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, 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."