That grazing cattle on pasture rather than grain is better for the environment, better for the animals, and better for your health has been thoroughly and convincingly debated by the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association so I don’t intend to go over these topics again here. But how does pasture-fed beef compare with grain fed from a cook’s perspective – and assuming that the aim of the cook is to delight the diner?
I am often told that since taste is subjective, there is little point in discussing it.
True, the acid test is to taste it for yourself, as attendees of the recent Real Farming Conference had the opportunity to do. However, I believe that the British reticence to talk about taste really needs to be overcome if we are to develop a strong food culture. And with regard to the preference for grain or pasture fed beef, this in itself seems to demonstrate some cultural differences.
Fat, Exercise and a Variety Rich Diet
Fat is the first consideration and new research has discovered that fat is actually the sixth Taste (after salt, sweet, bitter, sour and umami). Scientists have discovered that we have a taste receptor, more pronounced in some people than others, that will determine our ability to recognise fat as a taste and thus influence how much of it we want to eat. Those who are more sensitive to fat have their desire for it satiated more quickly and, correspondingly, a lower Body Mass Index.
Cattle put on weight more quickly when fed grain than on their natural pasture diet. If grain is what they are fed throughout their life, this fat will be seen marbled throughout the flesh. This marbling helps keep the flesh moist during cooking and fat does give flavour, but the degree that is desirable is much more subjective. Even cattle that spend the majority of their lives on pasture are usually fed some grain during the last six months of their life, at which time the fat is seen as a covering layer. This fat is especially desirable to protect the meat whilst the carcase is dry aged (of which more in a moment).
Some breeds are more prone to putting on fat than others – like humans I suppose. The Wagyu breed, which originates from Japan but is also particularly favoured in Australia, is characterised by a flesh so heavily marbled with fat that the overall colour is almost white. The texture is, reputedly, as soft as butter, but texture is not flavour. It is widely recognised that tenderness and flavour in meat are usually at opposite ends of the same continuum, with the most flavoursome joints being those that need the longest, slowest cooking to render them tender. This has more to do with the work the animal has done during its life than what it has been fed. So the muscles of cattle that have ranged freely around a pasture will have been exercised more than those stood around the feed trough in a shed. The meat will be leaner, but despite the fact that fat does contribute flavour, the flesh itself will have a more complex flavour owing to the variety in the diet. I relate this best to game. A truly wild duck, for example, has almost no fat, unlike its domesticated cousins. In between the two are the “wild” mallards that are actually semi-tame. The ponds on which they live are so generously fed with grain that the birds need never fly very far in search of food. I always feel thoroughly short changed if I am sold one of these when I had been led to believe that the ducks were truly wild. Yet, I do occasionally enjoy eating a domestic duck, although flavour wise it is not in the same league as wild duck.
Another game example would be the difference between partridge and grouse. They are at completely different ends of the flavour spectrum, the partridge having been largely reared on corn, despite the freedom to search for its own food, and the grouse being a bird that completely defies domestication and lives entirely on foraged food, mainly heather. I would serve partridge to someone not used to eating game, but save grouse for a real aficionado.
Age at Slaughter
There is another consequence of grazing cattle on pasture that affects their flavour – age. Going back to my earlier point about grain being fed to fatten up a beast, pasture fed traditional breeds will take around three years to reach their optimum slaughter weight. However, since BSE in the 1980s, slaughtering animals beyond the age of 30 months involves a lot more bureaucracy, which most farmers would obviously prefer to avoid. Cattle over 30 months have to be sent to a specially licensed abattoir that will only be killing older animals on that day, then their backbone and spinal cord are removed and a sample sent to be tested by DEFRA. Only when the results come back clear is the beef allowed to leave the abattoir. Consequently the typical age at which even pasture fed beef will be slaughtered is 29 months, 3 weeks and 5 days. Age equals flavour (as well as a denser texture) and whilst 36 months might be the optimum point for many traditional breeds, 30 months is still at least 6 months older than most commercial cattle, and the very cheapest “bull beef” (intensively reared, uncastrated, male dairy-cross calves) are slaughtered before they are a year old. This represents a very large percentage of the beef sold today, particularly to the catering sector. So checking the age of the animal at slaughter is a vital component of taste.
