. So cattle only fed grain (such as corn and soy) will have sweetness and mildness imparted on them from the grain. Also, as the bodies of cattle aren’t necessarily suited to processing grain, they grow fat more quickly with grain. As such, grass-fed cattle are usually leaner and lack the fatty marbling that we’ve come to expect from grain-fed cattle.
How Grass-Fed and Grain-Fed Beef Are Different
While the truth is that the above is a question I could quickly write 3000 words about, let’s keep this short and to the point. First things first, the reality is that the label “grass-fed” can be used misleadingly as it has no strict definition from a regulatory standpoint.
What most consumers will envision when they hear “grass-fed” is that they are buying meat of an animal that lived its entire life on grass. That still very well may be true! However, it’s entirely possible that an animal could be labeled as grass-fed but may have eaten grain for substantial periods in its life.
Here’s a little background on the average life of modern cattle that may help clear things up: the vast majority of cattle spend the first 6 to 8 months of their lives grazing as grass. After this initial period of grazing, this is where grain-fed and grass-fed (as consumers think of it) cattle go their separate ways. Grain-fed cattle are now switched over to a diet that mostly consists of corn, soy, and other various products.
On the other hand, some lucky cattle get to live the rest of their lives eating grass, as nature intended. Here’s where a new label helps clear up some of the confusion: grass-finished. It implies exactly what you’re thinking: a grass-finished animal continues to graze on grass long after the first 6-8 months of their life.
But what’s the reason for the switch from cattle eating grass (their natural diet) to grain? There are a lot of things you could talk about, but two ideas carry the most weight: time and marbling. Regarding time, the simple truth is that grain-fed cattle put on weight much quicker and therefore they offer a much quicker return on investment for the farmer.
As for marbling, let’s be frank about this: us Americans have really, really come to love the fatty marbling that is the result of the grain-fed diet. It doesn’t make that a good thing, but that’s an undeniable fact. More on that later.
Why does grass-fed beef smell different?
Now that we’ve got a solid understanding of the real difference between grass-fed and grain-fed beef let’s get back to the main question. In this case, the adage puts it best: you are what you eat. In other words, the diet of the animal is going to have a serious impact on how the meat smells and tastes. So for the grain-fed cattle, their meat will be rather mild as the sugars from the corn and soy impart an almost sweetness on the meat.
I’m not going to lie, while I do prefer grass-fed beef for a myriad of reasons, it’s not hard to understand why many prefer the taste and smell of grain-fed beef.
There are many examples of this effect that can be found in the natural world. As an avid hunter, I’m more than familiar with the impact that diet has on the flavor and smell of the meat.
One of the best examples of this effect can be found in an unexpected animal: black bears.
I know most of you probably haven’t eaten black bear and don’t plan on it, but stay with me.
It depends on a million factors but the diet of each black bear is highly variable, and it imparts drastic differences on the flavor of the meat. The meat of bears that have engorged themselves on blueberries will have a certain sweetness, and the fat on the animal will even have a slight blue hue (emphasis on slight).
On the other hand, good luck eating a black bear that recently fed on salmon that managed to swim upstream before dying after spawning. The meat from that bear would be significantly less enjoyable, and you’d be best advised to invest in some sauce–lots and lots of sauce.
How to Cook Grass-Fed Beef Properly
Anyways, back to cattle. So we’ve established that meat from a grass-fed animal can have a very different texture and flavor profile than it’s grain-fed counterparts. What does this mean when we try to cook a grass-fed steak?
One of the most important rules of cooking comes into play here: don’t treat different ingredients as if they’re the same thing. In other words, cooking a grass-fed steak using the same techniques you’ve learned for grain-fed meat may not give you the best results. So it’s important to understand your ingredient first–what flavors work well with it and how it responds to different methods of cooking.
Much like the blog commenter who writes a negative review of a recipe but also swapped green peppers for pineapple (I’m sure you know what I mean), using grass-fed beef in place of grain-fed will require some adjustments.
So what does this usually mean? The most important rule to remember when cooking grass-fed beef is that it is generally leaner than grain-fed meat (though this isn’t necessarily always the case).
As such, cooking a grass-fed steak past medium may well result in a steak that is tough and difficult to chew.
Ask anyone who’s accidentally grilled venison steaks past medium (unfortunately not a hypothetical in my case–they were basically like eating hockey pucks): overcooking lean meats is inadvisable and will result in a tough steak devoid of all tenderness.
Not fun stuff.
How to Pair Flavors With the Taste of Grass-Fed Beef
It’s also worth mentioning that the different flavor profile of grass-fed beef means that it will be best to cook it with ingredients that better complement that flavor profile. So what kinds of flavors can you try with grass-fed beef?
I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but we can borrow from the venison world as that meat is also considered “gamey” by many (sorry, I’m a bit of a venison evangelist, if you couldn’t tell).
A favorite sauce of mine that is worth trying is something called Cumberland sauce. It’s a fascinating blend that finds terrific balance with savory, spicy, and sweet flavors that pair excellently with the gamey flavor profile of something like grass-fed beef. Check out a foolproof recipe to try here on Hank Shaw’s site.
One last thing to mention is that many have found success by soaking grass-fed beef in buttermilk to help remove the gamey flavor. You can see an excellent rundown of that process over at The Backyard Pioneer (http://www.thebackyardpioneer.com/2013/07/08/guest-post-is-your-grassfed-beef-too-gamey-how-to-use-buttermilk-to-take-the-gamey-taste-out-of-venison-and-grass-fed-beef/).
Why Grass-Fed Beef is Worth Adjusting To
Last and certainly not least, I’d like to make the point that while grass-fed beef is undoubtedly different and requires some adjustments, there are many reasons not about meat that make it a better alternative.
Most importantly, the bodies of cattle are evolved to be healthiest when they are grazing on grass. While we may have come to like some of the characteristics of grain-fed beef, that does not mean that those grain-fed animals are healthy.
Marbling, while tasty, is only achieved when the animals are rapidly gaining weight (both muscle and fat) from an unnatural and an unnecessarily inactive lifestyle.
Allowing cattle to graze throughout their entire lives results in a healthier animal, period.