Gather ’round, y’all – today Beloved gives you his treatise on The Benefits of Grass-Fed Beef. Oh, and his instructions on How to Grill the Perfect Steak is at the end.
Why Grass fed beef is better for you.
The simple answer is that it tastes better and is better for your health. But please bear with me as we summarize the history of beef and explore why the food of our food isn’t questioned by most of us – and why it should be. Then we will get to how to prepare this tasty steak on the barbie!
The History of Moo
Until the end of World War II most cows were raised entirely on grass. With the industrialization of the economy after the war, grain production became inexpensive and farmers started to find it more profitable per acre to raise grain. But production quickly exceeded demand and prices fell to the point where it became more profitable to feed grains to livestock previously grazed in the pasture. In the 1950s chickens were pulled out of the pasture, away from predators, and stuck into large chicken houses where they were fed only grain – now most are lucky if they ever see sunlight. The first commercial feedlots for cattle started appearing soon after the war. It is more than a coincidence that these dates correspond with the rapid rise in the diseases of Western Culture: chronic heart disease (CHD), diabetes, obesity, and cancer.
To understand why grain became more profitable than raising livestock we need to go back to the days of FDR’s interference in open markets with the alphabet soup of regulations such as the AAA (Agricultural Adjustment Act) when 25% of the population lived on farms and the government started paying farmers not to farm. But in time even hard core altruists realized there was something wrong with this and instead of paying farmers to do nothing, the government started paying farmers more money than grains were worth which lead to artificial over-production. The cost of corn subsidies to large commercial farmers is a huge chunk of the annual $20 billion farm subsidy program which over stimulates production (it really is as simple as supply and demand) so that the US only utilizes (over-utilizes due to the artificially deflated prices) 50% of the corn produced. But this money is not going to the small independent farmer (who the FDA is pushing out of the market every day) as originally intended. Almost all of the money is now going to large agricultural conglomerates. Furthermore, corn sucks nitrogen from the soil at a deleterious rate that crop rotation can’t replenish, but farmers can’t afford to stop producing it for fear of losing their subsidies (see Joel Salatin, recent FDA powers, and Food Inc.). So they turn to genetically modified crops and have put our entire food source in bed with the devil. There is no surety of safety or even a content label on the Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) corn being fed to us or our beef. Just consider that Monsanto has capitalized on genetically engineered E. Coli to create Posilac so dairy cows could lactate 10% more during their lactation cycle. But that is at another post for another day (but just read the Wikipedia entry on Monsanto for an objective but boot rattling history of this evil empire with roots in developing Agent Orange).
As assembly line industrialization pushed the local farmer out of business, large Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), out of necessity, started adding antibiotics to the cows’ diet as growth stimulants and to prevent disease such as E Coli. Hormones are also fed to these cows to speed growth (and get them to market more quickly) even though the effect on humans has not been fully studied. According to Michael Pollen, a buck and a half of growth hormone that adds 40 or 50 pounds to a cow will return at least $25 when it is slaughtered. $23.50 may not seem much to you in exchange for risking your health for an entire cow, but if you were investing in cows you would be hard pressed not to make the investment.
But how does Elsie feel about all this?
Cows have a four chambered stomach and the first part of the digestive process of ruminants (animals that eat grass) is to soften the grass in the first chamber before it is regurgitated and the cow “chews it’s cud” to further break down the plant matter which resists giving up nutritional content. But farmers discovered that cows could be fed corn that makes them nice and fat, which in turn makes for nice marbleized steaks that consumers seem to like. Plus, the beeves increase in weight (and price) by about 50% as a result of finishing them on grains (like highly subsidized corn). But cows never evolved to eat corn, which can’t be ruminated and has the same effect on them as it does on humans – it makes them fat. And like us, it increases their susceptibility to illness. E. coli O157:H7 – the really dangerous kind – is rampant in grain fed cows and very rare in grass fed beef, where acid resistant strains are virtually non-existent. According to a Cambridge Study (James B. Russel in Rumen Microbiology and Its Role in Ruminant Nutrition) grass fed animals have 80% less of the E. Coli strain that causes illness in humans. Mad cow disease is a direct result of CAFOs feeding cows the tissues of other animals – certainly excluded from the diet of a pastured, grass fed steer. And I warn the reader that not all by-products are currently banned as a food source for all livestock in the US.
OK, so our food is being poisoned but I am no fan of PETA. If it is economically more efficient and the cow dies sick, why do I care if it costs me less to get more?
The short answer is a bit self-evident: all carnivorous animals know to avoid eating sick animals! However, there are direct health differences between grain finished and grass fed beef. Grass fed beef contains a much healthier ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 fats. Having the right balance of Omega 3s, which are rare in foods compared to Omega 6 fats, represents up to a 50% reduction in the risk of a heart attack. Ideally, our diet should include a ratio of about 2:1 (Omega 6 to Omega 3) but the Standard American Diet (SAD) is closer to 20:1. According to A.P. Simopolous and Jo Robinson, a proper balance of Omega 3 to Omega 6 has been linked to ADD, Alzheimer’s & Depression. Grass fed beef is also a great source for Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) which is five times that derived from CAFO beef. Effective CLA consumption has been shown to reduce cancer. CLA is a result of rumination in grass fed beef and the artificial supplements have been shown to be harmful as is well described in Mark Sisson’s excellent and detailed blog post on CLA. It is also suggested that grass fed beef contains five times the vitamin E of grain fed beef. Significant health benefits have been sacrificed since the inception of grain finished/CAFO beef. It seems obvious that the additional investment in quality food will be saved in long term health care costs.
