Wednesday, December 2, 2009

3 Simple Steps For Better Tasting Steaks

I hear every day from people across North America who want to eat better tasting, humanely raised & handled beef but don't know where to start. Here are three simple things that virtually everyone can do.

Step #1. Ask your meat cutter or butcher whether he or she carries beef from cattle raised without the use of added hormones or preventative antibiotics. Why? Many will argue against this for ethical and health-related reasons. Here's another: added hormones can lead to tougher beef and in my tasting experience, a blander flavor, too.

If they do not, thank them and say, "I wish that you would. Do you know another grocer or butcher who does?" Walk away without buying the beef.

Step #2. If the meat cutter says yes, ask them if they can tell you the name of the farm, feed yard, and slaughterhouse the beef is sourced from. If they can do this, write down the answer, give them a hug, try the beef, and let me know who they are!

If they can't (99% will not be able to answer this question), say "I wish that you did. Do you know another grocer or butcher who does?" Consider buying the beef and if it's good, let the retailer know but keep asking them to name the source.

Step #3. If you come up empty handed after Step #1 and Step #2, repeat the steps once a week and please, send me a note. I will do all I can to find you beef that meets your needs. We are bound to find you great tasting beef from a good source. We may even find an Artisan Beef rancher and butcher within your reach!

Are other questions to ask? Yes, in particular about the cattle's breed, diet, and how the beef was aged by the butcher.

But if enough of us follow Step #1 and Step #2 on a repeated basis, trust me, retailers will start knowing the answers, you will be eating better beef, and you will be helping the best beef ranchers stay in business and keep their families on the land.

ps Can you believe how good those steaks look? Photo is thanks to Jaden Hair of www.steamykitchen.com. And yes, those are some artisan quality steaks!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Ground Beef - How To Find Top Quality, Great Tasting Burgers

A recent New York Times article on ground beef has led a lot of friends, colleagues, and clients to ask my thoughts on the issue.

It's great to see so many of us asking how our food system works but it is complicated territory. Most of you tell me you were disgusted to learn what goes into commodity ground beef, upset that some companies may have lax food safety standards, and looking for help. I've made it my job to develop a knowledge base on beef so let me attempt to sort through the myriad issues raised in the Times.

First, allow me to highlight an issue that is rarely raised. Outside of the sheer yuck factor, one very compelling reason to avoid eating commodity ground beef is that it has very little flavor. Per my earlier post, the reason is that large packers do not use flavor as a primary goal in the first place. Instead, their focus is cost control, to produce the lowest cost burgers that you're still willing to eat.

Why spend your hard-earned cash on a lame tasting burger?


But anyway, back to the issue at hand. The Times article raises three related but separate issues: the risk of food poisoning from contaminated meat, our inability to trace our meat back to the source, and the inclusion of "trimmings" that have been treated with ammonia.

The Bad News: With regard to food poisoning there is no fail-safe solution for any food including ground meat. Meat, vegetables, fruits... at some point all food comes from the earth and typically passes through many hands - including yours - before you eat it. No matter how carefully food is handled, there is a chance that a pathogen may get into your system.

The Good News: There is great tasting ground beef out there made from source-specific, quality ingredients and I can help you find it.

Now let's debunk a few myths.

Buy From Your Local Butcher. I am a huge fan of locally grown and processed meat. However, it's important to know that many meat cutters are buying their beef from the same sources as discussed in the Times. Also, being local doesn't automatically add up to pathogen-free.

Buy From A Farmer. Based on hundreds of taste tests I can say with great confidence that you are far more likely to get flavorful ground beef from any farm-specific purveyor whether online or offline. That's because farmers industrious enough to not only raise but also slaughter, process, and market their beef are likely to be preoccupied by flavor and texture, not just yield.

Unfortunately, knowing the farmer's name does not ensure pathogen-free meat or a fabulous eating experience. Bacteria can be introduced indirectly such as a deer walking through the field, by renting a neighbor's bull, from a truck or slaughterhouse, or through cross-contamination in your own home.

As for flavor, you might be surprised to find out just how different beef can taste from farm to farm. As with winemakers, some farmers and butchers are more talented than others, too. Trust me, you will like beef from some a lot more than others.

Grind Your Own. The idea here is to purchase whole muscle cuts such as a Chuck Roast or Brisket and grind it at home or ask a meat cutter to grind it for you. The benefit is you will at least know that there are no ammonia-treated fillers or other oddities in your burger.

However, unless you (or your butcher) are extremely scrupulous, you still run the risk of food poisoning unless you thoroughly cook the beef. This is because any bacteria on the surface of the meat, on your hands, in your kitchen, or on the grinder itself can get mixed into the beef during the grinding process.

Buy Grass Fed Beef. There are many reasons to choose grass-fed beef (I call it grass-only) including flavor and texture. Eat Wild also suggests some potential health and other benefits, too. There is some evidence that grass-fed cattle have a lower incidence of certain bacteria but it's important to note that the research is inconclusive.

Either way, cross-contamination can occur at virtually any point between farm and fork so grass-fed does not guarantee pathogen-free.

So What Is The Solution?


Outside of thoroughly cooking your ground beef? Start asking questions! We have a tendency to seek shortcuts and easy answers and sadly many companies are only too happy to comply. No Trans Fats! claims do not make potato chips healthy. All Natural! is virtually meaningless in any food category. But if we all start doing everything we can to know what is on our plates and how it got there - and walk away if the answer is not forthcoming - retailers and processors will eventually start being pickier about how they source their meat.

The benefits are numerous. While it will not eliminate pathogens, at minimum buying source-specific meat will increase the chance of having a great tasting burger made without mystery ingredients.

Look For Artisan Beef


I personally look for farmer, trucker, and butcher teams who employ artisan practices to create signature-style flavors and textures. We like to compare steaks and burgers from multiple farm teams and when my family finds one we like, we feel like we hit the jackpot and stock up. (This is a great way to save money, too.)

To find artisan quality beef I created a list of questions that I employ as a guide. Please feel free to download my cheat sheet here or, if you're feeling shy, I will screen a farm or butcher for you. I also have a list that I will publish soon and expand with time.

You Can't Find Artisan Quality, Now What?

Artisan beef is extremely hard to find but you can still increase your odds of finding great tasting beef for your family.

Look for brand name beef with a label that clearly states the cattle were raised without the use of added hormones or preventative antibiotics. You will likely find that it has more flavor and chances are higher that the ground beef is made from known sources and without ammonia-treated fillers.

If you can, order beef from several of these purveyors and compare them in a blind tasting at home. This is a great (and fun) way to find out which flavors you prefer. If you'd like to use my Artisan Beef Institute's tasting guide, which you can download here.

A step up is to find a butcher who can at least tell you the name of the farm and slaughterhouse and how he or she aged the beef. (Aging enhances flavor and texture.) Bonus points if they also test their ground beef. These are strong signs that care has gone into the making of those burgers.

Further Questions?

Have I missed information? Do you have a favorite farm, butcher, or purveyor you'd like to call out? Please leave a comment or send me an email.

In the meantime, get out there and vote with your voice and your wallet. Ask questions, good retailers, restaurants, butchers, and farmers are ready and thrilled to respond!




