Every kid growing up in the 1960s wanted to be a cowboy.
What a life: blasting away at white guys dressed as Indians, slaughtering buffalo just for fun, git'n the doggies along. Of course, Kevin Costner spoiled it all for later generations. Images of sensitive frontier ranch hands munching on California cuisine as they tamed America's rugged plains without causing harm to animals or native people is enough to frighten any kid away from good, clean manifest destiny.
Yet even Costner and his trendy Hollywood pals didn't mention that denizens of the wild, wild west thrived on the very ingredients that nowadays send food snobs into a tizzy: fresh Copper River salmon, low-fat buffalo burgers and free-range beef.
Immediately following the recent mad cow incident, proponents of naturally raised and processed beef began cackling about the value of free-range and grass-fed product. A grass-only diet eliminates the risk of critters keeling over from bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or whatever the scientists call mad cow disease. The illness occurs when cows munch on the brain or spinal tissue of infected animals, which happens when feed is made from the ground-up bits of other grazing animals. That sort of feed has been banned, however, so the most likely sources of infected cattle today are either old animals or, more likely, part of a herd of savage cannibal cows terrorizing American stockyards that the government is covering up.
"It's what they do at the low end of the beef market that's really spooky," says Nick Badovinus, executive chef at Cuba Libre. Clearly he's shaken by the thought of bloodthirsty cattle running rampant through the feedlots.
Top restaurants generally select densely marbled prime beef--representing about 2 percent of all beef. Most red meat, however, enters the market through massive feedlots, which fatten the cows before shipping them to equally massive slaughterhouses. Unless the beef is labeled "organic," producers are free to use genetically enhanced feed, hormones and antibiotics--hence the sudden interest in grass-fed beef.
But does it really taste better?
"It depends on who you talk to," says Gilbert Garza, chef-owner of Suze. "It's very lean meat, but the taste depends on what it's been foraging on in addition to grass." According to current standards, beef labeled as grass-fed comes from cattle exposed to grass or silage only. Curiously, there is no regulation on the preparation of grass for bovine consumption, which means ranchers are free to spike the stuff with chemicals or press it into hashish. Grass-fed differs from free-range only because the cattle may be kept in pens. Other categories of beef, including organic, bulk up on both grain- and corn-fed product.
"If you're feeding grass to cattle, free-range, you have a lot less control over the flavor of the beef," Mike Smith, chef at 2900 and Thomas Avenue Beverage Company, points out. "A bad winter or a bad summer, a change in the grass and its nutrients, and the cattle lose weight and muscle density."
An animal kept in a small space with consistent feed, whether grass, grain or corn, will develop a cleaner taste and greater marbling, adds Tre Wilcox, executive sous chef at Abacus.
The question, then, is one of expectations. The federal government grades beef according to texture and marbling. Prime grade meat features a high fat content distributed evenly throughout each cut. This lends a very tender, almost buttery product--the type of thing served at Al Biernat's, Bob's, Smith & Wollensky, Pappas Bros. and other popular Dallas steak houses. Purely grass-fed beef, particularly from cattle allowed to roam the pasture, develops a leaner texture and gamier taste.
"To me it tastes more like an inferior grade, such as choice," Badovinus says, "because my mouth isn't used to it." Those accustomed to moderately priced meals may not notice a difference, at least until they pay the bill; grass-fed and free-range typically cost more than meat from the feedlots. Patrons of the high-end steak houses, however, will miss the cut-it-with-a-fork consistency. "It doesn't melt the same as prime, and there's more tug on the bite," Badovinus continues. "Beef is all about mouth-feel, and that's where the differences become apparent."
The big herds guided by cowboys across the Great Plains of legend must have been stringy critters. The barbed-wire fence, the emergence of a corporate ranching system and the market-driven push for cost efficiency and greater yield per carcass all combined to alter our understanding of beef and its natural flavor. We now base our perception on grain- or corn-fed meat and prefer the stuff fattened to a higher grade.
"I don't find anything completely off-putting about it," Garza says of the grass-fed variety. "It's not buttery, but it's not bad at all."
And if our answer to this week's Burning Question seems inscrutable, we will close with Wilcox's firm response:
"In my opinion, I really don't have an opinion."
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