Due to the differences in the agricultural roles traditionally performed, British Breeds have a higher proportion of “slow-twitch” muscles than the faster growing continental breeds. “Fast-twitch” muscles are good for sudden intense bursts of energy, but they are tougher, and contain less flavour than the “slow-twitch” muscle flavours, which are also higher in myoglobin (the substance that makes the meat read). You can taste this difference in poultry, where the darker meat of the legs contains more flavour than the paler breast meat. In the mid-eighteenth century, a gentleman farmer, Robert Bakewell, began making systematic records of the characteristics of various breeds, and then cross-breeding them for specific purposes. The British breeds were known for flavoursome beef and so exported worldwide, whilst continental breeds, with higher milk yields, were imported here for use in the dairy sector. You wouldn’t expect the beef from animals bred specifically for milk yield to be as flavoursome as beef breeds, but our traditional breeds have been so widely exported and cross-bred that it is now difficult to find pure strains. Under UK law, for beef to be classified as, for example, “Aberdeen-Angus” it needs only to be, genetically, at least half Aberdeen-Angus. Because of the amount of cross-breeding that has gone on in the past, most will be close to this 50% mark. Longhorn is however the one breed that was never exported and is thus becoming a popular pure British breed.
Whilst every breed of cattle has its own characteristics and you may develop your personal preference for one above another, many are regional and thus particularly suited to the local terrain. The Devon Ruby (or North Devon) is, for example, the traditional breed of Exmoor and the one with which I am most familiar, but any of the traditional breeds should be well suited to pasture rearing and require a similar time to reach maturity.
I promised earlier to return to the subject of dry ageing. After slaughter the meat needs a period of ageing during which rigor mortis will set, pass, and then gradually the molecular structure will break down, releasing the essential umami taste. Umami, which roughly translates as “essence of deliciousness” is the fifth Taste, and is attributed to glutamates being freed up as food, particularly meat, matures. Whilst alive these glutamates are bound together in protein molecules, but are released as these molecules break down. During the ageing process connective tissue also breaks down, tenderising the meat, so on this occasion there is no trade-off between tenderness and flavour – well hung meat will have both attributes.
But what about the term “dry ageing”. This means allowing the carcase (or the two cut halves of it) to hang in a cold room with the air circulating freely around it. If you are of a certain age yourself, having grown up with this a familiar sight in your butchers, you probably thought all meat was aged this way. Sadly, it now happens for only about 10% of the meat sold in this country.
The best that the rest of is likely to receive is an electric current running through the carcase for up to half an hour, which apparently does something towards tenderising it. After that it is cut into joints whilst the carcase is still warm, and transported to the supermarkets where it will be on the shelves within a few days. No ageing at all. Or it might undergo a period known as “wet-ageing”. This means that the joints are vacuum packed and left, sitting in their own juices, and becoming sour in smell and flavour. Beware; this beef can still be sold labelled “aged for xx days”. I have had several producers tell me that the meat is improving during this time in a vacuum pack. What they really like is the fact that this method does not allow any evaporation of moisture. After 35 days dry ageing the carcase will have lost about 20% of its weight. That’s an expense that has to be covered in the selling price, but well worth it for the increase in flavour. Dry-ageing does however require the meat to have a good covering of fat as it will develop some mould on the surface as it ages. This mould is harmless, in fact it releases its own enzymes which further help in the tenderising and flavour development process, however being only on the surface fat they are easily trimmed away before sale.
As to the exact length of ageing, again like game, it depends partly on your personal preference. Some producers tell me that their customers don’t like it to develop too much flavour, so stop at just 14 days. The Hobgoblin beer advertising line “What’s the matter Lagerboy, afraid you might taste something?” comes to mind. But it is true that there are cultural differences in how long the meat should hang, so that whilst 28 days is considered a good period in this country, properly hung meat in Argentina would usually receive twice as long.