Tuesday, June 30, 2009

It's a Food Fete - Artisan Beef Institute Presents "Rare Vintage" Beef

I had the honor yesterday to offer a very unique artisan steak tasting at this year's Food Fete New York. Hosted by founder Jeff Davis, Food Fete has to be the best non-trade show trade show in the food industry.

The Artisan Beef Institute (tm), which I founded a few years back, offers a series of steak and burger tastings called The Provenance of Beef (tm) (also affectionately known as #MeatCamp (tm)) to help people discover that beef is like wine - flavor, texture, and overall quality vary by farm, breed (grape variety), growing region, diet, husbandry, aging time & technique, and talent!


Those at Food Fete were treated to Top Sirloin steaks from four unique farm, slaughter, and butcher teams. While all are reasonably hard to find, I would classify two of these beefs as the equivalent of rare vintages.


First up was 100% Grass-Fed & Finished Galloway beef from the Beechy Family Farm in Elroy, Wisconsin. Discovered and offered to meat lovers by Grass Fed Traditions (whose parent company is Tropical Traditions, led by Brian Shilhavy), this beef is from a heritage breed whose heavy coat is well-suited to the growing region. Finished on a diet of native pasture including buffalo grass, switch grass, and bluestem, this beef was dry-aged 7 to 14 days by the team at Edgewood Locker.

Using the Artisan Beef Institute's tasting guide, this beef has a fabulous chew, adventurous personality with layers of flavors including notes of baked clams (think umami), and offers a light though lingering impression on the palate. I classify this beef as The Thinking Man's Date for someone seeking an intriguingly flavorful yet approachable grass-finished beef.


Next up was a beef that has never been tasted outside of the family who raises it, their close friends, and their butcher, Tracy Smaciarz. Gleason Ranch is an 800-acre ranch managed by siblings Tracey and Ted Baker in the Puget Sound Region of Washington State. Originally homesteaded in 1859, the Bakers are 5th generation ranchers who specialize in raising 100% Grass Fed & Finished Angus & Angus Cross beef.

This is another example of outstanding artisan quality grass-fed & finished beef. While I was too busy handing out samples to the wonderful people from O, The Oprah Magazine, Slashfood, New York Daily News, Ladies Home Journal and others to take formal tasting notes, I would classify this beef as Outdoor Adventure Date. Finished on a diet of native white clover, rye, and other grasses grown on the ranch and then dry-aged 26 days, this beef has a texture between like butter and nice chew, a deeply adventurous personality with earthy, rich, loamy vegetal flavors and a long luscious impression.

If you like reserved, classic steakhouse steaks this may not be your favorite but if you're like me and like complex yet harmonious flavors, this one's for you.


If you'd like to try Gleason Ranch beef, please send me a note at carrie [at] oliverranch [dot] com
as a few steaks and burgers will be available in August. If you're in the Pacific Northwest, you may be lucky enough to score a 1/4 or 1/2 that will become available in Fall 2010.

The third beef we tasted was brought to us by Meyer Natural Beef and personally presented by the charming Wayne Aiello, who recently completed a launch of the company's online marketplace. Bob Meyer founded the Meyer Ranch, a 43,000 acre Red-Angus breeding operation in the Blackfoot Valley, Montana, in 1990. The first ranch to be Certified Human Raised & Handled by the Humane Farm Animal Care Program, Meyer now works with over 250 others to offer beef to retailers, restaurateurs, and now directly to consumers.

Meyer's
Grain-Finished Angus and Angus Cross beef comes from cattle with provable Angus genetics [many rely on the color of the coat to determine breed] and thus offers a more consistent flavor and texture than other programs of its size. I was excited to taste this beef as I'd participated in some of the company's focus groups. I call this beef The Guy (or Gal) Next Door, the handsome/beautiful one you grew up admiring and secretly wanted to kiss. It offers a great chew and straightforward beefy flavor with some lovely roundness especially in the fat and leaves a medium, mouthwatering impression.

Last up was one of the beefs in my current home artisan steak tasting kit from The Oliver Ranch Company. This Grain-Finished Holstein-Friesian beef is a consistent crowd pleaser and offers a strikingly different profile than the other three. Raised and finished by Bob Beechinor of 3 Brand Cattle Company in California's Imperial Valley, this beef was wet-aged 21 days.

I call this beef
Prom Date for its fine grained, like butter texture, elegant, reserved classic beef flavor with hints of baked potato and its short, refreshing impression. You (hopefully) have fond memories of your prom date and would love to see him or her again even after all these years. This beef would pair with just about any sauce but would be overwhelmed by jammy or high tannin wines.

Now you're probably wondering which beef "won" the taste test. If you know me, you'll already know that I never pronounce a single winner. The truth is, most tasters told us they enjoyed all four beefs so it was just a matter of degree which one they identified as their favorite. Plus, the tally I kept had all four beefs running neck and neck, something I have seen time and again with my live tastings and home tasting kits.

I hope to offer all four of these beefs in future tastings. Please let me know if you'd like to have a tasting in your neighborhood or be qualified by my Institute to host tastings for me!

Note: All tasting notes, descriptors, and comments are copyrighted by The Artisan Beef Institute (tm) and The Oliver Ranch Company (tm) and cannot be used without express permission. The images are copyright Jaden Hair of Steamy Kitchen and the respective farms, ranches, or companies listed above.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Would Robert Parker Rate A Wine On Appearance Alone?

This is how we grade our beef.

When farmers participate in my artisan steak and burger tastings, they are like kids in a candy store. Why? Because in
the conventional system, farmers are given little feedback on the flavor and texture of their beef.

Surprisingly,
when the USDA grades beef as Prime or Choice they don't actually taste it. The basis for Prime or Choice is based instead on the perceived amount of marbling (fat speckles) between the 12th & 13th rib bone and the bone structure to estimate the cattle's age.

Here's the rub: Marbling actually only accounts for 1/3 of taste & texture. What about the other 2/3rds?

Do you love to eat absolutely fabulous beef? Are you a farmer? Do you work in a slaughterhouse or are you a butcher? I am writing a more comprehensive story on what I'm doing to help farmers get the feedback they need and the consumers the opportunity to support those who raise the best tasting, cleanest beef.

But I'm looking for feedback here - what would YOU do to help create a feedback loop between farms, slaughterhouses, butchers and those of us who eat the food? What questions, complaints, opportunities do you see?

Friday, May 8, 2009

How to Choose Your Burger Meat

It's one thing to talk about artisan steaks. It's another to understand artisan burgers.

If I can give you any advice: Do not buy burger meat from your grocer.

The reason cited most often is risk of food poisoning. Please allow me to offer another reason to avoid grocery store ground beef and patties:

They don't actually taste that great! In fact, I'd say they don't taste much at all. Why else would we need to add seasonings to the beef or condiments on top?

At first glance, it doesn't make any sense that commodity burger meat is bland. Most is made from older cows or the steaks and roasts found in the front or back end where the muscles get more exercise. Exercise is one contributor to flavor.

There are two reasons that most grocery beef is bland.

1. Meat processors and grocers grossly oversimplify what drives taste, texture, and quality in beef.

We have been trained to think that USDA Grade (Select, Choice, or Prime) is the key contributor to quality, flavor, and juiciness. This is not true; flavor and texture also vary (a lot) depending on the breed, region, diet, aging techniques, and the relative talent of the grower, slaughterhouse, and butcher. This is as true for burgers as it is for steaks.

