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Grass-fed beef: The skinny on buying good fat.

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You work hard, you train hard, and you eat a healthy diet. You know that eating grass-fed is the healthy choice, but aside from the documented health benefits of eating grass-fed animals, do you know what to expect from your grass-fed meat? Did you know that it tastes and cooks differently? Do you know that all grass-fed beef is not created equal? Most people either don’t know what to expect or think it’s going to be the same as the typical grocery store steak and they prepare it as such. And its not! There are a few things you should know about grass-fed meat in order to make your dining experience the best it can be.

Most supermarkets and butcher shops carry grain-finished animals that stood in a small pen for their last several months of life, typically on concrete with an endless supply of food right in front of them. A grain-fed animal has to move only about 10 feet to obtain food or water. A penned animal will have less muscle tone, more fat and consequently will also be tenderer. The meat is also less healthy; it has a high concentration of inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids that we’re trying to lower, right? A few businesses also raise their cattle on grass for the majority of its life, and then feed grain for the last 30-days. We think this is kind of like a quarterback sprinting towards the goal line, and then spiking the football ten yards short of a touchdown. Ummm *clearing my throat* feeding your animals grain makes them no longer “grass-fed”. All joking aside, the practice changes the entire composition of the meat and fat. You loose all the health benefits of a grass-fed animal. Yes, even with just 30 days of grain feeding. Make sure you ask if the animal has ever been fed grain. The answer should be no.

Some grass-feed beef producers are actually marketing dairy cattle as grass-fed beef. While technically they are grass-fed because they have only eaten silage and grass their entire life, the flavor just doesn't compare. Dairy cattle were bred to produce milk not beef. They have also likely been given hormones to increase milk production at some point in their life. It’s okay to ask your farmer which breed(s) they raise. If they respond with Holstein, Guernsey, Jersey or some other dairy breed, I’d search elsewhere. Beef cattle breeds such as Angus are well known for their efficiency in converting grass to mass, and for producing a much more flavorful steak.

Grass-fed beef has a richer flavor than grain-fed beef, and has a very different fatty acid profile than its grain-fed counterparts. The difference in taste is notable. The pastured beef is light on the stomach and doesn’t leave you with that rock-in-your-gut feeling after eating it. Since a grass-fed animal has to walk around and forage for its meal, the meat can sometimes be slightly less tender than what most folks are used to eating. A grass-fed animal will cover acres upon acres during his daily travels. He is thus; a more muscled animal and a bit less tender. His taste is really wonderful though. The flavor will also vary a bit depending on the time of year and whether he has been in the hills during the winter or the valley on irrigation during the summer. The change in feed changes the flavor slightly.

There are also differences in the way grass-fed vs. grain-fed cooks. It's very easy to ruin a grass-fed steak. It’s a leaner meat, so if cooked too hot or too long all the fat (which as you know is healthy and tasty) gets cooked off and you're left with a dry, tough steak with a lower nutritional value. It should be cooked slower, at a lower temperature and left a bit on the rare side. You will have a wonderful, healthy, delicious, tender steak. Some other helpful tips for cooking include allowing the steak to reach room temperature before throwing it on the grill. Tossing a cold steak on the BBQ often results in an overcooked exterior and a very rare center. Also, don't season the steaks too far ahead of your planned cooking time (unless marinating, of course!). The seasoning will draw moisture from the steak and you will end up with a dry hunk of meat. Season the steaks just before cooking. Cook grass-fed cuts about 50 degrees lower than you would for grain-fed meat, and don't flip the steaks using a fork. Forks will pierce the meat and allow all the cooking juices to escape, which is bad unless you like your steak to resemble jerky. For roasts, stop cooking about 10 degrees shy of your target. They will come up to temp as they rest.

Happy grilling!

Wendy and Duane Massa are the owners of a small sustainable family farm called Massa Natural Meats. After searching for a healthier alternative for their family’s diet, they realized a real market need existed for all natural, grass-fed meats, and so Massa Natural Meats was born.

For over forty years, the Massa Family has been actively involved in the beef industry, beginning with a small herd of registered Angus cattle in the 1970’s. Selective breeding and careful range management have uniquely created a group of animals that have become a healthy and sustainable alternative to factory farm practices. They currently offer all natural, humanely raised, 100% grass-fed beef grown in the valley and foothills of Northern California and shipped right to your door. You can find them online at www.MassaNaturalMeats.com.

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