We’ve given you a beef baptism in buying beef online, the rules of store-bought beef, beef’s lesser-known cuts and even beef you can drink. Kicking things up a notch (BAM!), let’s explore the breeds of cattle that end up on your plate — putting a face on things, so to speak. Get your breed on (not that kind, you pervert) after the break. Breeds of cattle are all variants of the Bos taurus species in the same way a German Shepherd is different from a Labrador Retriever, but still a dog.
The biggest question that comes to mind: does the breed make much difference in the beef you buy, or is this all a marketing attempt to make a silk purse from a cow’s ear? The short answer is yes, though there is certainly marketing and animal husbandry involved. The next question we’ll answer? Where can you buy it? We introduced you to 10 mail order meat companies earlier, and that’s a good place to start — but we’ll get to specifics here.
Black Angus Angus, and more specifically Black Angus, is the most prevalent beef-producing breed in the U.S., with numbers greater than the next seven breeds combined. Some of this is the result of history — Scottish Angus stock was the first cross-bred with the exclusively longhorn herds brought over by the Spanish. Though the polled, or hornless, Angus were initially disdained, the improvement in flavor and tenderness over the tough, lean longhorns made quick converts of cattlemen and their customers.
Their efficiency — the ability to turn grazing into bodyweight — and the low rate of birthing problems (dystocia) made the Angus a quick moneymaker for the ranchers who raised them. Today, the Certified Angus Beef program requires a greater than 50% black face and adherence to 10 quality standards. Furthering their popularity, British cattle tend to have lower shear force values (a measure of tenderness) than continental breeds, though there are exceptions.
Paired with an aggressive marketing campaign, being the firstest with the mostest has made Angus beef number one in the U.S. Many butchers and online meat purveyors offer 100% Angus beef. Herefordshire Hereford cattle are another British breed, from Herefordshire, England; they’re noted for their hardiness and adaptability to a variety of climates. Designated Certified Hereford Beef has a face that’s 51% or more white with no white markings on the hip, shoulder or side of the body.
Less expensive than Angus, the compact, short-legged Herefords are more efficient then most breeds at converting pasture to prime beef, and this quality along with hardiness is the principal reason they are often cross-bred with other breeds, particularly Angus. Crystal River Meats and DeBragga, two of the online sellers we surveyed, offer Angus-Hereford meats. Piedmontese Piedmontese are the Arnold Schwarzeneggers of beef.
Originating in the Piedmont region of Northwest Italy, the breed has a distinguishing genetic anomaly called “double muscling”. The result of an inactive myostatin gene, the controller of muscle development, double muscling gives Piedmontese cattle less marbling and chemical fat (3.8% vs. 5.6% for Angus) and a higher protein content — essentially a healthier choice for beef lovers. The limitations in USDA grading systems means Piedmont beef is frequently select or lower grade.
While you might think this would mean sacrificing tenderness, a University of Georgia study showed no significant difference in shear force values between normal muscle and double-muscle beef. However, because delivering a double-muscled calf often proves difficult for Piedmontese dames due to narrow birth canals relative to calf size, homozygous (“pure-bred) Piedmontese bulls are cross-bred with Angus cows.
This gives the added benefit of higher grades. To preserve leanness, a Piedmontese bull may be bred with a Continental variety. Heritage Farms makes Piedmontese beef available in the U.S. Waguyu Couched in the mystique borne of rarity, Wagyu is the most oft-misunderstood beef. Language barriers, prohibitions on export (some imposed by Japan, and some by the U.S. due to an outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease), and rumors of obsessive animal rearing — such as naming each animal (true for some breeders), building appetite with beer (true), and rub-downs by naked virgins (unfortunately, not true — the virgins part, that is) — have further muddled the beefy waters.
Wagyu literally means “Japanese cattle”, and comprises four breeds originating from an infusion of Continental, or European, stock (mostly Swiss) created in the early 1900s during the Meiji Restoration. A concerted breeding program post-WWII, whereby geneticists individually select each sire and dame for their genetic compatibility, has led to one of the most refined, homogeneous stock of cattle in the world.
