The way in which animals are managed and raised does directly impact the qualities and characteristics of meat. It is important to realize this because it will directly affect how you cook your meat to get the best quality end product. Grass-fed beef from animals that have led stress-free lives grazing on pastures tends to be more lean and flavorful when compared to conventionally raised, grain-fed beef. If you are accustomed to cooking conventional, grain-fed beef, or have had less than delicious results cooking or eating grass-fed meat previously, there are a few things to consider that might make a difference in your end result.
DO NOT OVERCOOK THE MEAT…TIME & TEMPERATURE ARE IMPORTANT!
The first thing to remember, and possibly the most important, is do not overcook the meat!! Grass-fed beef is more lean and has less marbling than grain-fed beef. Since fat is an insulator, and grass-fed meat is so lean, it will cook faster than grain-fed meat and may be less forgiving without the fat to cover up a little bit of overcooked meat. When you are reading recipes, take the guidelines for how long to cook a piece of meat with a grain of salt. The time it takes to cook a piece of meat will depend on other variables including the size and thickness of the piece. There are other ways to test the doneness of a piece of meat as well. One way is to test the doneness of some pieces of meat, such as a chuck roast or stew meat, to see if it is “fork tender.” When a fork is inserted into the piece of meat, the meat should slide off the fork easily. If it does, the meat is done. If the fork doesn’t come out easily, the meat needs to cook longer. Other ways to judge the doneness of meat include touch and temperature. Learning to judge the doneness of meat by touch takes practice and time to master. If you’ve ever wondered why chefs are always poking meat on a grill, it’s because they are feeling the resistance the piece of meat gives to touch. The more the meat is cooked, the more firm the meat will feel. This is something you will just have to practice and master over time.
Checking the internal temperature of a piece of meat while it is cooking is a more reliable way to monitor the degree of doneness. The USDA recommends cooking beef to a final internal temperature of 140-170° F, however most chefs would recommend a range of 120°F for rare meat and an upper range of 165°F for well-done meat. You can use a simple meat thermometer or meat probe to test the internal temperature. Insert the thermometer into a thicker, more centrally located place on the piece of meat. If the piece you are testing contains a bone, make sure the thermometer is inserted away from the bone. Also, remember that meat continues to cook even after you remove it from the heat source. This is called carry-over cooking. Don’t forget to take this into account when you are cooking and remove the meat from the heat before it reaches your final desired temperature. Smaller pieces of meat, such as a rib steak, will continue to carry-over cook for about 5 to 10 minutes and the temperature can increase another 5 degrees. If you are cooking a larger piece of meat such as a roast, the meat can continue to cook for an additional 15-30 minutes after being removed from the heat source. The temperature of a larger piece of meat can rise as much as an additional 10-15 degrees.
The next thing to remember is that you control the flame. What I mean is that you have control of the temperature at which you are cooking your meat. Remember, grass-fed meat doesn’t have as much fat to insulate it so it will cook more quickly. If you are cooking grass-fed beef over a high temperature, you can cook the meat too quickly and cook the moisture and fat right out of the meat, making it dry and tough.
Another important factor is to choose the correct cooking method for the cut of meat you are preparing. Cuts of meat that come from a part of the animal that is used and exercised more will be tougher. To tenderize these cuts you should use a moist heat cooking method which will use a longer cooking time and added moisture or liquid to help tenderize the meat.
- Moist Heat cooking methods include braising, stewing, boiling or cooking in a crock-pot.
- Tougher cuts of beef include the following: Chuck Roast, Arm Roast, Rump Roast, Round Steak, Stew Meat and Short Ribs.
Cuts of meat that come from muscles of the animal that are not as active will be more tender. These cuts of meat can be prepared using dry-heat cooking methods
- Dry Heat Cooking methods include grilling, sautéeing, roasting, broiling, stir-frying, pan-frying, and deep-frying.
- More tender cuts of beef include the following: Rib Steak, T-bone Steak, Sirloin Steak, Sirloin Tip, Flank Steak and Skirt Steak.
Finally, lets talk about flavor. Yes, it will ultimately come down to a matter of personal preference. Grass-fed beef has been described as having more of a juicy, rich, robust “beefy flavor” in comparison to grain-fed meat. The flavor of grass-fed meat has also been described as “clean” in comparison to grain-fed meat. The higher fat content and marbling in grain-fed meat may leave more of a coating in your mouth and an after-taste that you won’t experience with grass-fed meat, which may be why some people describe the flavor as “clean.” Animals that are grass-fed have a distinctive, sufficient flavor that can stand on its own without a lot of additional seasonings and sauces. Let the natural flavor of the meat stand out by using simple salt & pepper seasonings or simple herb rubs for starters. For braised dishes such as pot roast, the flavor of the meat will be infused into the cooking liquid creating a flavorful rich stock or sauce. As you begin to experience the flavors of grass-fed beef, we encourage you to keep it simple so the true flavor of the meat comes out and you can taste the difference for yourself.
This video clip from The New York Times and Mark Bittman discusses and shows you some of the differences between cooking with grass-fed and grain-fed beef. This video does a great job of highlighting some of the differences that we have mentioned in this post.
There are a lot of resources available to guide you in your endeavors to cook grass-fed beef. One of our favorites is Shannon Hayes’ book called The Grassfed Gourmet Cookbook . She offers a lot of really simple, down-to-earth and resourceful ways to successfully prepare grass-fed beef.