2. They are not selecting beef based on how good it’s going to taste in the first place.

To grocery stores and meat processors, beef is all about throughput and efficiency. Both industries have high capital costs but with rare exceptions do little to nothing to differentiate themselves vs. their competitors. As a result, they ultimately compete based on price and operate on very thin profit margins. In retail parlance, they literally calculate a "penny profit" - how many pennies do I make on each sale?

Rather than hand-select beef that will delight the palate, which would take time and money, most grocers select beef based on these criteria:

• How cheap it is (so they can increase penny profit)
• How much they can sell (so they can make an actual profit)
• How quickly they can sell it (so they don’t tie up cash too long in inventory)

Wait, you say, this is no different than any business, the idea is to lower the cost of inputs and sell at a profit.

To which I would respond, a company or brand that wants to say in business over time will also increase the value of what they are selling. In the case of ground beef, this means at minimum they would go out of their way to purposely offer really great tasting meat.

Where does this leave you if you want to enjoy a burger, some tacos, or nice bowl of chili?

Find a source of artisan quality artisan burgers! I use the same criteria as with artisan quality steaks, which you can find listed below.

If you’re a flavor hound, for burgers I would suggest that you look even harder for a good source of grass fed beef (just make sure you know what you’re getting, some misuse this terminology). When raised and aged properly, you’ll often find it to have a far more adventurous flavor. You will likely have also done a good thing for animal welfare and the environment while you were at it. That’s a win-win-win if I’ve ever heard one!

Finally, this post is part of Food Renegade's Fight Back Friday initiative meant to help individuals take control over what is on our plates. Every week I enjoy reading the posts of others who participate in the FBF carnival. I suggest that you take a look, too, and add your own post while you're at it!

Artisan Beef Institute® - Minimum Criteria For Artisan Quality Beef
  • Specific farm or producer group (source-verified).
  • Single breed or cross-breed.
  • Known growing region.
  • No added growth hormones (steroids, yuck!).
  • No preventative antibiotics (if they can't keep healthy without 'em...).
  • All vegetable diet, no funky stuff in there like stale chewing gum.
  • Low stress conditions on farm, in truck, at yard (if relevant), & at slaughterhouse.
  • Dry-aged or wet-aged for at least 14 days
  • Bonus points: certified organic, humane, grass-only diet, holistic.
© All Rights Reserved. The Oliver Ranch Company®. The Artisan Beef Institute®

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Pork, The Other Red Meat (TM)

I'm picky enough about pork that I've by and large stopped eating it. The only pork available in my market is indoor raised, bland, and flabby. It has a grayish color, too, or maybe a sort of dirty white or light dusty pink.

In my quest to find the secrets to truly outstanding, clean, humanely raised beef I was perusing the scintillating, fascinating FSIS/USDA Web site and look what I saw in a section called Why is Beef Called a "Red" Meat? "Other 'red' meats are veal, lamb, and pork."

Now I've long known that pork is a red meat but imagine my surprise when I discovered that the US government calls it a red meat, too.

So why should this matter? Have you heard the marketing slogan "Pork, The Other White Meat"? If the government categorizes pork as a red meat, how does this kind of advertising make it past the National Advertising Review Board?

No matter, I love pork. Bacon, chops, hams, I even tried tongue once. But here's something that's important to know: as with beef, the flavor and texture of pork is influenced by the place and conditions in which it was raised and what it ate. In fact, due to the way a pig's digestive system works, pork is probably even more reflective of "terroir."

If you care a lot about taste and texture, I suggest that you look for pork from pigs who've seen the light of day. I am developing a more detailed list of questions to ask but here's a little acid test or mini-cheat sheet, if you will.
  1. Ask the butcher or seller the name of the farm.
  2. Ask the breed.
  3. Ask how it was raised.
  4. Check to see that it is light red in color.
For the first three you'll probably be met with blank stares. If the seller can't tell you these basic things, you can be pretty darn sure he or she is selling you commodity pork. The flavor will have literally been bred out of it.

If you do see pork that has a red hue, or lord forbid some marbling, don't think something's wrong with it. In fact, you may be looking at be something that will taste absolutely delicious on your plate.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Low Stress Food Tastes Better

When a tree suffers stress, you can see it in its rings. Whether drought, disease, or fire, times of stress are permanently etched and visible to the naked eye.

Have you ever thought to think the same might happen to our food?

It does.

Stress can permanently, and negatively, influence the taste and texture of our food and in particular, meat. As stress leaves its mark in trees, stress in cattle leaves the meat darker colored, dry, and mushy.

Why don't we know this?

I think part of the problem is that many, including great people like Michael Pollan, have tried to inspire people to make ethical food choices by focusing on the absence of the negatives. Put another way, we've focused on what's NOT in the beef: no antibiotics, no growth hormones, no corn, no CAFO.

Others have focused on the negative impact that industrial agriculture has had on the small family farm or the environment. Finally, much of the conversation around humane treatment has centered on philosophical arguments or man's moral obligation to treat less intelligent, sensient beings with care.

A lot of people say they care about humane treatment of livestock but let's be honest, not many act upon it. The BSE scare and a widely aired, brutal video of "downer" cows didn't materially impact the sales of hamburger meat. Is this because we North Americans are so disassociated from the source of our food that we don't connect-the-dots? Or is it just too troubling to remember that meat comes from animals?

I don't know the answer to this but what I do know is that when I tell people that low-stress conditions lead to better tasting, more tender and juicy beef, they sit up and pay very close attention. In every single artisan steak tasting I host, the questions from the audience invariably focus on this very topic.

I think it is a life-changing moment for many to discover that humane handling isn't just a feel-good thing. Whenever I'm tempted by that supermarket special - Prime Rib Roast, $5.99/lb! - I tell myself, why risk wasting your money and your moral standards, and I do my very best to walk away.

If you have friends who want to do the right thing but are still on the fence, do them a favor, let them know too, that low-stress food tastes better.

And if you like this post (or even if you don't), may I strongly encourage you to pay a visit to Food Renegade and read other posts, like mine, that are part of Kristen's Fight Back Friday carnival. Let's take control of our food!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Why I Call It Grass-Only, Not Grass-Fed Beef

As part of this week's Fight Back Friday carnival, I want to share one of my most popular posts, All Beef Is Grass-Fed.

I hope you'll read and enjoy it.

As an addendum, I continue to be amazed by how confusing it is for a mere mortal to see beyond label claims, especially when it comes to meat. Government-approved claims such as "natural" or "organic" or "grass-fed" may be well intended but too many mistakenly or purposefully misuse the terms.

The "grass-fed" claim continues to perturb me (though "free range" and "cage free" are up there, too). Why? Because all beef cattle eat grass. It's the finishing diet - what is consumed in the last few months - that should ultimately determine whether the beef is "grass-fed" or "grain-fed." Grass-fed should be reserved for cattle raised on grass-only diets. However, I have seen multiple brands, butchers, or grocers mix the two up.