Kryoshi (Japanese Black) and Akaushi (Japanese Red) account for the most coveted beef, and in Japan the Sandai Wagyu (“three big Japanese cattle”) are Matsusaka, Kobe, and Yonezama or Omi. Kobe beef, the most well-known breed, is named for the capital of the Hyogo Prefecture. Matsusaka takes Tajima-ushi heifers from Hyogo and coddles them with rich feed augmented with beer and regular massages; all this produces meat especially prized for flavor, tenderness, and fatty marbling.
Wagyu is rated on a completely different scale than other breeds — A1 to A5, with A5 the highest — based on marbling intensity, fat color, muscle color and muscle shape. The fat, high in heart-healthy oleic acid, melts at 77 degrees Fahrenheit. Wagyu is produced in Japan, Australia, and the U.S. The relatively inexpensive grazing land in Australia and the U.S. allows for larger herds that can be sold at lower prices; the majority of Wagyu eaten in Japan comes from outside the country for that very reason.
American Wagyu is often cross-bred with Angus or Hereford to gain the efficiency and size of the latter breeds. A few stateside breeders maintain the purity of the lines, and their meat commands a premium in the U.S. Debragga sells Wagyu from Japan, Australia, and America; and Heritage sells the Akaushi (Japanese Red). In short, breed matters. Marketing will always play a role — a large one — adding just one more reason to always be on your toes when deciding what sort of steer to devour.
Share your knowledge (bbqs are a perfect classroom) but remember: don’t be a beef showoff. Drop your breed knowledge humbly. Experiment with your steer selections, always pay the right price and, most importantly, enjoy the feast.See Also: Cow Wow Flavored Milk
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Can you tell how good a steak is going to taste by looking at it? The government thinks you can. That's why, when a USDA meat grader assesses the quality of a beef carcass, he or she makes an incision between the 12th and 13th rib, takes a good look at how much marbling there is, and assigns the meat a grade, from the highest, Prime, to Choice and Select and all the way down to Canner. That's why a well-marbled steak, one that is abundantly flecked with little specks and streaks of white fat, costs a lot more than a steak that's all red muscle.
But is marbling all there is to a good steak? Doesn't, say, a cow's diet have something to do with the way a steak tastes? And can someone please explain why that gargantuan USDA Prime strip loin I ate in Las Vegas last year had about as much flavor as a cup of tap water? I decided to find out for myself. My mission: to taste steaks from cattle raised in very different ways and see how they stack up.
Advertisement To understand good steak, it helps to know a thing or two about how it gets on your plate. These days, most calves are born on ranches, suckled by their mothers, and then sent out to pasture. When they reach 6 months, they're sent to a feedlot where they're "finished" on grain, usually corn. Grain isn't a cow's natural diet, but it's the feed of choice for two reasons: It makes cattle gain weight quickly, and it results in well-marbled beef.
But according to the ranchers and food scientists I spoke to, there's a lot more to a good rib-eye than intramuscular fat. A few other factors to consider: Breed. Angus is currently the most popular among North American ranchers. This is partly due to economics—Angus cattle mature quickly and put on weight well—but also because Angus beef is reliably marbled and tender. Not all well-marbled steaks come from Angus cows, however.
Grain-feeding techniques have become so effective that even dairy cattle (such as Holsteins) can achieve a grade of Prime. (According to Cattle-Fax, a cattle-marketing information service, 17 percent of American beef comes from dairy cattle.) Does a Prime steak from a dairy cow taste as good as a Prime steak from an Angus cow? Every rancher, meat packer, and butcher I spoke to told me an Angus steak would taste better.
But good luck telling the two apart at the supermarket. Feed. Just as soil affects the quality of wine, a cow's diet can change the quality of its flesh. Some North American cattle are finished on wheat or barley rather than corn. Is there a difference? One rancher told me that barley makes for flavorful beef and warned that wheat can make beef tough. Another rancher said, "Corn is the worst. It results in the greatest lack of flavor in beef.
" And what about grass-fed beef? Raising a cow on grass alone is ecologically friendly. But does it taste any good? Advertisement Hormones. Almost all feedlot cows are injected with growth hormones to help them gain muscle mass; critics charge that doing so merely causes cows to retain water and produces bland meat. Aging. Steak from a freshly slaughtered cow is stringy and tough. For this reason, beef is aged, a process that tenderizes it and enriches the flavor.
