Monday, November 5, 2007

Have It Your Way ... Grass or Grain-Fed Beef

by Lourdes Castro

I was in Dallas a couple of weeks ago attending the Les Dames d’Escoffier national conference. While I never made it to South Fork, I did get to go Fort Worth – a.k.a cattle country. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you they eat, think, and sleep beef there.

Upon returning to New York, I took notice of something I hadn’t really paid much attention to before. Steakhouses are everywhere. And it’s not just the old school usual suspects – Morton’s, Peter Lugar, The Palm. Big name chefs are also opening these carnivorous outposts and achieving much success – Tom Colicchio with Craftsteak, Laurent Tourondel with BLT Steak, even Wolfgang Puck has Cut.

Servers at Peter Luger.
Visit any one of these and you will see a new trend – options. So many, in fact, that it has given a new meaning to “have it your way.”

Not only do you get to choose the cut of beef and its degree of doneness, you also get to select its genetic lineage, place of birth, even its preferred diet. (Racial profiling if I ever heard of it.)

While you won’t be choosing if the beef your eating was a blond or a brunette, you will be deciding if that steer ate grass his whole life or if it was “finished” with grain. Which brings us to the grass versus grain debate. I put finished in quotes because all cattle begin their lives grazing on grass. Its what they eat the last 60 to 120 days of their lives that determines if they are grass or grain fed.

Grass is the natural choice for cattle. Grain was introduced to them after WWII as a way of fattening up the cattle during the last 2-3 months of their lives before being slaughtered.

At the time, a swift fattening was needed to help the ranchers deliver beef quickly to market. Americans took to the flavor of grain finished beef and now expect it. Cattle raised entirely on grass just doesn’t cut it for many.
Clockwise from top left: The Palm's Steak; Morton's Steak; Steak at Craftsteak; BLT's Steak.
However, grass feeding ranchers have been working hard at changing that. They are paying attention to the type of grass they are feeding their cattle as they have realized that, just as in wine, the terrior or the landscape is passed through to the beef.

Grass fed beef is also considered “green” because it is not only environmentally sound and allows for sustainable agriculture, but the beef it produces is higher in nutritional value - Omega 3, Vitamin E, Beta Carotene - and lower in fat and calories. (Remember we eat what the cow eats…think of the nutritional profile of fibrous grass versus starchy corn.) In addition, most grass cattle are not given hormones or antibiotics – mostly because they don’t need them.

I have only been able to scratch the surface on this debate. But hopefully you have enough information to help you start making an educated choice. And then maybe you’ll be prepared to properly select from a steakhouse menu.