Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Beef in the Afternoon

Last week we brought in steaks from five different suppliers for a big tasting. I've been thinking about offering meat for sale through our catalog and website so I thought we should taste some of what's out there. We were tasting strips and sirloins. There was beef from cows that had been fed only grass (Lasater and La Cense) and from cows that had been finished on corn (Niman Ranch, Omaha and Roadhouse farm). Some was dry aged in meat lockers and some was wet aged in cry-o-vac. 

Brad and Kristie continue snacking.

We cooked them on wood fired grills and they came out in waves, twenty steaks in all, over two hours on a Wednesday afternoon. I'm sure everyone went home and took a nap. It was a gout-a-thon.

We do tastings all the time, at least once a month for dozens of foods. This was different, more complex, because there were so many moving parts. The steaks were different ages, from different animals, different thicknesses, some had bones, and they all had to be cooked to come out at the same done-ness. 

The real complication was grass fed beef. Unless you've been to Argentina chances are you've never had beef that comes from a cow entirely raised on grass. For many decades we've finished American beef on corn, which means that the animal eats grass for some of its life (all cattle start on grass) and ends up eating corn at the end. The corn adds weight to the animal up quickly, some of it as intra-muscular fat that's desirable for its texture. Corn, it turns out, makes steak soft and luxurious. 

In contrast grass fed beef is more chewy. This is not a big deal to some (ribeye lovers!) but to others (petite filet aficionados) it's less desirable. In the end, though, grass feeding is the most traditional way to raise cattle. And, in terms of the health of the environment and the cow, it's the most sustainable. People always say that we're not ready for grass fed beef. Supposedly we're all suckers for soft marshmallow steaks raised on corn and we'll never turn back. After this tasting I'm not so sure.

At the end, the Roadhouse's beef was a favorite and it is finished on corn. But several of us also thought La Cense's 100% grass fed beef was very promising. I'm going to continue to work with them since they can ship.

After tasting, we visited Chef Alex's meat locker behind the Roadhouse where they store beef cuts that are dry aging. 

 Chef Alex in the meat locker.

When beef dry ages it forms a soft white and green mold on its surface. It is washed off before being cut into steaks and cooked. The dry aging concentrates and expands flavors as well as changing the texture. Many describe the taste of dry aged beef with words like "mineral."

Each cut in the meat locker is dated by this simple, ingenious method. The beef we tasted had been aged about five weeks, which Alex things is just about best for the cattle he gets.

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