Traditionally, beef was hung in a cold room, where natural enzymes would break down the muscle fibers. Dry aging, as it's known, isn't cheap. The beef loses weight to evaporation, and the moldy crust that develops on the exterior has to be lopped off, which makes the remaining beef more expensive. In the 1970s, industrial meat processors opted for wet aging—sealing entire cuts of beef in cellophane—because it's cheaper.
But most beef connoisseurs agree that dry-aged beef tastes better. Before you walk into your neighborhood butcher and say, "Three rib-eye Angus steaks, please, pastured in the Rocky Mountain foothills, finished on barley, but with a hint of oats, and dry-aged for 28—no, make that 29—days," keep in mind that as a consumer, such choice does not exist. That said, if you scour specialty butcher shops or Google "steak," you'll discover other options, including naturally raised, grain-fed, and grass-fed beef.
Which leaves carnivores with the question: Which steak tastes the best? Methodology:We sampled rib-eye steaks from the best suppliers I could find. The meat was judged on flavor, juiciness, and tenderness and then assigned an overall preference. The tasting was blind, except for me. (Someone had to keep track of things.) Cooking method: Each steak was sprinkled with kosher salt, then sent to a very hot gas-fired grill, flipped once, and, when just verging on medium-rare, was removed and rested under foil for five minutes.
Advertisement The Results:From worst (which, in all fairness, was still a decent steak) to first: USDA Prime Beef, Wet AgedPrice: $32.50 per poundAging:WetPurveyor: Allen Brothers (www.allenbrothers.com)What it is: The best beef the industrial system has to offer. Only 2 percent of steak receives the lofty grade of Prime.The knock against it:Feedlots are often nasty places, infamous for their cramped conditions, unnatural diets, contaminated groundwater, and clouds of fecal dust.
These steaks may have come from one of the more humane operations. Unfortunately, it's simply not possible to know.Breed:Impossible to say, though Allen Brothers' suppliers guarantee that their steaks are from high-quality beef breeds, the majority of which are Angus.Hormones? Likely.Raw impressions: Of all the competitors, these USDA Prime steaks looked the best raw. They had a pleasing shape, no unappetizing thick veins of fat, and abundant marbling.
One taster's note: "Now those look like the kind of steaks I'd spend money on."Tasting notes: This steak was juicy and so tender you could have practically cut it with a Q-tip. The only problem? Flavor—there wasn't much. Comment: "Not something that would have impressed me had I bought it at the supermarket." USDA Prime Beef, Dry AgedPrice:$35 per poundAging:DryPurveyor:Allen Brothers (www.allenbrothers.
com)Raw impressions: Visually, it was impossible to distinguish the dry-aged from the wet-aged rib-eyes.Tasting notes: This steak had more flavor than its wet-aged sibling. Tasters described it as "woody" and "smoky," although the texture reminded one taster of liver. Despite all the time it spent hanging in a cold room losing moisture, it seemed juicier than the wet-aged steak. Wagyu BeefPrice: $40 per poundAging: DryPurveyor: Strube Ranch Gourmet Meats (Wagyu beef from a different supplier can be purchased online here: www.
morganranchinc.com/store/index.shtml)What it is:The Japanese have a thing for incredibly marbled beef, which is known as Kobe beef. According to legend, they feed cows a secret ancient recipe that includes beer and keep their muscles tender by massaging them with sake. This beef was raised on American soil, so it can't technically be called Kobe. But the breed—called Wagyu—is the one that the Japanese use, and the method of raising them is comparably particular.
At about 9 months of age, Wagyu cattle are sent to a small, Kobe-style feedlot, where they spend more than a year eating a diet that includes some corn, but a lot of roughage as well. After that, they're sent to a finishing lot where they eat an all-natural but top-secret diet.The knock against it: The price. Also, there are Wagyu-beef enthusiasts who say cooking it like a regular steak will lead to disappointment and an acute sense of having been ripped off.
