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!