What's Your Beef?
THE AVERAGE AMERICAN eats 67 pounds of beef a year—as burgers, in winter stews, roasted slowly in the oven, and even raw. But all beef is not created equal. Those prepackaged cuts found in most markets can be traced to factory farms in the Midwest where thousands of animals may be raised in a single feedlot. Thirteen slaughterhouses process the majority of our country’s beef, and one or two breeds dominate the market.
It’s a different story in the Hudson Valley. Increasingly, here and elsewhere, small farms are raising beef “sustainably”—allowing the animals plenty of room to roam and plenty of grass to eat. Away from the crowded, unsanitary conditions of the factory farm, animals need only minimal antibiotics, and they’re allowed to mature at their natural rate, without growth hormones. Many farmers maintain herds of fewer than 50 head, and heritage breeds (including Devons, Belted Galloways, and British Whites) are flourishing.
If you’re a fan of great beef, the Hudson Valley is a good place to be.
Locally, the seasonality and availability of beef varies from farm to farm, depending on customer demand, herd size and even breed. Though most farmers choose to slaughter primarily in the fall, there generally is a supply of local beef year-round (little or nothing is sacrificed by purchasing a frozen cut). Grassfed meat is increasingly available at farmers’ markets, farm stores, local groceries and some supermarkets.
Conscientious chefs throughout the Hudson Valley are building relationships with local farmers and finding a place on their menus for locally raised, grassfed beef, as well. David Wurth, chef at the newly opened Local 111, in Philmont, highlights local grassfed beef in several dishes, and notes that though he’s out to “keep the tradition of small farms alive,” taste is important. “I just want to put a steak on the grill that I know is going to be delicious,” he notes, “and with grassfed beef, it is.”
Whether 100 percent grassfed or finished on grain, local beef in general is lower in fat than beef from animals that have been fed exclusively grain. This leaner beef will require less heat and less time to cook. Additionally, cuts may have much more variability than “mass-produced” supermarket offerings. Chef Shelley Boris, of Fresh Company catering, has found a simple solution: “I cut off a little piece of whatever cut I have, throw on some salt, toss it in a pan for a minute, and eat it. Then I know what I’m working with.”
Shannon Hayes, of Sapbush Hollow Farm and author of The Grassfed Gourmet Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, 2005; $22.95 paperback), relies on a meat thermometer rather than a timer to ensure properly cooked grassfed beef. She recommends cooking steaks and roasts from grassfed animals to an internal temperature of 120° to 165°F depending on personal preference. Dry-heat cooking methods (sautéing, grilling, etc) are appropriate for tender cuts of meat, while moist heat (braising, stewing and boiling) should be used for tougher cuts.
The price for local beef is often higher than for conventional meat, primarily because of the higher cost of farming on a small scale. (Small farmers must transport their cows to slaughter facilities and pay for processing if they can’t do it on the farm; they know each animal in their herd, and must manage the health of their pastures. Often, farming is the primary source of income, and more than a full-time job.)
Consumers have several options available to help keep individual cost down. Many farms will sell quarter or half animals, which will significantly lower the price per pound compared to buying by the cut. More affordable cuts like roasts, stew meat and ground beef, are widely available, and offer superior flavor and versatility.
Ultimately, though, “The question is not ‘Why is this beef so expensive?’” Hayes stresses, but rather, “Why is supermarket beef so cheap?”
A Meateater’s Glossary
Grassfed* (or pastured): Beef from an animal that has eaten nothing but its mother’s milk, fresh grass, dry hay and baleage (fermented hay), from birth to harvest.
Grassfed/grain finished: Beef from an animal that has been raised primarily on grass, but is “finished” on grain supplements, usually for the last few months before harvest.
Grassfed/grain supplemented: Beef from a pasture-raised animal, supplemented with grain (often in winter).
Grainfed: Beef that has been fed predominantly grain for its entire life. This is the standard for feedlot (“industrial”) beef. (Few, if any, farms in New York use this method of farming.)
Heritage or heirloom breed: A traditional breed with unique genetic traits that has not been hybridized or industrialized. They typically are smaller than their industrial counterparts and better suited to a grassfed diet. Supporting these breeds is crucial in preserving genetic diversity. —AD
*There is not yet a standard for classifying a product as “grassfed.”