A Guide to Grass-Fed Beef

By Lynne Curry, guest contributor

This article was originally published in June 2023

Cows

About the time I became a regular farmers market shopper and CSA subscriber, I grilled my first-ever grass-fed steak. It was a one-inch-thick top sirloin, aka New York steak, maroon with an exterior ribbon of fat the color of butter. Seared over hardwood, it was medium-rare pink when I sliced it to serve over a pile of arugula, drizzled with chimichurri sauce, for my husband and myself to share.

I’d met the small-scale rancher who raised the cattle humanely, attentive not to overgraze the land. A local butcher had skillfully cut the steaks and ground the trim. For later meals, I’d press the ground beef into rosy-lean patties that cooked into truly unbeatable backyard burgers. 

Clearly, this was no ordinary beef. But what, exactly, made it different from other supermarket steaks and ground beef patties? 

In a nutshell, what makes grass-fed beef different is, well, grass. And I’m not just being cheeky.

In the strictest sense, grass-fed beef comes from animals that graze on native grasses, other herbaceous plants (like weeds) and legumes for their entire lives after weaning. 

Unlike the more than 95% of cattle raised for meat in feedlots, this means they never eat corn, soy, silage or any food waste. 

So, this nutrient-dense protein is not only leaner from exercised animals but also retains nutritional properties from a grass-rich diet, including vitamin E, polyunsaturated fatty acids, such as omega 3s and antioxidants, like beta carotene (hence the yellow-hued fat).

That’s the big difference between grain-fed and grass-fed. It leads to a taste that’s also distinctly different from grain-fed meats. With its uniquely deep, mineral, and even earthy flavors, some say that grass-fed beef is more like artisanal cheese, heritage grains or even fine wine. 

But this shorthand definition misses the bigger story of pasture-based meat production in the U.S.. When it comes to grass-fed beef, there’s a whole lot more than meets the (rib-)eye.

Labels and land

More than ever before, shoppers are seeking out animal products that are healthier for themselves, for the animals and people involved, and for the environment at large. As a result, interest in grass-fed beef has soared. Over the past three years, demand has increased by 5% annually, outpacing the current supply and ballooning this niche market to a value of $1 billion.

Responding to that greater focus on health and welfare, there are now more labels, certifications and stickers on meat packaging with claims like “pasture-raised,” “free-range” and “grass-fed.” The catch: since none of these terms is regulated by governmental agencies, it can be impossible for the everyday omnivore to decode. And some of the marketing is, undoubtedly, greenwashing.

At PCC, there’s a firewall. First, all livestock products sold must meet the co-op’s animal welfare and sustainability standards. On top of that, brands are vetted by meat and seafood merchandiser David Sanz and PCC’s Quality Standards team. 

Consumers who eat beef can vote with their dollars for producers trying to mitigate its impact

For PCC, the grass-fed beef brand of choice is Thousand Hills because it is certified organic—a co-op priority—as well as grass-fed. Based on a Minnesota ranch, the company sources beef from 50 independent ranchers throughout the Midwest, Northeast and West, with all beef USA-raised and processed. (More than three-quarters of grass-fed beef sold nationally is imported, by some estimates.) 

When it comes to grass-fed beef brands, Sanz says, “Thousand Hills is one of the best out there.” 

The company’s organic and grass-fed claims are backed by the United States Department of Agriculture organic standards for livestock production and the American Grassfed Association ruminant standards. Both are rigorous certification programs that involve routine on-farm inspections by third-party auditors to guarantee integrity and transparency. 

What this boils down to is that these farm animal products are free from subtherapeutic antibiotics and synthetic hormones, GMOs, grains or byproducts. The cattle graze on organically managed pastures. Thousand Hills calls it “lifetime grazed 100% grass-fed beef.” 

Beyond the beef

But for owner Matt Maier, the quality of the beef is only one part of the business. All participating Thousand Hills ranches are just as focused on their most valuable assets: land, water and air. 

Through a comprehensive program called Land to Market aimed at regenerative agriculture, Thousand Hills farmers collect data to measure the impacts of their grazing activities on plant diversity, wildlife and pollinator habitat, erosion, water cycling, soil microbial activity and carbon storage, among many other bioindicators. 

There’s no doubt that beef has a significant environmental footprint, but consumers who eat it can vote with their dollars for producers trying to mitigate its impact. For ranches participating in Land to Market, the goal is to track continuous ecological improvement—or remedial actions whenever necessary. They are part of the ongoing (and hotly debated) scientific investigation to document how well pasturelands absorb excess carbon from the atmosphere and how much they can mitigate emissions emitted by grazing cattle. The majority are family farms in rural communities.

Healthful, humane and holistic food products also come at other costs. Compared to conventional (aka grain-fed feedlot) beef, genuine grass-fed beef runs, on average nationwide, twice the price or more. Even with food prices rising across the board, the demand for grass-fed beef keeps heating up. 

Maier reports that his company sees 15 to 20% sales increases every year. At the other end of the supply chain, Sanz has witnessed price increases over the past several years, though he tries to absorb or counteract some of their effects on shoppers. 

Eating well

One way to save, Sanz suggests, is to look for super specials and daily deals on grass-fed products, like ground beef. PCC fresh grinds extra-lean (93% lean/7% fat), lean (85% lean/15% fat) and standard (80% lean/20% fat) Thousand Hills grass-fed beef by the pound. 

Grass-fed steak cuts—including New York, rib, skirt and flank—are also stocked fresh throughout the grilling season and can be cut thicker or thinner to order. At any PCC meat counter, “if a customer doesn’t see something they want, we can cut it,” Sanz says.

In general, grass-fed beef cuts tend to be smaller with less marbling than grain-fed beef. So, he says, “You want to be conscious of how you’re cooking it and not overcook it.” While that’s good advice for all proteins, be aware that, because of its leanness, grass-fed beef cooks over high heat more quickly than other types of beef. (When cooler cooking weather comes, be aware that braising cuts actually cook slower!)

In the many years since my first grass-fed steak supper, it’s become second nature for me to stand watch near the grill to monitor the flames and keep tabs on the temperature. (I highly recommend a digital instant-read thermometer to eliminate any guesswork.) I generally cook smaller cuts to 5 to 7 degrees below the finishing temperature, so if I want a medium-rare steak to finish up at 135 degrees Fahrenheit I take it off the grill at 128 to 130 degrees to rest.

Medium-rare lends the juiciest results, but for medium and beyond, I just finish the meat over low heat—or even off the heat under a bowl for a few minutes. Because everyone should have great beef served to their liking.

My other habit is not only economical and healthful, but has also instilled more creativity in my cooking: From carne asada tacos and kebabs to noodle bowls and steak salads, beef is always served in balance with everything else. As a rule, four to six ounces is about right in my book. 

So, like the single New York steak I long ago sliced to share with my husband, the meals I prepare for family and friends always include meat portions accompanied by bowls of fresh cut vegetables and platters of grilled seasonal vegetables along with lively herb sauces and plenty of grilled bread or flatbread. 

Many ranchers I talk to who produce grass-fed beef insist that their beef is to be purchased, cooked and enjoyed mindfully. It isn’t anything like commodity beef, they say, because—even beyond the animal’s welfare—it takes more time, attention, skill and more land to finish cattle solely on the best-quality grass. They see it as a hard-earned and time-honored craft, one where the effort shines through in the flavors.

Try one bite and just see if you don’t agree.

 

Lynne Curry is author of “Pure Beef: An Essential Guide to Artisan Beef with Recipes for Every Cut,” a book on cooking and understanding grass-fed beef. She lives in Oregon’s Wallowa Valley.

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