You have heard about grass fed beef. But you have noticed that it is expensive. Should you be paying so much more for it? And what are you actually paying for?
Let’s find out what’s really going on there.
1. It takes longer to raise 100% grass fed cattle
Do you like a good artisanal cheese?
You might have heard that such cheeses come from milk from a specific breed of cows. Plus, these cows grazed certain meadows and were milked in a certain way.
If you were to attempt to make such cheese from milk of black and white cows that produce your standard pint of milk, you would end up with a completely different taste. You would be disappointed.
The same is true for meat. Just as a good cheese, 100% grass fed meat is an artisanal product. It takes time and effort to make it. And there are no shortcuts.
Grass fed beef comes from cattle breeds that are happy to live outdoors in all weathers. They munch grass, shrubs and trees. These breeds are traditional native breeds such as Hereford, Beef Shorthorn, Longhorn, Dexter, Lincoln Red, Gloucester, Devon. They are ready for slaughter at 28 months or later.
Compare that with a typical supermarket beef that is finished at 18-22 months. Why is that? Grain is more nutrient-denser than grass so cattle fed on grain grow quicker and fatten sooner. Typical breeds here are Limousin, Charolais and Simmental. But any breed can be fed grain and grow quicker. Some breeds are just better at converting grain into meat.
2. Meat processing costs are higher
This is about economy of scale. If a supermarket buys 100 heads of cattle in a lorry, the slaughtering costs are going to be lower per animal than if they are slaughtered on a small scale.
Grass fed cattle are raised by small farmers who only take 1 or 2 animals to a small abattoir. Here, the costs are higher than at a national slaughterhouse that processes hundreds of animals every day.
Well, why doesn’t this farmer take his animal to the big national slaughterhouse?
They wouldn’t let him in. They only take lorries of animals, not a trailer with 1 or 2. For them, it’s a waste of time.
So small farmers go to small traditional abattoirs. They are often at the back of a farm or a traditional butcher’s shop.
3. The meat is dry aged
All beef needs to be aged in some way to make it more palatable. Traditionally, it was dry aged. It means hanging the whole carcass in a cooler for a certain amount of time (weeks or months).
But dry aging comes with downsides. Meat loses water as it is drying out and therefore weight. And profit. So supermarkets devised a method of aging called wet aging. The whole carcass or parts of it are vacuum packed in a plastic bag.
Sounds crazy? Well, such meat doesn’t lose weight. And it has a uniform taste. It is a win-win for supermarkets and wholesalers.
True, taste is not much of a thing with wet aged beef. This is because many components are missing to create that juicy, tender and beefy flavour.
Only dry aging can achieve intensive flavour. Imagine eating such a steak. As you chew it in your mouth, the juices explode and fill your tongue with rich beefy flavour. Yummy.
This is because during dry aging, the meat juices get absorbed within fibres of the meat. Despite that it is dry aged, it is juicier than its wet aged counterpart.
And more tender too.
There are enzymes within the meat that start to break down protein and fat. They tenderize the meat. And they create flavourful compounds as a by-product.
But there is more to the flavour than just enzymes. Imagine a mature cheddar for a minute again. Now stilton and brie. They all have certain moulds growing on them to create their specific flavour.
The same is true for meat. Dry aging allows certain moulds to grow on the surface of the meat to give it more flavour.
So why would dry aged meat be more expensive? Consider these reasons:
- It takes longer to age. 21 days and longer for dry aged meat versus 7-14 days for wet aged beef.
- It needs space. There needs to be certain amount of space around each hanging carcass to allow air flow pass around. This prevents contamination and spoiling of the meat. You cannot overcrowd a dry-aging chamber. Whereas with wet aging, the carcasses can be literally piled up on top of each other. Wet aged beef doesn’t face a risk of bacterial contamination, so air flow is not a problem.
- Conditions within the cooling chamber for dry aging need careful monitoring. It’s not just about temperature. Humidity and air flow need to be checked daily to avoid spoiling of the meat. In wet aged meat bags, the temperature is the only important factor in the cool chambe
4. Butchering of meat takes longer and costs more
Why would it take longer to process grass fed meat carcass? This is inherent to all dry aged meats. Dry aging results in lots of discoloured parts, dry parts and mouldy parts that have to be trimmed off.
And the more trimming the meat needs, the longer it takes. The nature of dry aging is that you not only loose weight during drying, but also quite a lot of meat during trimming.
Wet aged beef doesn’t have dry or discoloured bits so it is quick to cut up.
The economy of scale is at play here as well. Small butchers charge higher price for processing an animal than do large scale meat processors.
Will you recognize 100% grass fed beef?
You will be able to recognize grass fed meat just by looking at it. When raw, its fat is more of a yellow colour. There will be also less marbling within the meat, it will be leaner.
Will it taste different? Grass fed meat will have grassy, hay tones in comparison to grain fed beef, which tastes rather soapy. Dry aging will create more complex flavours.
You can’t use your nose to tell the meat apart. The smell will depend on dry aging conditions and the length of time it aged. Wet aged beef doesn’t smell of much, perhaps a hint of vinegar.
Is grass fed beef worth your money?
100% grass fed beef is an artisanal product. Just like artisanal cheese, wine and bread, it is for people who appreciate the time and effort it took to produce it. It was done slowly. Patiently.
So when you are considering buying grass fed beef, your money are not just buying the meat and supporting the farmer who raised it. Your money also goes to a small local abattoir and a family butcher. You are supporting local economy in the countryside. You are keeping traditional crafts alive. They are part of your heritage.
That’s pretty good, isn’t it?
But let’s not forget about the meat. If you want to experience incredible depth of beef flavour, melt-in-your-mouth meat that is juicy, give it a try. You won’t be disappointed.