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grass-fed and overcooked

  • r

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?

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  1. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

        1. 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.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Alderspring

            Wow, what fabulous information Alderspring. I have recently been transitioning over to grass-fed/pastured beef myself and am so thankful for the tips. Thanks for the work you do!

          2. thanks for all the helpful comments. So what I'm getting is that for moist heat cooking, I should cook pastured meat longer, and for dry cooking, shorter, than grain-fed beef, right?

            1 Reply
            1. re: ronla

              Try buying a piece of chuck, uncut, (cut it yourself) and make the stew again. Check this video for making a delicious "boeuf" stew: http://fayedelicious.blip.tv/#659391

            2. I talked to my farmer's market beef farmer yesterday, but forgot to ask about the animal's age. I did ask about the dry-aging process. He said 8 days and explained that after that, in day 9 and 10 he ends up loosing a lot of meat because it will darken and he has to cut it off. (Does this make sense?) I also asked about freezing. He said that as soon as it is packaged it is frozen "right away".

              1. The dry-aging process is temperature and humidity dependent, and it takes a good processor to get it exactly right. Too dry and cold and the meat turns to jerky on the outside; too warm and wet and it molds. Either way, the carcass has to be heavily trimmed and much of the meat is lost. This is why we can send a beef to one processor and 30% of it comes back as meat, and with another processor only 20% of the live weight is meat. It depends on the quality of the "hang" as well as the quality of the the cutting.
                There is more information about dry aging on our website.
                Give your local supplier a try. If you like it, support him with regular purchases. He needs you to keep doing what he is doing. Also, if you like his beef, give him some compliments--he probably is working 14 hour days to bring his beef to you.

                2 Replies
                1. re: Alderspring

                  Great information, Alderspring!!!
                  What can you tell us about breeds of cattle for grass-feeding. You don't use Holstein for beef or Angus for dairy.
                  Are there some breeds that just don't do well as grass-fed beef?

                  1. re: MakingSense

                    As Alderspring says, it IS possible to get grass-fed beef without sacrificing 'quality' that you would get with grain-fed. Quality in this case refers mostly to the juiciness of the beef, but also to tenderness. We've chosen Angus as the breed to use in our grass-feeding operation. Half our business is raising top-end purebred breeding stock, and the other half is selling beef from the animals that do not quite make that level. Even so, they have superior genetics for producinc well-marbled beef, even on grass.

                    I would recommend looking for pasture-raised beef that is Angus based, one with sufficient feeding (grass or pasture with some grain supplement) to get the cattle to finish (usually 800-1200 pounds before 18 months old. Other breeds that tend to be naturally highly marbled are South Devon and to some extent Shorthorn or Hereford. Holstein and Jersey, believe it or not, also marble very well. Brahman and Brahman-cross breeds tend to be tougher and less well-marbled. Of course, there is variance in every breed and the best of the worst breed will be better than the worst of the best breed.

                2. When you say "solid" what do you mean? Can you cut it very easily with a fork, but otherwise it holds it's shape more than you expect? If yes, that's likely to happen with beef low in marbled fat, if you use cuts with little connective tissue anyway, and you don't say what cut you used. If it was like a round roast cut up, what you got is pretty much what you can expect. Try shoulder or chuck, which will "break up" a bit more as the connective tissues (collagen mostly) render out. But still, on the whole, yeah, the lower overall fat content requires extra attention, like "modern" pork with it's low fat content....

                  1. I have tried braising short rib from grass-fed bison using recipe from The Grassfed Gourmet Cookbook: Healthy Cooking and Good Living with Pasture-Raised Foods by Shannon Hayes and it came out great. I first seared the ribs on the stovetop then put the dutch oven in the oven for more than 3 hours and the meat came out very tender, almost falling off the bone. Btw, i think this is a very good site on grass-fed meat

                    1. Since the thread is being revived I'd like to suggest looking at http://www.bisonbasics.com for grassfed recipes and cooking techniques. Although all the recipes were tested with grassfed bison, they will work equally well with grassfed beef.

                      1. I'm also transitioning to pastured beef after reading the Omnivore's Dilemma! This is great information!

                        Can anyone recommend other recipe books/websites that take into consideration the potential lower-fat content in these meats?

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: AnneBird

                          A sister site to Bison Basics is http://www.eatingelk.com . Same chef, but some different recipes focused on Ontario pastured elk. I highly recommend a probe type thermometer where the temperature readout sits outside the oven. I found mine for less than $20 in a Loblaws superstore. Cooking by internal meat temperature rather than time will produce more reliable results.

                        2. My rule of thumb is thus - in terms of tenderness, consider any cut of grass-fed meat to be one step down on the toughness scale and cook accordingly. So if a cut is considered to be somewhat tough, treat it like it's tough. If it's supposed to be very tender, treat it like it's tender. And so on. And your summation (wet-cook longer, dry cook shorter) is right.

                          Worth adjusting to, for the sake of flavor and health benefits.

                          1. We only ate pastured beef where I grew up (in Jamaica). There was no such thing as beef you could cut with a fork. You learned also how to cut across the grain for dry-cooked cuts (and we never let it get more than medium rare). And braised cuts (pot roast was a regular on the menu) cooked for a long time, several hours. Short ribs we ate charcoal grilled, not braised.