Beef comes in all different cuts and size so knowing your cuts of the high-protein meat is important. When it comes to cooking the beautiful meat, your satisfaction is dependent on how you like it cooked from Blue rare (almost raw) through to well done (broiled until thoroughly brown). No matter what, cut or style of cooking you choose, your beef will ultimately depend on what you have.
By that I mean whether the cattle are grass fed as with milking cows or fed and raised conventionally with cattle feed. All of this will contribute to various characteristics in flavor, texture, fat percentage and the size of the meat – which I will delve into briefly during this article.
First, we’ll start with taste. Arguably what we cook beef for taste, flavor, tang, smack…whatever you call it, how the beef tastes are of superior importance to any other factor in preparing a delicious piece of meat. The minority of beef production is grass fed which means it’s free to roam around the land it has available and consume as much grass as the land can yield. The taste will vary to a greater degree with grass-fed cows. No patch of land is uniform and will always be subject to weather.
A drier grass will produce drier beef due to less moisture in the grass. Grass makes for a leaner cow which in turn produces leaner beef. Many would argue this creates less variation in flavor due to less moisture in the meat which can far more quickly become overcooked. Meanwhile, the majority of beef is grain fed which allows farmers to create consistent flavor through the grains being uniform. That said, almost all ethically raised cows will start their lives on grass before being bulked up with grain to achieve the desired weight for production.
The actual look of grass-fed beef vs. grain fed beef differs in small ways. The cut of the beef would be the same, let’s say ribeye steak. However small variances appear when you look more closely at the color. Grass fed cow will be richer in color, and a deeper red will usually be present thanks to the lean diet of a grass-fed cow. Opposingly, the grain fed beef will have a lighter, more pinkish shade of red. This is primarily due to the fact grain is used to fatten up the cows to be sold on which means the higher fat and water content bulk the meat and wash out the deep, natural color of grass-fed meat.
From the outside, the beef will look the same, but the texture of the beef will change because of the amount of fat attached to it. Usually, the fat will surround the outer layers of the meat with streaks of fat running through the middle contributing the overall flavor. Fat also contributes largely to the texture. The fat is less rough than meat. Grain fed beef will be smoother than grass fed due to the uniformity of the meat. When cooking beef, you can change the texture of meat dramatically. For a harder, crisper outer layer your meat would be medium well done, and for a buttery soft outer texture, a rare cooked piece of beef would be perfect.
As I have mentioned previously, both grass fed beef and grain fed beef will vary in levels of fat. For a 3oz serving of beef, grass-fed beef will contain roughly 2.1 grams of fat giving it a fat percentage of 2.5% on average. Meanwhile, with an astonishing 8.5 grams of beef per serving means a piece of grain fed beef will average around 10% of fat. The fatter the beef, the more flavorsome as the fat cooks and oils drain through the meat too. This also helps the meat to cook more thoroughly as the fat around the edges – as well as ladened through the inside of the cut – means the meat sucks up the fatty acids. Grass-fed beef will also be lower in fat because the cattle are free to roam the land they have available. This exercise keeps the cows lean almost all year-round meaning the meat remains consistently lean all year round.
Grain fed cattle will be significantly larger than grass-fed cattle for two reasons: diet, and exercise. Those cattle free to walk around the fields and graze not only shred fat through exercise but will also be eating grass which is leaner than conventional feed. Less fat simply equals less cow meaning the cuts of meat must be smaller. A larger cow will traditionally be grain fed and raised in feedlots which control their flavor much more but are mainly for bulking cows up to be sold.
All in all, there are a lot of variations in beef shape, size, weight, fat, taste, cooking style. The list is endless which is why it’s so crucial to learning early on what you want when it comes to having the right cut of meat for a certain dish or desired flavor. There is also a certain degree of ethical decisions to be made when choosing either grain or grass-fed beef.