To wit, in November I called about 20 Los Angeles area butchers. 10 had never heard of grass-fed beef. The other 10 told me they carried grass-fed beef but after just a few questions, it was clear the beef was grain-fed. One even read to me from the brochure that the cattle "were raised on pristine green grass." But it was Dakota brand beef, which I knew to be grain-finished. The butcher was adamant he was right. I read in turn to him from the Dakota Beef Web site FAQ section. This butcher wasn't being disingenuous. But if he was confused, no wonder the rest of us are, too.

Again, here's my original post, All Beef Is Grass-Fed. And take a look at Food Renegade's site to find other great posts on how to take control of our food.

Those cattle by the way belong to Mac Magruder from Potter Valley, CA. Mac raises some of the best grass-only beef I've tasted.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Why I Wouldn't Pay More For A Prime Burger

We've been trained to think that USDA Prime beef is better. So a Prime Chopped Steak or Prime Sirloin Burger - from Morton's no less - sounds like it would be better, too, no?

I am not so sure and here's why.

USDA Grade measures the % fat in a single muscle and that muscle is not the one making up your burger.

USDA Grade is not the only indicator of flavor or texture. Breed, diet, growing region, husbandry standards, and whether and how a butcher has aged the beef will all make a huge difference, too.

Let me explain a bit more, noting there are further details on the USDA site and in my head.

Point 1. USDA Grade is primarily determined by just two factors.

The % of marbling. Marbling refers to the white speckles of fat inside the muscle (as opposed to the fat trim on the edges). To determine the % marbling, the USDA inspects the muscle between the 12th and 13th rib. (This section is usually trimmed into a Rib-Eye steak.)

The age of the cattle. Younger cattle (<30 mo.) will generally produce more tender meat. The inspector is trained to review certain skeletal features and the color of the meat to determine the approximate age of the cattle.

Once these criteria are accessed, the inspector uses a roller to mark the entire cattle as Select, Choice, Prime (or some other classification). As long the cattle is estimated to young enough, the higher the marbling score, the higher the USDA grade with Prime being the highest. [For all you wonks, you can find the USDA calculation here.]

But note:

There are 11 sub-classifications between Standard and Prime grades including 3 in the Prime grade alone (Abundant, Moderately Abundant, Slightly Abundant - here are some images).

Further, the % marbling in the rib-eye does not tell you the % marbling in the other sections that are typically used to make ground beef.

Point 2. The amount of marbling and age of cattle are not the only keys to flavor and texture, anyways.

The USDA grading system does not take into account the breed of the cattle, where it was raised, the diet, or whether and how the beef is aged post slaughter. All of these impact flavor and texture.

Indeed, quoting Harold McGee from his book "On Food and Cooking," “...the current consensus among meat scientists is that fat marbling accounts for no more than a third of the variation in overall tenderness, juiciness, and flavor of cooked beef.” [Italics are mine.]

I have personally tasted burgers (and steaks) made from cattle that acheived only a Select or Standard grade - meaning they had little to no marbling - that were absolutely full of flavor and delicious.

The bottom line: The label “Prime” Burger does not tell you how much fat is in your burger nor does it tell you how that burger is going to taste.

This isn’t to say that such burgers might be delicious – they may very well be. It’s just that I wouldn’t pay more for one labeled as simply as “Prime.”

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Congratulations, Tracy Smaciarz

A lot of us are coming to appreciate the artistry of talented livestock farmers and ranchers. Long part of the mythology of the American West and representative of quiet masculinity, the cowboy is by and large to be admired and emulated where possible.

Anyone who knows me knows I have discovered there is a sub-section of meat producers - some cowboys, some not - who are truly artisans of their craft. The Elliott & Ferris families of the Front Range Region of Colorado, who've been perfecting a Charolais beef program for 50 years, are one of my favorites and not just because I love their beef (which I truly do).

Tracy Smaciarz is a more recent discovery for me. He is neither a cowboy nor a rancher. Instead, he is an artisan butcher. I'd like to briefly tell you why he's one of my new heroes.

First, funny that I met Tracy through a lady named Traca. Traca Savadogo, that is, also known as Seattle Tall Poppy. I was working with Traca, whom I in turn met through Diane & Todd of White On Rice Couple, whom in turn I met through Jaden Hair of Steamy Kitchen, on setting up a series of artisan steak tastings in Seattle under my Artisan Beef Institute's(r) Provenance of Beef Program (tm).

"I'm looking for an artisan butcher in the area who I can include on my expert panel at the tastings, " I told Traca in early January. A few weeks later she finds herself at the Chef's Collaborative meeting and sits down at the beef table. The next day, "I didn't have a chance to talk much with him, but Tracy Smaciarz just might be your guy."

My is he ever. An extremely personable and affable person, Tracy spent nearly an hour with me on the phone after I cold-called him one day. He may have sized up pretty quickly that I knew a lot about artisan beef but no matter, he certainly treated me as knowledgeable.

A second generation meat processor, Tracy, who's about 40, has been "slinging" meat since he was 6 years old. He told me, "I've seen it all. Different breeds on different diets. I've worked in the slaughterhouse, on the truck, I can age, cut, wrap, cure, and smoke. I can tell a dark-cutter [cattle that was stressed at the point of slaughter] by sight and why it tastes as bad as it looks."

What is his passion? "I am looking to help my customers sell more directly." Be still my beating heart, this is MY passion.

Do you know how to dry-age meat, I ask? Oh, yes, I have my own aging room where I dry-age by the quarter.

An engagement was made. Within a few minutes, Tracy agreed to be on my panel and I was thrilled.

The marriage came quickly thereafter. "I'm a key member of the Puget Sound Meat Co-Op," a new USDA certified mobile slaughterhouse unit due to come on line this spring. "I'll be certified by the USDA in mid-April and am gearing up to achieve Organic certification, too." Washington state's third such progam, a mobile slaughterhouse can dramatically reduce the stress from which livestock can suffer in transportation and when encountering new places and people at the slaughterhouse.

Tracy went on to wow the people who came to my artisan steak tasting events, including Chefs Jason Franey of Canlis Jason Wilson of Crush, food bloggers including Molly of Orangette, and several dozen meat lovers who came to learn more about artisan beef at the sold-out event.

I conducted three tastings in a row and with each, I watched Tracy, who claims to have little experience in public speaking, speak with a passion about his work in an ever more intriguing way. He can talk to audiences at all levels of knowledge and make all feel valued and intelligent. Here he is pondering what he'll say after Chef Jason Wilson presents the evening's menu. The photo, taken in Crush's candlelit underground private dining room, is compliments of the very talented Dawn and Eric Wright of Wright Eats.

There are many things that Tracy does that make him an artisan of his craft, but here are the key three things that any artisan butcher does differently than your regular butcher:

Knowledge. He or she can tell you exactly what is on your plate. The name of the farm(s), the breed or crossbreed, the diet, the husbandry practices of those who handled it, the name of the slaughterhouse.

Aging. He will have aged the beef to perfection, using either a wet-aging or dry-aging technique or both. Her eye is trained to know when meat is at its peak for flavor and tenderness.

Cutting. She will be an expert at cutting a carcass into final retail-ready portions. In doing so, he will work properly with the grain of the meat and maximize the amount of quality beef from any one carcass.

