A large herd's worth of beef cattle has passed through the Cooking Light Test Kitchen over the past 24 years, almost all of it standard-issue, grain-fed supermarket meat. But with beef, as with everything in the American diet, change is afoot. Shoppers are seeing more and more grass-fed beef in regular grocery stores, along with meat from breeds marketed as special (like Angus), and meat from organically raised animals. The local/sustainable movement has been singing the praises of the grass-fed cow, while the grain-fed industry has been under attack by food activists. The grass-fed cow, which eats from a pasture and is not "finished" on a diet of grains and supplements for rapid weight gain, is said by its promoters to be better for the planet (less energy goes into growing grass than grain); better for the beef eater (less overall fat, and more omega-3s and other "good" fats); and better for the cow (critics decry feedlot practices as inhumane). In this article, though, we're looking not at meat politics but at three things that most cooks are acutely interested in: price, taste, and nutrition.
Price may be the first thing you have noticed about grass-fed beef: In supermarkets, small-production, grass-fed meat can be a lot more expensive than your average grain-fed beef, just as artisanal cheese costs more than industrial cheddar. But the cook will notice that the meat often looks different, too—sometimes a lot darker, often with less of the coveted fat-marbling you see in the highest-grade grain-fed meat.
To dive into the subject, we bought half a cow. Specifically, we bought half of a 648-pound Brangus cow, pasture-raised by Alabama farmer Melissa Boutwell, who is pretty local: She works about 175 miles from our main editorial offices. Boutwell Farms supplies regional restaurants, which have included James Beard Award–winning Chef Frank Stitt's restaurants in Birmingham.
We talked to Boutwell about her husbandry. We saw our meat through the butchering process, took delivery of 243 pounds of meat (plus bones) cut to our specifications, and conducted blind tastings in our Test Kitchen. We learned that we could dodge supermarket prices by buying in bulk: Our cost per pound of Boutwell's beef was $5.32, including everything from ground beef to liver to filet mignon, which made it only marginally higher than similar quantities of regular grain-fed beef prices in local supermarkets, and a lot less than we would have paid for premium grass-fed or grain-fed meat.
As for nutrition, we put fat-content claims to the test by sending some of our finest grass-fed steaks for nutritional analysis, along with supermarket and specialty grain-fed cuts.
And on the matter of taste, we confirmed that grass-fed beef can be delicious and versatile but, if it comes from a lean cow like the one we bought, requires careful cooking lest the extra effort of buying it go to waste on the plate. (We're still cooking our way through steaks, ground beef, chuck, roasts, and ribs, plus bones and organs, and we will provide beef recipes from our grass-fed project as the year goes on.)
Buying beef directly from farmers not only is a logical next step in the "buy local" movement but also hearkens back to the way many of our parents or grandparents bought meat. All you need is to do some digging for local suppliers and buy a good-sized freezer for the supply (find our primer on sourcing and buying). Some readers are already doing it, as we learned after putting the word out on Facebook, and one benefit of bulk buying is that it obliges the cook to experiment and enjoy less familiar cuts of meat.
"Purchasing a quarter cow was very educational," says Cooking Light reader Julie Lineberger. "I had never even cooked a roast, and now I am comfortable with roasts, brisket, and all sorts of cuts."
Of course, most cooks won't want to buy a whole grass-fed cow or even a half-cow. One option is to "cow-pool" with curious friends. Another is to turn to a CSA, or community-supported agriculture group. CSAs have been popping up like mushrooms in many cities, and many deliver quantities of meat on a weekly or monthly basis.
The Skinny on Grass-Fed Beef
As we stood at the checkout at a Publix supermarket with some grass-fed cuts, a young checkout clerk asked, "So, what is grass-fed beef?" Hearing the short answer—meat from cows that eat only grass—he looked surprised. "I thought all cows just ate grass."
All cows do graze on pasture for the first six months to a year of their lives, but most finish at a feedlot on a concentrated mix of corn, soy, grains, and other supplements, plus hormones and antibiotics. This growth-spurt formula is the backbone of a hugely productive U.S. beef industry. A feedlot cow can grow to slaughter weight up to a year faster than a cow fed only forage, grass, and hay. "That's one year that you don't have to feed the cows in the feedlot," notes Eatwild.com founder Jo Robinson, who spent the past decade examining scientific research comparing grass-fed and grain-fed animals. "Conventional factory meat is so cheap because they've done everything to speed growth and lower the cost of feed."
The feedlot process not only speeds the animal to slaughter weight but also enhances fat marbling, which is one factor that determines a cut of beef's USDA rating—the more fat within the red meat, the richer the taste, the higher the grade. Most supermarket beef is Choice, which is one step below Prime, the top grade typically found in steak houses.
Boosting fat levels changes the nutritional composition of the meat, of course, and, from a health point of view, not for the better. A study by researchers at California State University in Chico examined three decades of research and found that beef from pasture-raised cows fits more closely into goals for a diet lower in saturated fat and higher in "good fats" and other beneficial nutrients. Grass-fed beef is lower in calories, contains more healthy omega-3 fats, more vitamins A and E, higher levels of antioxidants, and up to seven times the beta-carotene.
Skeptics such as Chris Raines, a professor of meat science at Penn State, say the benefits of the different fat profiles are overblown: "Some people get very excited about the fatty-acid profile of grass-fed beef. Then, in the same breath, they'll talk about how wonderfully lean it is. We're talking up the good fats that aren't really there."
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association, which says it supports all forms of beef production, echoes this much-ado-about-not-much theme. Shalene McNeill, who has a PhD in human nutrition and is Executive Director for Human Nutrition Research at the association, acknowledges that "if you feed (cows) grass, you can slightly increase the omega-3 content, but if you look at it in terms of a whole diet, it's not a significant advantage to human health." Ditto, McNeill says, for some other "good" nutrients.
Yet a 6-ounce grass-fed beef tenderloin may have 92 fewer calories than the same cut from a grain-fed cow. "If you eat a typical amount of beef per year," Robinson points out in Pasture Perfect, a book about the benefits of pasture-raised animals, "which in the United States is about 67 pounds, switching to grass-fed beef will save you 16,642 calories a year." It would also, if you paid supermarket prices and dined on tenderloin, cost you about $300 more.
Despite an uptick in consumer demand for grass-fed beef, the market is still relatively small—possibly less than 3% of all U.S. beef sales. And while the number of U.S. grass-fed beef producers is rising—from 50 in 2002 to more than 2,000 today—they face big challenges, including higher operating costs, a shortage of processors, loose standards for the definition of "grass-fed," a lack of consistent quality, and consumer wariness about taste and texture.