Which steak tastes the best?
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.


  1. you should add that you need to be careful when cooking grass fed – it cooks faster so it’s easy to over cook. You need to use low heat and cook it slowly. I sear my grass-fed ribeyes on both sides and then drop the pan in an oven preheated to 350 to finish it off slowly.
    I also use an infra-red wave oven thing called “Flavor Wave.” In spite of the fact that you probably saw it on an infomercial at 3 am, it does an excellent job, even with frozen steaks.
    Hi mrfreddy–
    Right you are. Thanks for noticing my oversight. Grass fed beef–like buffalo–must be cooked a little differently. We do it just as you describe.  Apparently, though, the in the taste test I wrote about, grass fed was cooked the same as all the other types.
    I’ve never heard of ‘Flavor Wave,’ but thanks for the recommendation.

  2. I’ve been activly seeking GFB for the last two years or so. I’m frustrated with the lack of availability in the cuts I want (especially calf liver & roasts). Trader Joe’s carries a small selection of ground beef, ground patties, and a few steaks. A local natural food store carries organic South American grass fed steaks, but I balk at buying beef that travels so far when I know there are domestic producers (but they tell me that most suppliers are too small/only seasonal/ not widely distributed, even for this small local 3-store food market chain). The other local “premium” meat counters either say that no one, except me, asks for/wants it; that grass-fed is tough and corn-fed is more tender (said snidely at one place where I no longer shop!); or it isn’t available through their distributors.
    I may have to resort having a quarter side shipped directly from a small Western state producer. But even with an extra freezer, that’s usualy a lot of beef to buy all at once for a family of 3 and that kind of arrangement needs to be made at a certain time of the year (requiring forethought). And I still have to use up my sister’s venison to make freezer space.
    Buying in bulk direct from the producer has its appeal, but I also think that helping to create a market for grass-fed beef at the markets by buying there is important, too (since most people will not drop out of the grocery market system as much as I have). So for the time being, most of the GF beef I buy is is from TJs.
    I’m hoping, too, that some of the newer “mainstream” books that discuss grass-fed (& pastured animals in general) such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Real Food: What to Eat & Why will generate some interest and motivate consumers to request GFB at their markets, thereby increasing local availability and production, and reducing feedlot production.
    By the way, I highly recommend The Grass-fed Gourmet as a great guide for getting the most out of grass-fed beef. Great recipes, great cooking technique tips, and notations for kid-friendly, budget-friendly, and “company-worthy” dishes. Jo Robinson’s Pasture Perfect is also good, but if I had to choose one, it would be TGFG.
    Hi Anna–
    Thanks for the informative comment.  The company that provided the GFB for the taste test in the Slate article was Alderspring Ranch in Idaho.  I’ve never ordered from them, but based on the prices on their website, their GFB seems extremely reasonable.  In fact, less expensive than I can find anywhere in Santa Barbara.  MD and I are going to order some.  I’ll let everyone know how it is.

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