So what – how does it taste?
Growing up in the Midwest farm belt I have always heard of how preferable “corn fed beef” is. Dry aged corn fed beef costs over $50 an entre in fine restaurants. Ruth Chris Steakhouse offers only Grain Finished beef – but just try to get out of that place alive for under a hundred dollars. The standard American palate has forgotten what beef is supposed to taste like. I, like this CAFO beef farmer, had NEVER even tasted grass fed beef until recently. When we first researched this and called our favorite meat farmer, he told us to first go taste some grass fed beef (where we first met our favorite butchers, White Feather Meats) before we committed to a half a cow. As an honest guy he wanted to make sure we understood what we were investing in. Admittedly, the taste is distinctive. Frankly, I think the aroma of the preparation is the largest difference – stick a soup bone on the stove for half a day and you can smell the difference – it smells like grass. At first this seemed odd – mostly because I didn’t know better. But now, it makes my mouth water just to smell it in the kitchen and I can barely choke down commercial beef when I’m out to eat. Perhaps the biggest difference is in the fat. Grass fed beef if beef fed its natural fare, and like free range animals (such as bison, elk and deer) it is a leaner cut of meat. If you really believed in “Conventional Wisdom” and thought lean meat was healthier, you would never eat fatty, corn fed beef again. In the past, I always cut the excess fat away from grain finished beef – it is gross. However, since I started eating grass fed beef, and learned that animal fats are good for us (yet another post), I discovered that I look forward to eating the fat from grass fed beef. It really is tasty and healthy – the seared fat tips of a well-cooked steak are better than bacon!
Sure, grass fed beef costs a little more. It takes the farmer longer to raise to maturity and the farmer isn’t harvesting as many pounds per steer, but it is worth every penny. Since we buy half a cow at a time we pay about $4.75 a pound, which is a pretty good average considering a good steak is over $15 a pound and we get dozens of them. But what is really important is that we are now eating about every part of the cow: the nutrient rich organ meats, the luscious bone marrow, and we render the fat into tallow for healthy cooking without the harmful vegetable oils (and their commercially manufactured, rancid trans fats).
Nourri au Fourrage Entrecôte
Nourri au fourrage translates as grass-fed. Entrecôte is just a fancy French name for a rib eye steak – but it sounds so sophisticated! Rib eyes are also known as Delmonicos, though no one is quite sure which cut was originally served in the famous namesake New York restaurant. Previously, we had our butcher provide us with a standing rib roast (prime rib), but knowing that we won’t be hosting our traditional Christmas Excess this year we opted for more steak. MORE STEAK! How could we go wrong? But I never expected the rib eyes to be this tender and succulent.
This really isn’t a recipe as much as it is a technique. I don’t feign to be a barbeque expert, though my better half might object – at least she always eats it, but that may just be out of relief since she didn’t have to cook. What I do know is that perfecting the backyard grill is a lot like perfecting a relationship with your mate. You have to get to know your grill/girl: each has its subtle ways. Each requires a deft touch and delicate sense of taste. You don’t want either to run too hot or too cold. Patience and understanding is paramount. Whatever you do, the grill/girl is always right!
Outdoor charcoal grill
2 Sheets of newspaper
3 pounds of charcoal
Grass-fed Rib eye steaks
Fire proof tongs
Leave the steaks out at room temperature for at least 2 hours. Optionally, sprinkle them with a hardy steak rub. These bad boys need no help, though I will occasionally use a steak rub.
I can’t say enough about how much I love my chimney charcoal starter. It’s a nice clean fire (no starter fluid taste) that gets all the coals burning within 15-20 minutes for a nice evenly distributed fire. Disburse the coal bed evenly and raise the coals to about 2 inches from the grate.
Slap the steaks on the grill and sear each side for about 2 minutes. The idea is to lock in the moisture. If you like your steak medium rare, wait for the red glycogen to start to perspire at the top of the steak before flipping. If you like them medium, let them run a bit clear. If you like it burnt beyond repair well-done, wait for the juices to dry out.
Once seared, remove from direct heat by moving the steaks to the side and moving the coals down to about 4-5 inches. Flip for a sexy criss-cross char effect, but really it’s just about sustaining good heat until the steaks are cooked. You could always use a meat thermometer (145 degrees for medium rare) but in my experience this leads to over analyzing what just seems to come naturally.
The most important step is to resist the urge to cut into the delicious steak until it has rested for about 10 minutes. If you dig right in, all the juices will come pouring out and a lot of the flavor will be lost.
Posted in participation of Food Renegade’s Fight Back Friday