As the "foie gras" of beef, they maintain, it's better suited to searing or being served raw in, say, a miso-ginger-sesame-sake dressing.Hormones? None.Raw impressions: On looks alone, this steak faired the worst. The fat appeared pallid, and the meat possessed a gamey smell that had some tasters wondering if it had gone off.Tasting notes: When cooked, though, what started out as a peculiar aroma mellowed into a distinctive taste that everyone enjoyed, although to varying degrees.
(One person said: "I like it in the same way I like blue cheese.") The consensus: "Gamey, strong flavor. I like it." Naturally Raised Grain-Fed BeefPrice: $26.70 per poundAging: DryPurveyor: Niman Ranch (www.nimanranch.com)What it is: As with industrial beef, these cattle are finished on grain at a feedlot, which makes for well-marbled steak that is consistently tender. But Niman Ranch claims to raise cattle "with dignity.
" Feed is sourced locally. The feedlot is less crowded and features shaded areas and sprinklers where cattle can cool off. Niman Ranch cattle are finished on a blend of grain—including barley, corn, soy beans, and distiller's dry grain—along with plenty of roughage, which makes the grain easier on bovine stomachs. Also, Niman Ranch waits an extra year before sending cattle to the feedlot on the theory that steaks from an older cow, though slightly less tender, will taste better.
The knock against it: It's pricey.Breeds:Angus, Hereford, and Short HornHormones? NoneRaw impressions: Niman Ranch doesn't sell its beef based on a USDA grade because Bill Niman doesn't believe in the direct correlation between marbling and eating quality. That said, these steaks were the most marbled of the bunch.Tasting notes: Gustatory joy. Everyone loved this steak, declaring it juicy, tender, and, most importantly, bursting with flavor.
Comments were roundly flattering, proclaiming it to be "full bodied" with "a good steaky taste," "mouth-filling and rich—holy cow!" And the winner is… Grass-Fed BeefPrice:$21.50 per poundAging: DryPurveyor: Alderspring Ranch (www.alderspring.com)What it is: Beef from cows that have never ingested anything other than mother's milk and pasture, which is just as Mother Nature intended. Like great wine and cheese, grass-fed beef possesses different qualities depending on where it's grown and what time of year it's harvested.
The grass-fed steaks for this experiment came from a ranch in Idaho where cattle graze on orchard grass, alfalfa, clover, and smooth brome (a type of grass) in the summer and chopped hay in the winter. Also: Some studies have shown that grass-fed beef is lower in saturated fat and higher in omega-3 fatty acids, making it healthier than regular beef.The knock against it: Consistency, or lack thereof.
One grass-fed rancher I spoke to refused to send me any steak for this article because, he said, it sometimes tastes like salmon. Restaurants and supermarkets don't like grass-fed beef because like all slow food, grass-fed beef producers can't guarantee consistency—it won't look and taste exactly the same every time you buy it. Grass-fed beef also has a reputation for being tough.Hormones? NoneBreeds: Alderspring cattle are 90 percent Black and Red Angus, with some Hereford and Short Horn, Salers, and Simmental bred in.
("Red Angus cattle finish particularly well on grass," according to Glenn Elzinga, who runs Alderspring Ranch.)Raw impressions: Not good. It had the least marbling, and what little fat it had possessed a yellowy tinge.Tasting notes: Never have I witnessed a piece of meat so move grown men (and women). Every taster but one instantly proclaimed the grass-fed steak the winner, commending it for its "beautiful," "fabu," and "extra juicy" flavor that "bursts out on every bite.
" The lone holdout, who preferred the Niman Ranch steak, agreed that this steak tasted the best, but found it a tad chewy. That said, another taster wrote, "I'm willing to give up some tenderness for this kind of flavor." The Verdict:Marbling, schmarbling. The steak with the least intramuscular fat tasted the best—and was also the cheapest. That said, the steak with the most marbling came in a not–too-distant second.
Do the two share anything in common? Interestingly, neither was finished on straight corn or treated with hormones. Both steaks also hail from ranches that pride themselves on their humane treatment of bovines. That made for an unexpected warm and fuzzy feeling as we loosened our belts, sat back, and embarked on several hours of wine-aided digestion.