Tracy and I and others will be bringing even more Artisan Beef Institute events this summer to the Seattle and Portland markets. If you'd like to learn more about them and be included on the invitiation lists, please go to my online marketplace and sign up for my newsletter.

In the meantime, please join me in congratulating Tracy on receiving his formal approval from the USDA, which came through as expected last week. CONGRATULATIONS, TRACY. Honored to have met you.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Let's Take Control Of Our Food

I've been enjoying a program inspired by Kristen aka Food Renegade called Fight Back Fridays. The purpose is to help those of us interested in eating real, clean, delicious food share our secrets and tips with each other.

This week I decided to formally join by sharing a post of mine called It's Not You, It's the Steak. I have heard too many people fret over the fact that they "ruined a perfectly good cut of steak." I used to feel this way, too, and boy did I find out that I was wrong. It wasn't me, it was the steak!

Enjoy, and definitely pay Fight Back Fridays a visit to find other great ways to eat well and thrive.

How To Avoid Mixing Things Up On The Grill

Do you ever find yourself having to cook for people who have different preferences? You like your steak rare but Uncle Bob won’t eat it if it’s a shade pinker than medium. Little Johnny likes his chicken spicy but Susie can’t take the heat?

Well this clever lady, Leslie Haywood, was tired of mixing things up on the grill, decided to do something about it, and voila, she created Grill Charms (TM). I think of them as like wine charms but for steaks!

Each charm has a different design (my favorite is the martini glass whereas my husband prefers to be king for the day). As you can see here, you simply push them into whatever you’re planning to cook and then cook as you normally would.

Now, Beef Geek that I am, I had to come up with a new, clever way to use these. In this case, I took a large Sirloin steak from the freezer, thawed it in a cold water bath, and then cut it into two sections. I wanted to see if the two pieces would taste different from each other.

You’re asking, why would one section of the exact same steak taste different than the other?

One thing that contributes to flavor and texture is the amount of exercise any one muscle gets. If you look at this picture, you can clearly see a fat seam running along the top right quadrant of this steak. I wondered whether the piece above, which had a noticeably different grain, got more or less exercise than the section below. My hypothesis was that it was a section called the Sirloin "Cap."

Well isn’t that interesting, there was a subtle but noticeable difference. The flavor was the same but the piece from above the seam had a bit more flavor overall.

I asked one of my favorite artisan butchers, Tracy Smaciarz of Heritage Meats in Rochester, Washington, to explain why. He confirmed that this was the "cap" and that most restaurants and stores cut it off to make the steaks look tidier.

Well I for one won't be cutting that section off of the Sirloin steaks I eat.

ps Grill Charms come in sets of 6 and there are four versions including the Steak Collection, Pink Collection, Spicy Collection, and Charmed Life Collection. You can order them online or find them at select retail stores.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Food Blogger Playdate 2 - Artisan Steak Tasting

Wondering just what happens at one of my Artisan Beef Institute (TM) "Provenance of Beef (TM)" steak tastings?

Well, now, thanks to Mark Tafoya and Jennifer Iannolo of The Culinary Media Network, you can take a sneak peek at a live tasting in this fabulous video. (It's actually fun to watch some of the world's best known bloggers arm wrestle over which farm created the best tasting steak.)


It's like a wine tasting, but with steaks!(TM)

Here's how it works. I cherry pick up to six ranchers or farmers whom I've qualified as producing artisan quality meat and then, as in a wine tasting, have participants taste a steak or hamburger from each ranch in a side-by-side comparison. It's amazing how truly great ranchers, in combination with artisan butchers, can create unique, signature style tastes and textures.

Mark and Jennifer are two of the most inspirational and generous souls I've met and they kindly invited me to their Food Blogger Playdate 2 along with Jaden Hair of Steamy Kitchen, Grace Piper of Fearless Cooking, Betty Fussell, award winning author of Raising Steaks (my personal hero), The Life and Times of American Beef, Olga Massov of Sassy Radish, Charles Hope of Blip.tv, and Tommy Hong (he's an ER doctor and also our very gracious host).

Also, a special thanks to Anu Karwa of Swirl Events. Anu is a real sport, she doesn't even eat beef but came to the tasting and carefully selected four great wines to pair with our delicious Rib-Eye steaks.

Look for more opportunities to join a tasting in the coming months including private wine and artisan steak pairing dinners in the New York City area with Chef Mark and Anu Karwa's Swirl Events.

And, for those who'd like to know which ranch or farm was voted #1? Well here's something different: I never look for "the winner." Instead, as you'll see in the video, we have different taste buds and priorities when it comes to buying and enjoying beef.

That said, I will share the five beef styles we did taste. Four are currently available in a home Discover Beef Experience Artisan Steak Tasting kit. Here's a short description of the farms and here's a side-by-side comparison.

We also had the honor of tasting delicious dry-aged, grass-finished Galloway beef from the Beechy Family in Wisconsin, brought to us by Grass Fed Traditions. I am looking forward to including beef from the Grass Fed Traditions network in my next home artisan steak tasting kit. If you want to try it now, pay them a visit!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

McWilliams Responds to Pork Fooforaw

If you enjoy thought provoking discussions about food - the good, bad, and the ugly - but haven't been reading The Atlantic's Food section of late, take a gander.

I was impressed in particular with their inviting James McWilliams to respond to those who have criticized his recent New York Times Op-Ed, in which he declared that free-range pigs carry more disease than those raised in confined quarters.

Most of the fooforaw - and McWilliams' thoughtful response to it - has centered on whether what he said was true. Without rehashing the points, he essentially admits he may have erred on a technical point and asks that his critics meet him halfway.

Absolutely, I will do this. But now that we've potentially cleared the air over the validity of his claims, let us focus on the rest of the article. My objections, listed in this post, still stand.

I sure would love to have McWilliams comment on these points, too.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Don't Eat That Pork: Trichy Words From The Prof

The New York Times featured an Op-Ed entitled "Free-Range Trichinosis" from a history professor in Austin, Texas, James E. McWilliams. I initially found this article hard to respond to because I felt the author said a lot without saying anything at all. The more I considered it, the more I understood his real message and the need to blunt the impact of his words.

The author's intended take-away is clear: Free-range pork will make you sick. The science proves it.

Marion Nestle, a well-known expert on nutrition and food politics doyenne, quickly shot down this conclusion with two simple observations that call into question the author's objectivity. See below for details or this nice post over on CivilEats.

Unfortunately, Ms. Nestle's response is not likely to be given equal air time as that given to Mr. McWilliams. Further, she does not address several other things that McWilliams says directly or indirectly with which I take issue.

Issue #1: McWilliams impugns the integrity of those raising and promoting pork from free-range pigs. Indeed, he insinuates that they are disingenuous hacks because the pigs they promote aren't really free range, anyways.

Here McWilliams takes advantage of the fact that there is no single definition of the words "free range." He has a potentially valid point: the only truly "natural" pork would be that from pigs found, and killed, in the wild. He correctly notes that the pork most food connoisseurs and sustainability advocates promote is ... "ultimately an arbitrary point between the wild and the domesticated."

Yet he goes on to cynically say that "A free-range system is engineered in part to achieve a producer’s market-driven goal: protecting his squealing investments from nature’s most obvious threats while allowing them a modicum of muscle-enhancing movement... [so he can] generate flesh retailing for $12 a pound."

