As a Mississippi Market shopper, you already know the advantages that grass-fed beef offers environmentally and nutritionally; they’re probably why you buy it. Or maybe you’re nostalgic for the taste of beef you remember from a grandparent’s farm. That beef didn’t taste like feed-lot beef, and it didn’t cook like it, either. Neither does the beef from Mississippi Market’s meat department. It’s those cooking differences I’m addressing here.
Cattle came to be “finished” on corn in the post-Civil War era, when they were first herded into vast feedlots prior for slaughter. Corn made them gain weight quickly, and the fact that their digestive systems weren’t equipped to handle it didn’t matter when they were only days away from becoming beeves. Gradually, feedlot practices extended to more and more of beef cattle’s lifespan, because such practices made it possible for cattlemen to “finish” their animals at a much younger age. But by feeding cattle corn and soybeans after weaning, cattle ranchers also introduced digestive problems that they solved by dosing the animals with antibiotics. You’ve heard and deplored the rest of that story.
Grass-fed cattle are older and leaner than grain-fed ones when they go to slaughter. Because they’ve been eating sun-fueled grasses, their fat is yellower. Their meat is gamier tasting because their muscle mass is more concentrated—these cattle have moved around freely rather than being crowded together in concentrated feed lots.
What this tells us is that their meat should be treated more like game meat than conventional feed-lot beef:
1) Cook it low and slow rather than fast and furious. Happily, there’s a perfect, traditional medium for doing this: cast iron, which rewards slow preheating (5 minutes on MEDIUM) with juicy, crisp-surfaced beef patties, steaks, and braised cuts.
2) Anoint the meat with oil before pan-frying or braising it. Treat your grass-fed, whole-muscle cuts with an olive oil- or peanut oil-based marinade or rub. This meat isn’t as fatty as conventional beef – it needs a surface coating to protect it while it cooks.
3) Don’t overcook—remember, food finishes cooking off the heat. If you’re a bread or cake baker, you know that you can bend your ear to a baking pan you’ve removed from the oven and still hear the snapping and crackling of the grain 5 minutes after that pan’s been standing on a cooling rack. Similarly, meat continues cooking for about 10 minutes after it’s been taken off the heat. So quit while you’re ahead, particularly with grass-fed beef: give it time to complete its cooking off the heat source, and you’ll be rewarded by tastier, more tender meat.
4) Learn your cuts and adjust your cooking accordingly. Because of its leanness, grass-fed beef offers you less of a margin for error when it comes to choosing cuts and cooking methods. Take advantage of Mississippi Market’s full-service meat department to learn the optimal cuts for the dish you have in mind. For some, you may need to add extra fat in the form of, say, bacon or pancetta.
Grass-fed beef has a more vivid flavor than grain-fed beef, so you can pile on other strong flavors (tomatoes, mushrooms) without losing the terrific beefiness of a dish; you may need even less meat to accomplish the same culinary effect because of the concentrated flavor. Hey—worse things have happened!