Individual preferences regarding taste can be summarised as cultural differences between countries or even regions. Even in Britain, where the population has been very mobile since the Industrial Revolution, regional taste preferences can be identified and are said to be evident in differences in the taste buds on the tongue. There is a definite North/South divide in this respect, with the North (especially Scotland) having a greater preference for fat. It will be interesting to see whether the preference for leaner but “gamier” flavoured pasture fed beef over the fat-marbled but blander grain fed beef follows along similar North/South lines. The Japanese and Americans both value tenderness over flavour. Whilst the British cook knows that a good steak knife is essential, it seems that the Japanese want something that can be cut with chopsticks, and the Americans want to use just a fork!
If you would like the opportunity to compare the taste of different production methods one of the growing number of restaurants in London specialising in quality steak would be a good place to do so. For example, 34 on Grosvenor Square www.34-restaurant.co.uk features a giant Argentine parrilla – the charcoal grill on which the steaks are cooked. You can compare organic, pasture fed steaks from Argentina with Australian reared Wagyu fed on corn. Britain is represented by a number of breeds, reared in Scotland on summer pasture and silage in winter, and then there is USDA certified Black Angus steak reared in America, which is pasture grazed for most of its life but fed mainly on grain for the last six months. So if you can find a group of four people willing to share their steaks, you should be able to do a fair comparison between the feeding regimes. It has to be admitted that pasture fed beef is less consistent in results than grain fed, varying depending on the quality of the pasture and weather conditions (which in turn affect the quality of the pasture). This is something I have most often experienced with unpasteurised cheese, which can taste very different from one day’s milking to the next. But for me the highs outweigh the lows and both are far preferable to a consistently bland product. So your tasting exercise should ideally be repeated a few times before you make a final decision about your preference.
From Field to Plate
Because dry ageing has such an impact on both taste and tenderness, it would be a crying shame for farmers who have reared their animals with the utmost care and attention to fail at this final hurdle. Traditionally the farmer’s role in the food chain ended when he took his livestock to market. Now, if they are to enjoy a premium for producing something special, farmers need to remain involved with the chain almost through to the consumer’s plate. Pasture fed beef, from traditional breeds slowly reared to full maturity, must be slaughtered without stress, dry aged for an appropriate time (which, I personally would want to be at least 28 days) and then butchered to the customer’s requirements. Butchery skills are themselves dying out, and whilst supermarkets are part of the reason, I trace the butcher’s demise back to the Foot and Mouth crisis. Whilst BSE was viewed as being relevant only to those eating burgers, the Foot and Mouth crisis impacted on everyone living in the countryside. Even farmers were shocked to find out just how far the animals they had sold at market had actually travelled before slaughter. This was a massive wake up call to us all, although not it seems, sufficient to have changed some of the worst aspects, such as the distance livestock travelled for slaughter for the convenience of supermarket centralised processing. Instead, we saw the closure of so many of our small local abattoirs, changing forever the butcher’s role in the food chain as few now choose their animals when live, taking over the process from slaughter. Instead, they more often buy from wholesalers, who learnt that in order to reassure the public it was important that butchers could still tell them which farm their meat had come from, so this information was provided and often displayed proudly on boards. But scratch the surface by asking just a few questions about the way that the animal had been reared and the subterfuge was evident. This, I hope, is where the “QR” codes will step in. I hope too that they can be updated with information about how the meat has been aged.
Not only does a good butcher need to have sourced the finest pasture fed beef from a traditional British breed and dry aged it for at least 28 days, he then has to know how to cut it. This is not as simple as it sounds. Peter Greig of Piper’s Farm in Devon, who rears Devon Ruby cattle, found it so difficult to get his meat butchered as he wanted that he went to France to learn the skills and then built his own on-site butchery. And whilst buying direct is one way of ensuring the provenance of meat, I have frequently found the cuts are only offered vacuum packed, and then often not cut as I would like them. So please do support those few remaining skilled butchers. Because the taste of beef depends not only on how it is reared but how it is cooked it makes sense to provide tips for this too. I have given some of my own here.