Recipe for Success: 4 Tips for Cooking Grass-fed Beef

On Pasture contributor Shannon Hayes has a wealth of experience cooking grass-fed beef, she literally wrote the book on it: The Grass-fed Gourmet Cookbook.

Shannon is determined to bust the myth that grass-fed beef is tougher than it’s grain-fed counterpart- probably one of the most common reasons people give for not eating it.

As she puts it, “In my experience, unless there has been a serious management problem on the farm, grass-fed meat is not tougher than grain-fed.”

In a grass-fed/grain-fed cook-off, she personally saw grass-fed receive better tenderness scores. At this cook off and at the various other Farmer and The Grill workshops where she’s prepared local grass-fed meats, she’s eschewed any fancy tenderizing methodologies and used only salt, pepper, garlic and a little kettle grill. Never has she had a piece of tough grass-fed meat. So what is her secret?

“The secret lies in understanding one simple difference between grass and grain-fed meats that many of us, in all our myriad lectures on grass-fed/grain-fed differences, forget to explain to our customers. Grass-fed meat is variable. We have grown accustomed to an industrialized food system that offers us flavorless, ecologically devastating, potentially toxic,  inhumane, nutritionally deficient meat.  But it is consistent...Grass-fed meats are a product of their ecosystem.  And every farm’s ecosystem will be different.  Genetics will vary.  Pastures will vary.  Weather patterns will vary.  Individual animals will vary.  Farming practices will vary.  Butchering practices will vary.  All of this is evidence of a healthy, diversified, localized, sustainable food system.  The result will be variable meat.”

Variable meat isn’t a bad thing, it just means that the “one size fits all” style of recipe following we’ve all been indoctrinated into needs to be re-examined.

Here are the  4 rules of thumb Shannon follows:

1. Lower the cooking temperature of the meats

“ If you are grilling, once you’ve seared the meat, finish cooking over indirect heat.  If you are oven roasting, lower the temperature.  When heat is applied quickly, muscle fibers in the meat contract quickly.  When meat is not heavily marbled, there is little fat for insulation to slow the muscle contraction, and your dinner will be chewy.  Also, since the fibers are not contracting quickly, less of the juice is lost, resulting in a more moist piece of meat.  Thus, lowering the cooking temperature is your insurance policy to protect tenderness and juiciness.”

2. Gauge doneness using a meat thermometer

“Over-cooking the meat will contribute to dryness.  Also, in most cases, I advise that reliably-sourced grass-fed meats be removed from the oven or grill with lower internal temperatures than those recommended by the USDA.  This helps to preserve more juice, reduces the sacrifice of those nutritious (CLA and Omega-3-rich) fats to the flames, and enhances the overall nutritional value of the meat.”

3. Scrutinize the cut of meat before you cook it

“If it is a steak, is it the same thickness that you are used to, or that is called for in the recipe?  Is it well-marbled?  Lean?  If it is thinner, cook it for less time.  If it is thicker, be prepared to go a little longer.  If it is lean, be extra cautious with the flames or oven temperature.   Evaluate your roasts the same way.  Bigger pieces of meat will cook longer than smaller pieces.”

4. Recipes are guidelines, not legal documents

“Just as we farmers have learned to create food in harmony with our ever-changing ecosystems, where the production of good food is the result of daily attention to the environment and the animals, so too do cooks need to pay attention to our food in the kitchen.  We do not need to be  gourmet chefs.  We simply need to be attentive.”