Wednesday, 12 December 2012

All Cows Eat Grass

Anyone who ever took piano lessons knows that All Cows Eat Grass, ACEG, are the spaces of the bass clef.

But in this less simple and quaint day and age, do they? I have a beef - having just bought some pasture raised beef made me think about all those descriptions of meat we consumers see: Certified Organic, Naturally Raised, Hormone and Antibiotic Free, Grass Fed, Grass Finished, Pasture Raised. What do they all mean?

For starters most of the information available is American.  From the consumer's point of view neither the USDA nor Agriculture Canada has set industry standards which would define the labelling.
However there are many other sources of information on the commercial beef industry. If you like non fiction there is Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma which, through its focus on the corn industry, has much to say condemning the finishing of cows with corn in feedlots. This Just Ain't Normal, Folks is Joel Salatin's perspective as a self proclaimed “grass farmer”. For fiction I loved Ruth L. Ozeki's 1999 novel, My Year of Meats. And a documentary that has been around awhile but I only recently saw is Food, Inc.

There are probably three questions for any consumer of beef;
What is the taste, quality and characteristics of the beef I'm considering buying?
What was the quality of life for the animal?
Is the farming practice that produced this livestock sustainable?

Almost all cows spend their early life grazing in a pasture. (Although a long time ago I did buy beef from a farmer whose cows were always in the barn. When I asked him why I never saw them in the pasture he told me because they were never there. I asked him if they didn't miss being outside and his reply was that they wouldn't miss what they'd never known! I couldn't quite fathom the idea of cattle who had never ever been outside.) But other than that hopefully unique situation, all cows do eat grass until the period before slaughter (usually 90 to 160 days). This is when the cows are finished (or fattened). It is at this point things start to become a little more complicated.

The first question introduced the various terms we are confronted with when we go to buy beef.
If there is no descriptive label and it is for sale at a supermarket then the beef is undoubtedly from  an animal which was finished at a feedlot on a diet of grain, probably corn.

Now for those terms:

Certified Organic means the feed is certified organic. It could be grass, hay or grain and the cow could be sent to a feedlot for finishing. The term describes only the feed, not the kind of life the cow led nor the finishing process.

Naturally Raised really means nothing.

Hormone and Antibiotic Free means exactly that and nothing else. Like Certified Organic it describes only what the cow is (not) ingesting and nothing to do with its life or finishing.

Grass Fed is meant for us to feel the cow has spent its whole life on the pasture. But many Grass Fed cows are actually grain finished.

Grass Finished Cows have lived on grass exclusively but it could be hay or sileage and doesn't mean that the cows have lived on a pasture and without confinement.

Pasture Finished means the cows have eaten grass and hay exclusively and have spent their life without confinement, grazing in a pasture.

The kind of life a cow has led has a direct influence on the taste and quality of the meat it produces. The more the animal has exercised the more muscle it will have developed. The nutrient profile while on pasture would include Omega 3 fatty acids, CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acid), zinc, iron, potassium and other trace minerals. These nutrients that all cows will have while pasturing decline rapidly when the cow is switched to a grain diet and confined with little movement (in a feedlot).

A cow that has spent its life on a pasture rich in varied grasses and legumes, eating as a ruminant is designed to, clearly has the best possible quality of life. When livestock is raised that way then the farming practices generally are sustainable. It is in the farmer's best interest to rotate the livestock and maintain or even increase both fertility and diversity in the pastures. When beef is pasture finished then the timing of finishing is crucial - the last period of the cow's life needs to be spent in a pasture that is lush and verdant for the beef to be both as nutritional and tasty as possible. So finishing happens primarily in the fall and perhaps also in the late spring.

Having answered the three questions if you decide to buy pasture raised beef then the next hurtle is to learn how to cook meat that is clearly a different kettle of fish from the melt-in-the-mouth or, perhaps Paplike texture, of feedlot beef. Pasture raising cows takes longer for them to reach the desired weight so the animals are older. They are moving freely and muscle develops more than with a confined animal.

The general rule is to cook pasture raised beef at a lower temperature. I admit that I'm still experimenting with how to cook the pricier cuts. Maybe the old practice of larding a roast makes sense since that approach comes from a pre-feedlot, corn finishing time when all beef was pasture finished.

But I have no doubts about the superior flavour of the cheaper, tougher cuts that need to be braised: short ribs, shanks and stewing beef. I like to use a heavy cast iron Dutch Oven. The meat needs to be browned in olive oil on the stove top and then removed from the pot. Next a mirepoix or soffritto of diced onions, carrots and garlic are sauteed in the same pan at a low temperature with the lid on. After a few minutes the braising liquid is added and the brown bits scraped into the sauce. Then the beef is returned to the pot. Bring the liquid to a boil, cover and throw in a low oven of about 275 and forget for hours. The other nice thing about these cuts is you can really cook from the pantry, varying it every time according to what is at hand.  The diced vegetables can also include parsnips or celery for example. The braising liquid can be beef or chicken stock, tomatoes, white or red wine or beer. And you can add ingredients like oven roasted tomatoes, orange zest and orange juice and various herbs. Incredibly versatile and very very tasty.

Meatloaf made from the ground beef of a pasture raised cow is best kept to a few ingredients so the intense flavour of the beef can shine. In this case I sauteed bread crumbs in olive oil and garlic.

I added a farm fresh egg and freshly ground pepper and combined the ingredients.

It baked at 275 for about an hour. Accompanied by mashed potatoes, home made ketchup and a winter coleslaw - the ultimate comfort food.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for breaking it down! The lack of food labelling legislation makes it really difficult to achieve consumer awareness re food products. I didn't know a fraction of that information.