Is it lot fed, grass fed, natural, Kobe? That’s the question Mark Schatzker, a food writer from Toronto, wanted the answer to. He recruited a number of friends, ordered ribeye steaks from multiple purveyors and had a blind tasting. He published his results in Slate, the online magazine.
Can you tell how good a steak is going to taste by looking at it? The government thinks you can. That’s why, when a USDA meat grader assesses the quality of a beef carcass, he or she makes an incision between the 12th and 13th rib, takes a good look at how much marbling there is, and assigns the meat a grade, from the highest, Prime, to Choice and Select and all the way down to Canner. That’s why a well-marbled steak, one that is abundantly flecked with little specks and streaks of white fat, costs a lot more than a steak that’s all red muscle.
But is marbling all there is to a good steak? Doesn’t, say, a cow’s diet have something to do with the way a steak tastes? And can someone please explain why that gargantuan USDA Prime strip loin I ate in Las Vegas last year had about as much flavor as a cup of tap water? I decided to find out for myself. My mission: to taste steaks from cattle raised in very different ways and see how they stack up.
We sampled rib-eye steaks from the best suppliers I could find. The meat was judged on flavor, juiciness, and tenderness and then assigned an overall preference. The tasting was blind, except for me. (Someone had to keep track of things.) Cooking method: Each steak was sprinkled with kosher salt, then sent to a very hot gas-fired grill, flipped once, and, when just verging on medium-rare, was removed and rested under foil for five minutes.
It turned out that the least expensive, least marbled steak was the clear winner in the taste test. Surprisingly, that steak was from a grassfed beef. The tasters’ commentary:
Never have I witnessed a piece of meat so move grown men (and women). Every taster but one instantly proclaimed the grass-fed steak the winner, commending it for its “beautiful,” “fabu,” and “extra juicy” flavor that “bursts out on every bite.” The lone holdout, who preferred the Niman Ranch steak, agreed that this steak tasted the best, but found it a tad chewy. That said, another taster wrote, “I’m willing to give up some tenderness for this kind of flavor.”
I recommend that you read the entire article in Slate; it’s really excellent. The take home message is that the way a steak tastes has little to do with the way it looks in the butcher’s case. Grass fed beef isn’t the bright red, white marbled meat that we’re all used to. A steak from a grass-fed cow has a kind of yellowish tinge to its fat and is not particularly marbled, but, in most cases, is pretty tasty. Along with the good taste, however, you have to put up with a little chewy-ness, which you don’t usually find in corn-fed beef. But, all in all, grass fed is a great bargain. It’s more healthful, it comes from cows that have lived kinder, gentler lives, and, as the Slate article shows, it’s even tastier.