What makes a farmer who designs his or her husbandry program to allow pigs to move around outdoors and socialize with other pigs and even root for their own food on occasion any more calculating than the one who chooses to raise his pigs "indoors, fighting their diseases with medicine and feeding them a carefully monitored diet"?

Further, why is the farmer who charges $12 per pound any less virtuous than one who sells her pork for less?

No doubt that there are hacks out there who take advantage of ill-defined claims such as "natural" or "heart heathy" or "free range" in an attempt to snooker the consumer into paying more, perhaps even $12 per pound. In fact, one needn't look any further than one's own cupboard to find dozens of examples of specious claims.

But perhaps that farmer whose pork commands $12 per pound is providing full transparency into her husbandry practices or is loved by her customers or both. Heck, maybe she's even selling better tasting pork.

Further, if this producer selling her pork at a premium price is ultimately found to be taking advantage of her customers by selling them a bill of goods (remember White Marble Farms "all natural" pork?) she will no longer be able to charge $12 per pound because her customers will abandon her.

The truth of the matter is that there is no single "best" set of protocols for raising clean, tasty food. In my opinion, it is also impossible to create a single definition or marketing claim that perfectly encapsulates best practices. Gray areas will always exist and best practices is in the eyes of the beholder.

So rather than do as Mr. McWilliams has done and call one group of farmers fakes, let's encourage all producers - individual farmers, co-ops, or brands - to open their protocols to public scrutiny and let us customers vote with our pocketbooks as to whom to support.

Issue #2. The author also impugns those of us who are actively seeking an alternative to CAFO raised pork.

Mr. McWilliams seems particularly put off by the idea that people should want their food to actually taste good. "Pork lovers, supporters of sustainable meat and slow-food advocates have long praised the superior taste of the free-range option," he writes. But he then follows this with the suggestion that, because free-range pork isn't really natural, "neither is its taste." Ergo, the real reason these people want free-range pork is because they "despise industrial agriculture and adore the idea of wildness."

Sir, there may be some who seek outdoor-raised pork for sentimental, ethical, or similar reasons other than taste and texture. What's wrong with that?

Issue #3. The author suggests that if we continue to promote and eat free-range pork then we are unethical.

Since Mr. McWilliams argues that the only way to create pork that doesn't make you sick is to raise pigs indoors, he challenges those of us seeking tastier meat to look for better indoor solutions. Unless we accept this, he says, "there’s only one ethical choice left for the conscientious consumer: a pork-free diet."

Here I think Mr. McWilliams could have a fair point. It makes intuitive sense that eating genuinely wild pork (or game or whatever) carries a higher risk than eating meat raised under the watchful eye of a talented, ethical farmer.

If eating pigs raised in any outdoor conditions is ever proven to in fact dramatically increase the probability of contracting food borne illnesses, and the individual consumer cannot take reasonable measures to mitigate this risk,* then perhaps we should remove pork from our diets completely.

But then let's take that to the logical end. Note that Mr. McWilliams does not argue that CAFO-raised pork is free of bacteria that can make us ill. He simply says that science "proves" that outdoor raised pigs have a higher incidence (remember, he's done nothing to prove this). Unless we kill off all possible sources of contamination (from insects to housecats, or frankly, all animal life) or somehow sterilize all that we eat, it seems that all foods, whether plant or animal, carry a risk of making one ill.

We can't very well stop eating altogether. I ask what can we do? One key is transparency and education - let's open the books and let consumers decide which purveyors to support and why. And let's not let articles like this go unanswered.

The other thing we can do is to put the food back in meat! Countless hours and words are used every day talking about who's husbandry or land management protocols are the best, whether to use microbials or not, if organic is good or not.

Let's start rewarding people for making really clean but also really great tasting food. As long we agree to a minimum set of standards and let those who exceed them advertise themselves as such, let's celebrate the differences in flavors and textures across the breeds or varieties, seasons and growing regions. Let's remove the many layers between farm and fork so that consumers can give feedback to the producer and create a continuous improvement feedback loop.
Let's take this conversation to a new level and out of the weeds.

There are a lot of very smart, thoughtful people out there trying to figure out how to give people access to cleaner, more humanely raised, tastier food. I'd love to hear what you would suggest, too.

ps New York Times, I realize this was an Op-Ed piece but you could have balanced this piece with someone offering a different perspective. Better yet, you might have turned to someone like Andrew Martin to provide some scrutiny here.

* Such as cooking the heck out of it like we're forced to do with commodity ground beef because the processors can't be bothered to take measures to prevent contamination.
Here in short is Marion Nestle's response to Mr. McWilliams with regard to the validity to his claims on the "science" front. I've added it here at the bottom as many others have addressed this point and quite well. I instead wanted to chip in my two cents above, my personal reaction to the article as a whole.
Mr. McWilliams writes that "scientists have found that free-range pork can be more likely than caged pork to carry dangerous bacteria and parasites" including "higher rates of salmonella and... the parasite trichina."
Nestle notes that the study cited by Mr. McWilliams measured the presence of antibodies to certain diseases in the pigs' blood, not the presence of disease in the meat. In other words, the free range pigs in the study were exposed to organisms and developed immunity to them. The indoor raised pigs were not similarly exposed and thus did not develop a similar immunity.
Nestle goes on to ask why Mr. McWilliams did not clarify this point and answers her own question by pointing out that the study itself was paid for in the first place by The National Pork Board. "Sponsored studies are invariably designed in ways that produce favorable results for the sponsor."

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

It's Not You, It's The Steak

A lot of folks blame themselves when the steak they grill comes out bland or tough. Well guess what? Time to give yourself a break. It's not you, it's probably the steak.

Seriously, you can do everything right and still have a sorry eating experience. Here are some reasons why:

Zero aged beef. North Americans like their beef to be tender. One key to tender beef is how long and how it's been aged. Aging helps break down muscle fibers to tenderize the beef. In their quest to keep prices low, most grocers and many butchers do not age their beef at all, it goes right from the processor to the store shelf. Look for steaks that have been aged at least 14 days. More on aging in a later post.

The life it led. Most don't want to think about this but raising livestock in stressful conditions can negatively influence both flavor and texture. It's actually pretty logical. Stress hormones change the chemical balance in the meat. In the worst case it can lead to drier, tougher, darker colored meat. Well a lot of commodity (grocery) beef is raised or slaughtered in stressful conditions. A good meat purveyor will be able to tell you with confidence how livestock were handled from farm to fork. Artisan beef is by defition raised with care.

Your steak was raised on drugs. A natural cattle cycle would take up to 3 years from inception to market weight. That's a long time to wait to get paid for raising the beef. Most commodity beef is raised with the use of growth stimulants, including preventative antibiotics and growth hormones, to get it ready for market faster. Both can negatively influence taste & texture.

Bad luck. Not every apple that falls from the tree tastes exactly the same. Even the very best artisan crafted beef can be an occasional miss. If most of the beef from one producer tastes fabulous but then something's not quite right one time, try to pass on that feedback to the purveyor. You never know, they might be able to use the information to improve their program!

