Grain-Fed versus Grass-Fed: A Study in Confusion

I have tired of posting about “things that matter” and have decided that, today, I will post about “something that doesn’t matter.”  (Though, in fact, it does.)

And, so, I will expound on the relative merits of grass-fed beef versus grain-fed beef.  I know, it’s hard to reign in your excitement at this topic, so I’ll give you a moment to collect your thoughts and settle in to the concept.

All right, now that you’re ready to jump into the middle of this spellbinding conversation, I’ll begin.  For months, it actually may be a few years, I’ve been interested in comparing the flavor and texture of grass-fed beef to the stuff I always buy, grain-fed beef (otherwise known as not-grass-fed-beef).  My wife is a financial tyrant, so I have not been permitted to buy grass-fed beef, inasmuch as it is MUCH more expensive than the grain-fed variety.  However, she recently succumbed to my charms and relented; she allowed me to buy a grass-fed New York strip, weighing in at 0.9 pounds, for $14.99 plus tax.  And so we bought it.  We bought it at a farmers’ market near our house from a guy who says he produces nothing but grass-fed beef and, moreover, has a following of grass-fed beef aficionados all over north Texas.

A few days later, we bought another New York strip, this one the standard, everyday, grocery-store variety of beef fed on corn, other grain, and very probably huge amounts of growth hormones, MSG, tequila, and ground cow-parts deemed unsuitable for direct human consumption.  You know, the stuff we normally buy because it’s cheaper.

On Sunday night, we conducted the taste test.  I grilled the two steaks.  For the grass-fed beef, I followed the seller’s directions, which involved grilling it at a high temperature for a very short time to sear the meat, then cooking it for another brief period over a much cooler grill.  First, though, according to directions, I applied a light coating of olive oil to the beef. After grilling it on high, I moved it to the other side of the grill, which remained much cooler.

I cooked the other piece the way I normally do; I seared both sides over high heat, then lowered the heat just slightly and watched the meat until it was done to a level of done-ness that suits my wife, who likes her meat medium, and me, who prefers not to bother with getting a steak near the fire if not absolutely required.   I guess you’d call it medium-rare.

I plated the four pieces (I’d cut both pieces in half prior to grilling them), giving my wife the “naked” pieces of grocery-store beef and grass-fed beef, and giving myself the beef that I’d doused with copious amounts of ground pepper, Kosher salt, and lemon juice.

We each tasted the grocery-store and grass-fed beef and shared our opinions.  They were similar.

The grass-fed beef had a different, somewhat lighter, flavor than the grocery-store beef. However, the grass-fed steak had been cut in an odd way (in my view) and contained several large pieces and a few slivers of bone in unexpected places; not a happy thing.  What was very different, though, about the grass-fed beef was the fact that it was rather tough.  I’ve heard that grass-fed beef tends to be a bit tougher because of its lower fat levels, but this was significantly tougher.  The idea of using a mechanical or chemical meat tenderizer does not appeal to me, but after reading up a bit on grass-fed beef, both are “recommended.”  Hmmm.

Now, I like the idea of grass-fed beef.  I don’t like the idea that wasteful corn production is undertaken just to feed cattle to satisfy humans.  It’s my understanding that corn/grain-fed beef is much, much, much more energy-wasteful for various reasons, including:

  • Energy used to manufacture, ship, distribute, and apply fertilizers used on grain to feed cattle; and
  • Energy used to manufacture, ship, distribute, and apply pesticides to fight pests that thrive on grains used to feed cattle;

But, grass-fed beef apparently do not reach slaughter weight as quickly as do grain-fed beef, so grass-fed beef ranchers cannot “turn” livestock to revenue as quickly as grain-fed beef ranchers can.  And, slaughter-weight of grass-fed beef apparently is lower than grain-fed beef.  So the rancher (I’ll call them producers from now on) has less product to sell.

And, because grass-fed beef is leaner with less fat to help “tenderize” the meat, typically some sort of mechanical or chemical tenderizer is recommended.  If the chemical kind is used, that must use energy to product, I would think.

At the end of the day, I have mixed feelings.  I still like the concept of more “natural” foodstuff on my table.  And I like the idea of avoiding fertilizers, pesticides, and whatever grown hormones might be fed to or injected in grain-fed beef.  But there’s a very, very significant cost issue.  And the tenderness, or lack thereof.   From my wife’s perspective, there is no race: grass-fed beef is too expensive and not sufficiently tasty to warrant its price.  I am waivering. My solution may be to become a vegetarian.  Of course, then, I’d have to be sure to eat organically-grown crops.  Hmm…

That leads me to another question: what is the opposite of organically-grown produce?  Is it inorganically-grown produce?  And, if so, how does one grow organic materials without providing carbon, the basic building-block of life?

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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2 Responses to Grain-Fed versus Grass-Fed: A Study in Confusion

  1. Good points all, Robin. The well-being of the cow was completely overlooked in my post, an embarrassing and revealing aspect of my lack of empathy, despite my regular protestations to the contrary. Thanks for knowing “conventionally” is the right term; I really was struggling with what really describes our standard, pesticide-soaked food sources.

  2. robin andrea says:

    One other consideration about grain-fed cattle is that cows don’t normally eat grain. They are merely fattened up, but not nourished. They can only survive on that kind of diet long enough to be fattened and then slaughtered. If you add the cow’s well being to the equation of taste, texture, nutrition you get a different sense of what you are eating.

    I think the opposite of organically grown is conventionally grown, meaning grown with chemicals and pesticides and other things not normally associated with food and nourishment. I still subscribe to the old saying, “you are what you eat.”

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