Grass-Fed Beef versus Grain-Fed Beef

If you've wondered about grass-fed beef, here's the skinny on price, quality, taste, and cooking.

Kim Cross

Meeting the Meat

Standing in a meat locker among a small crowd of hanging beef sides at a family-run abattoir, we learned some lessons about beef from a guy with an 8-inch knife and a rancher who was wearing eye shadow. Melissa Boutwell, the rancher, practices rotational grazing with the deliberate precision of an industrial process engineer. She had offered to let us choose our half-cow in person. Bill Towson, the butcher and owner of the family-run Towson Fine Meats in Tifton, Georgia, agreed to let us watch his team cut up Boutwell's cow to fit our specifications.

Towson made a clean slice between the 12th and 13th ribs of an Angus cow and a Brangus (an Angus-Brahman hybrid), two grass-fed cows raised in identical conditions. "USDA inspectors use this single cut to determine the grade of the entire cow," said Boutwell, who raised both of these animals. Delicate veins of fat running through the meat play a critical role in flavor and grade. It was easy to see the difference in the exposed rib eyes: The Angus had more marbling compared to the superlean Brangus. Next to our Brangus carcass was a much scrawnier specimen that had little fat and whose meat had the dried-out look of jerky.

Another lesson, then, about grass-fed beef: It's not only about the grass, but also the breed, and the cow.

We were looking for a lower-fat cow, so we chose the Brangus. Though lean, it was still blanketed with a jacket of fat that would play a flavor role in the evolution of the meat. The fat would mostly get trimmed away during the butchering, but before then it would protect the meat during the dry-aging period, usually 10 to 14 days, in which the carcass hangs in a cold locker while natural enzymes break down tough muscle fiber and tenderize the meat. It's worth noting that although the best steak-house steaks are dry-aged, most supermarket beef is wet-aged in a plastic vacuum-sealed bag that prevents shrinkage but also precludes the concentration of beefy flavor that occurs with water loss. The amount of fat cover also determines how much is available to go into the ground beef—which we ordered in 85/15 and 90/10 meat-to-fat ratios.

The fat on our grass-fed cow looked different from the fat we have been accustomed to cooking. Compared to the bright, white fat of conventional beef, grass-fed fat is often yellower, stemming from the higher levels of beta-carotene. And as we would learn, the quantity and the quality of our cow's fat would play a key role in cooking.

The Bottom Line: Taste and Tenderness

Our Test Kitchen experimented with various cuts of grass-fed beef, both from our Brangus cow and from local supermarkets. The meat had good, clean beefy flavor but tended to be a lot chewier than we were used to, and sometimes drier. There can be such a thing as too lean in beef cuts that are conventionally fairly high in fat, like strip steaks and other luxury cuts. Adjustments had to be made for these steaks, which were producing less fat in the pan than we were used to and could turn tough.

"Fat is an insulator," says Deborah Krasner, author of Good Meat, the first major cookbook dedicated to sustainable meats. "So if you cook something that's very fatty, and you cook it badly, it's still going to taste pretty good because fat insulates the meat. When you have leaner meat, you don't have that safety net, so you have to cook it carefully." Cook with care, or chew like crazy, basically.

"Carefully" means that tougher cuts like short ribs or brisket require the very-low-and-slow approach—long cooking at low temperatures. But it means cooking a tender steak more aggressively than you might be used to for such a pricey cut. We decided to really turn up the heat on a thick, 12-ounce grass-fed New York strip purchased at Whole Foods, preheating a cast-iron pan on high, turning on the fan, and nearly smoking out the kitchen when the meat hit the metal. Testers were coughing and shaking their heads as the vent fans roared. After a billowing three-minute sear on each side, there was very little fat in the pan. Previous tests suggested that the meat, though good, would lack the buttery deliciousness many of us like in this rare treat. Recipe tester Robin Bashinsky turned down the heat and began basting the steak with two pats of butter (see Pan-Seared Strip Steak recipe). When done, the meat got a short rest under foil and then was sliced; it was perfectly medium-rare within.

Could a grass-fed cut, with its lower-fat content, rival a grain-fed cut? Yes: It was succulent, buttery, and robust, with a perfectly caramelized crust. The juices formed a simple, rich sauce.

But is this a paradoxical way to cook a steak bought in part for its lean fat profile—adding butter to "beef" up the flavor? (After all, grass-fed fans suggest it just takes time to come to love what Deborah Krasner calls "meatier, purer, more mineral" flavors.) Not necessarily. First, most of the butter does not cling to the beef, so we estimate the process adds less than half a gram of saturated fat to the final meat. (If you use the pan juices as a sauce, more is added, but total saturated fat for a serving is still only 4.4 grams.) Second, a cook may have bought grass-fed meat for many reasons—ecological, ethical, or to support local businesses—but still desires a hit of full-on steak-house flavor now and then.

As we tasted more beef, however, we found that there aren't clear-cut, consistent taste differences between grass-fed and grain-fed meat. This emerged after a blind tasting of eight New York strips, cooked identically. Samples included regular supermarket beef; steak from our grass-fed cow; and meat from a variety of grass-fed and grain-fed animals of different breeds raised in different states. The latter came from a "Discover Beef" tasting pack from The Artisan Beef Institute in Santa Rosa, California, whose founder, Carrie Oliver, applies the wine-tasting model to meats.

Our testers liked several samples but discovered no universal preference for grass-fed or grain-fed, finding various degrees of beefiness and juiciness across the samples. Beef really is like cheese or tomatoes or any other food: The proof is in the pudding, not in claims about the pudding. The cook needs to explore and sample with an open mind. But this is good: However the politics of beef resolve themselves, the move from industrial production toward more emphasis on breeds, feed, care, and provenance will present the American cook with more choice, more variety—and more pleasures in the kitchen and on the plate.