The crap shoot. I am not being derogatory here. There are hundreds if not thousands of potential artisan beef producers but today, their beef shows up at the processor's door and comes out the other end on the retail shelf as "Choice" or "Select" or whatever simple label. In my opinion, it would be worth keeping each producer's beef separate so that you and I could appreciate the unique taste and texture of that beef.

The wrong cut. I've certainly made this "mistake." Some muscles get more work than others and exercise = flavor but also tougher meat. The four most popular premium steak cuts, the Filet Mignon, Rib-Eye, New York Strip Loin, or Sirloin, come from the mid-section of a cattle. They can be grilled or pan friend or broiled using high heat. With few exceptions, beef cuts that come from the front or back got used a lot more frequently. It's best to cook most of these cuts, such as a tri-tip or brisket, more slowly either as a roast, smoked, or braised to help tenderize the beef.

Notice that I am not suggesting that you purchased the wrong "Grade" of meat. More on that later, but I will leave you with this thought: USDA Prime beef is not necessarily the most flavorful or most tender meat.

The key to really fabulous tasting beef? Here's the short summary of my "cheat sheet." I'm working on a downloadable version, too.

  • Specific ranch or producer group (source-verified).

  • Single breed or cross-breed.

  • No added growth hormones (steroids, yuck!).

  • No preventative antibiotics (if they can't keep healthy without 'em...)

  • All vegetable diet, no funky stuff in there like stale chewing gum.

  • Treated gently on farm, in truck, at yard (if relevant), & at slaughterhouse.

  • Dry-aged or wet-aged for at least 7 days

  • Bonus points: certified organic, humane, grass-only diet, holistic.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Artisan Steak Tasting Winner (s!)

OK, this will not be my most articulate and thoughtful post. Why? Well, I lost my email files last week, thanks to Outlook just disappearing - poof! - overnight. So I had to hunt and peck to recreate the list of comments, which took me a very long time, making me two days late in announcing... ah, forget the whining.

This is going to be fun. I am cheating on my own contest rules!!!

Greg Rempe of BBQ Central Show (LATalk Radio) invited this Beef Geek aka Beef Sommelier aka The Steak Lady aka Grillmeistress onto his radio show to share the secrets of artisan beef. I truly hope you all are inspired to go out an start asking these questions of me, your grocers, butchers, online purveyors, or folks at farmers' markets and CSAs.

But then right now you really want to know if you won the Discover Beef Artisan Steak Tasting kit for your home. This tasting pack includes beef from four different artisan quality ranches, each raising a different breed in a different region with a different diet and aging technique. You'll also receive instructions for conducting a home tasting, an Artisan Beef Institute tasting guide, plus a personal consultation to help design a fabulous tasting extravaganza.

Well, here's a bit of good news. I had set an internal goal of 50 or more comments on my blog. If I reached that goal, there would be two winners, selected at random by the magic random number generator machine at http://www.random.org/. Well, we did it.

So here are the two lucky winners, I hope you're excited!!

@UrbanBohemian (aka Brian) - who met me over steak on Twitter and who lives in Washington, D.C., my stomping grounds for 8 years after graduation from college. Brian was lucky #24

And....

Lucky #19 Curt McAdams (aka @cmcadams) from Ohio - a competitive BBQer and all around nice person who (whom?) I had the good fortune to talk with by phone a while back. Curt is one of the many who inspires me to learn more about the art of barbecue.


Brian & Curt, congratulations! I will be sending you an email to arrange a time to ship you your artisan steak tasting pack.

For all others, THANK YOU for participating. I look forward to continuing our dialog about artisan beef and why it's important to us and the people who bring it to our plates.

Finally, I'll be sending everyone who provided an email address a copy of my Artisan Beef Institute "Cheat Sheet" in the hopes that you find it helpful in your quest for cleaner, better tasting, humanely raised beef.
Please email me at carrie [at] oliverranch [dot] com with any questions about this contest or artisan beef in general. My goal is to help you find artisan quality beef that meets your needs. It's a win-win situation.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Want To Win An Artisan Steak Tasting?

If you're reading this post you are probably a fan of Greg Rempe of the BBQ Central Show (LATalk Radio) and heard me on his radio show talking about how to find artisan quality beef. Well hopefully you were listening carefully as we have a little contest here and the winner is going to be one very happy steak lover.

We're giving away one of my Discover Beef Experience Artisan Steak Tasting packs! An artisan steak tasting is like a wine tasting but with steaks. You'll receive four 10 to 12 oz steaks, one each from four different artisan beef producers, each specializing in a different breed, growing region, diet, and aging technique. I'll also send you one of my Artisan Beef Institute steak tasting guides and a how-to for hosting a steak tasting at your home. Finally, you'll receive a personal consultation from me to make your tasting a huge success.

Now I have to admit that I'd be really grateful if you read a bit of my blog or visit my online marketplace, The Oliver Ranch Company, and sign up for my newsletter (don't worry, I don't sell or let people borrow or pay for your email address).

But, to win the Artisan Steak Tasting pack, all you have to do is leave a comment below listing one of the 8 criteria I use to help identify artisan quality beef.

When you comment, make sure to leave your email address so I can contact you if you win. Sorry, because the border police make tend to make life difficult when shipping internationally, this offer is good for shipments to the Continental US, only. The contest closes at 11:59pm EST on Sunday, March 15, 2009. I will use some whiz bang software to select a winner at random.

If you post a link on Twitter or your blog referring people back to this contest you'll automatically be entered a second time. Make sure to come back and leave a new comment with a link back to your post.

If you didn't hear the show, go back and listen to the podcast, it's great! If you're clever, you'll also find the answers on one or both of my sites.

Finally, if you want to read about a tasting, pay a visit to SteamyKitchen and read her hilarious blow-by-blow of a tasting last fall here.

Good luck, and thanks for the visit!


Thursday, February 19, 2009

And On The Lighter Side of Beef

This is an example of great journalism, a lightly tongue-in-cheek article in the Seattle PI about the real definition of grass-fed beef. Favorite line, "Officers scraped off the natural byproduct of cows and endured the associated odors to unbolt false panels which concealed... "

Go ahead, it's harmless and giggle-worthy and we need to help journalists stay employed *smile*.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

What's Your Beef?

Fabulous article by Leslie Cole of The Oregonian on how to sort through confusing marketing and label claims with beef. Inspired by the same press release that had triggered this previous post, All Beef is Grass-Fed, she offers 5 Lessons for folks looking to buy grass-fed beef.

I have a few extra thoughts but wanted to get this post up so you could see the article as soon as possible.

One bonus to reading the entire article is an interview with Betty Fussell, author of Raising Steaks, The Life And Times of American Beef.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Want Your Kids To Eat Well? Get ‘em Grilling!

Rebecca Bent is a woman after my own heart – a female Grillmeister. (Actually, that'd be a Grillmeistress, wouldn't it?) Here she shares a great tip for grilling or broiling steaks – just when you think you know it all, someone shows you something clever like this.



See if her story is similar to yours. I sure relate to it.

Like me, Rebecca adopted the grill at an early age. She was first drawn by the sheer theater, watching her father and Uncle Henry squabble over who was in control, swatting each other with their spatulas, laughing it up on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.

She later realized tending the grill was a position of power. “Everyone’s watching and waiting for you…. There are some very basic rules to follow and if you master them, you are worshipped.”

