grass-fed and overcooked
After reading the Omnivore's Dilemma I've been making an effort to buy pastured beef. I usually buy at the farmer's market (Farmer to you Beef/Farmer to you Pork) in Santa Monica, and other times I buy at whole foods. While the taste is usually really wonderful, I find that it has a tendency to end up tough. I'm guessing that because the fat content is much lower, I'm not cooking it with the sensitivity it requires. Last night I made a beef stew. The beef was really solid. I guess I overcooked it, but my question is, do you need to baby everything cooked with grass-fed meat? Even things cooked with moist heat? I've been making some of the Zuni short rib braises, and have similar issues. While I'm always hoping the meat will fall off the bone, I've come to realize that it won't happen for me, even though the flavor is beautiful. Am I doing something wrong or is this just something I need to accept if I'm going to cook with pastured beef?
If you make stew and the meat comes out tough, it's usually not because you overcooked it. It's because you undercooked it. Stew meat is tougher and more fibrous (that's why it's cheaper than filet mignon!), and it needs long, slow cooking to break down the fibrous bits. I suggest cooking it in a Le Creuset or a dutch oven with lots of liquid (wine, beer, broth, water, or a combination) plus your aromatic veggies (carrots, onion, garlic, celery...) in a low oven for at least a couple of hours. Some cuts need even longer. Putting it in the oven always helps me resist my impatient urge to peek and prod.
Well, for grilling, you need to let the meat "relax" after you cook it to let the blood redistribute and make it more tender. And of course when you do this, you shouldn't jab it with a fork or worse, cut into it to see if it's "done."
It's also possible you like your meat more "well done" than a lean cut of meat will turn out well. What may be acceptable for a fatty cut will ruin the texture for a leaner cut.
For meat that is well done but tender with a leaner cut, whether it's from a cheaper section of beef or simply a leaner grass fed cow, the recipe is generally the same: initial pan searing to seal in the juices followed by long slow cooking at a lower temperature. That will work for generally everything.
However, the plain fact is that certain cuts work better for certain preparations, and are simply ruined if cooked to a "doneness" that does not suit the cut, no matter how much you insist that you like that level of doneness.
When we make chili with corn-fed beef it simmers for 2 hours. Grass-fed or pastured beef simmers for 4 hours. It is fall apart tender at that point. However, pastured beef is generally firmer-textured than corn-fed beef. I *like* the texture, because it feels like you're eating meat instead of tofu, but not everyone does.
We've been producing grass fed beef for about 15 years in the central mountains of Idaho (Alderspring Ranch). Unfortunately, U.S. producers are still growing grass fed beef that is variable in quality, but well-grown grass fed beef should be both fabulous in flavor AND tender. You might want to experiment with suppliers. Ask how old the animals are when finished (should be under 24 months--it has been our experience that older than 24 months of age, although often well marbled are very unpredictable with regard to tenderness), and how they are fed (quality feed is everything--we move our finishing steers to fresh grass as often as twice a day). A rule of thumb for us: a beef that is gaining weight well throughout its life is tender, provided they are younger than 24 months. Another question to ask is about dry-aging. A dry age (whole carcass) of 10 days is a bare minimum to ensure tenderness. If the beef you are purchasing was frozen, ask about the freezing process. Only very rapid freezing (we call it flash freezing) maintains the tenderness that was present when the cut was fresh.
Here are some basics on cooking grass fed beef:
1) Better cuts, and even fine-grained roasts like rump and eye of round, can be cooked with dry heat (roasting, pan searing, and grilling) to medium rare (my husband likes it rarer than I--I like it a bit more toward medium, but I sacrifice some tenderness). As a general rule of thumb, although it depends on the degree of "finish," or intermuscular fat, grass fed beef will reach medium-rare in about 2/3 the time of grain fed beef. Use a thermometer and pull the cut when the temp reaches 141'F and then let the meat rest for at least 10 minutes (it will actually continue cooking and rise in temperature a bit after you pull it from heat). The 10-minute rest also allows juices to redistribute, and minimizes losing moisture as steam.
2) Tougher cuts are "tough" because they contain collegen and other connective tissue that actually tighten and toughen at temperatures below 160'F. After spending some time (at least an hour, and usually a couple hours) above 200'F, however, this connective tissue breaks down and permeates the meat. This is why a chuck roast has more flavor and moisture than a rump when cooked as a potroast for a few to several hours (the longer the better at our house), but a medium-rare chuck roast is just plain yucky. Most of these tough cuts are cooked with moist heat (braising or pot-roasting) because they will dry out at the higher temperatures needed to deal with the connective tissue. Acidic marinades and physical breakdown (pounding with a mallet, or using a Jaccard-type tenderizer) are other ways cooks deal with tough meat.