The other thing she loves about grilling is that “Unlike cooking rice, grilling is interactive, it’s always a thrill, every detail - whether the meat, the wind, who will be eating it and their preferences - makes a difference.”

Finally, for Rebecca, cooking for others is not only a privilege – parents this is the key – it is also just plain fun. I just love the fact that Rebecca gets her girls out there with her in the kitchen doing prep or tending the grill (in the snow, too!)

So get out there with your kids, teach them what real food is (meat, vegetables, fruit are all great when grilled) and give them a respected skill on the way. If it takes a little extra coaxing, do what Rebecca does: make them heroes, today’s technology makes it easy – inexpensive digital cameras and free photo and video sharing sites are your friends.

Finally, Rebecca’s number one tip for perfect grilling:

“The biggest mistake I see people make is to touch the meat too much. Don’t flip or fidget with it. Put it down and leave it. Use a timer to tell you when to flip it and whatever you do, don’t try to scrape it off, you’ll lose the crust!”

Find her on Twitter @RebeccaBent and http://rebeccabent.blogspot.com

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Higher the Calories, The Cheaper the Food?

A Los Angeles Times article from November caught my attention. It seems food policy and obesity experts are worried that as our economy sours, we will buy more highly processed foods, most of which are very unhealthy for our bodies and the land. When money is tight, we trade off fresh fruits, vegetables and meats for cookies and chips. And while we spend less, we get fatter.

Why? We're not stupid. It's about bang for the buck. Processed foods (chips, candies, mac & cheese), on a calorie for calorie basis cost less than low calorie, more nutritious foods (broccoli, apples, salmon).

But where's the logic there? How can machine created foods cost less than something that comes pretty much straight from a tree?

One reason is that with manufactured foods, one can add preservatives to extend shelf life and keep costs low. Think less waste. A second reason is that the government subsidizes the main ingredients, such as corn, wheat, rice, or soybeans.

Here's how this connects to beef, or just meat in general. If we collectively substitute boxed food for fresh food, my fear is that the good folks who actually produce fresh, clean, great tasting meat will be forced economically to return to producing commodity food e.g. beef laden with growth hormones or cheap feed or both.

Troubling.

We can't ask people to spend money they don't have.

But here are some thoughts on how you might be able to keep clean, well-raised meats in your diet and support good farmers, humane treatment, and sustainable practices while you’re at it.

  • We've been successful at keeping costs down by buying even fewer packaged goods than before and maintaining our purchases of high quality meat and fresh fruits and vegetables.

  • Buy meat in bulk and freeze it or, far better, buy meat that's been professionally frozen to begin with. Today's blast-freezing technology freezes meat so quickly that it prevents the formation of ice-crystals that can lead to freezer burn or a loss of liquid during thawing.

  • For steaks, do what many restaurants do, buy a whole piece, e.g. the entire Strip Loin, and have it cut into steaks and vacuum-sealed for you. You can also save by choosing Sirloin or Flat Irons or other less expensive cuts or eating smaller portions – a 12 oz New York Strip Loin steak can easily feed 2 or even 3 people.

  • For stew, try a cross-rib roast and cut it into cubes yourself.

  • If you have a food processor or meat grinder, buy a whole brisket and use this to make delicious homemade ground beef.

As long as the cattle were raised with care and without the use of artificial growth stimulants (hormones, antibiotics) and the beef has been properly aged - at LEAST 7 days (and ideally 14 days or more) - you can get great, flavorful, tender meat. By being smart about the way you buy it, you can also get it for a very good price.

If you have further tips to share, please let me know, I’d welcome guest posts.

Or, if you’re looking for more tips, please send me a note at Carrie [at] oliverranch [dot] com.

Monday, January 5, 2009

All Beef Is Grass-Fed

Thanks to Caron Golden, a San Diego based food writer and radio host (@carondg on Twitter), on December 29, I was alerted to a news story covering a taste test in a Portland, Oregon-area elementary school comparing burgers from grass-fed vs. grain-fed cattle.

I found the story disheartening, so much that I’ve spent the last week trying to track down the author or other participants in the study to clarify what I saw as significant flaws. Today I spoke with Cory Schreiber of the Oregon Department of Agriculture – what a great person - who confirmed some of my fears.

The two-part study, funded by the USDA but managed by Oregon State University, had two key findings. The first was that the school children could tell the difference between the grass-fed and grain-fed patties. The second was that about half (45 of 91) preferred the grass-fed burgers.

Based on these results, the school district elected to stick with commodity beef, with a representative explaining, “For now, since there was not a strong preference for the grass-fed patty, and it is more expensive, we will not be able to afford to serve the grass-fed patty on a regular basis."

So what’s wrong with this picture? Too many things to count but let’s just focus on the big one.

These kids were NOT, I repeat, NOT comparing grass-fed with grain-fed beef.

Actually, the burgers were both created using grain-fed beef. The article even says this up front, citing the "grass-fed" beef supplier as saying: “[The patties are] made from Angus steers in Oregon and Washington that are raised on grass, but for the last four months of their lives are fed grain and corn to fatten them up.”

How could the journalist get this wrong?

Oh wait, it gets worse.

The study was not set up to determine the relative merits of grass-fed vs. grain-fed hamburgers in the first place. The grant program that funded it was created to help interested parties evaluate the merits and costs of investing more into locally produced food.

It’s simple and unfortunate. This is a complicated category of food and there are a heck of a lot of fuzzy definitions floating around out there (and frankly, a fair amount of obsfucation, too, but that’s a whole other conversation). However, if you’re a reporter covering this news, I think it’s worth taking the time to ask questions, to clarify and confirm. And then keep an eye out for any editing that might inadvertantly change the meaning of the story.

Unfortunately, this story is being widely circulated. Not only is this hurting the prospects of those who do produce grass-fed or naturally raised beef, but it also underminessupport of the promotion of locally sourced products in our nation’s schools.

How can you help? Help others understand the differences between grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Here's something easy to remember:

ALL Beef Is Grass-Fed.

Yes, all. It’s just that some beef is fed only grass right up to their last day. The other 98 percent or more may be fed grass early in life but are finished on a diet of grasses and grains. This is an important distinction as the diet has a huge affect on taste and texture. In addition, a grass-only diet is a more natural diet for cattle and a proper grass-only program can keep land healthy and even help fight global warming.

If you know me at all, you know that I am a strong proponent of grass-fed beef. But I take a practical view, knowing that it will take years, even decades, to transition the industry to a grass-fed only system. So, I’m willing to support top-notch grain-finishers who meet or exceed my company’s minimum (and quite high) standards, thinking of it as like supporting a farm in transition to organic. But, there is a difference and consumers (as well as journalists) should know and understand this.

If you want the benefits of grass-fed beef -- Eat Wild is an excellent reference -- ask your butcher or grocer or farmer or online purveyor if it is GRASS-ONLY beef.

Don’t be surprised if the seller doesn’t know what you’re talking about but ask anyway. We need to create transparency in this category. Consumers have a right to know what exactly they’re eating and sellers should be more interested in providing consumers what they want, as well as educating themselves. It’s their business after all.

ps Sorry for the more strident tone. Perhaps I'll be smart enough to come back and edit this at a later date ;-)